REVIEW: Every Time A Bell Rings, Park Bench Theatre, Engine House Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, until September 5 ****
SCARF, tick. Jumpers, tick. Hat, tick. Thick socks, tick. Rugs. Tick. Don’t you love preparing for a night’s outdoor theatre in the York summertime?
The day before, one family had stoically braved the rain to watch Cassie Vallance clowning around in Teddy Bears’ Picnic. They wanted to make a day of it, rather than a meal of it, such is the resilient nature of the British theatregoer.
Come Saturday night, all the audience for the premiere of Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston’s lockdown monologue, Every Time A Bell Rings, had kitted out in attire more suited to Bonfire Night.
Actor Lisa Howard, luminary of Slung Low and Northern Broadsides productions, had her coat hood up too, as she walked to the park bench under the linden tree in a corner of the Friends Garden in Rowntree Park, while the audience headsets, tuned into a receiver, took them back to those early innocent days of Johnson and Trump not taking Coronavirus seriously with statements that now sound hauntingly crass.
Howard is playing Cathy; the day is Easter Sunday, April 12 2020, in the grave first month of the pandemic lockdown. Cathy has been in isolation; her husband has Covid; he insists she quarantines for 14 days, not the mandatory seven at the time; an alarm bell for what is to follow. She has been outside only to join in the Thursday night clapping-and-cheering ritual for the NHS and key workers.
This is the first time Cathy has left the house, to take up her favourite park bench seat in her favourite park, Rowntree Park (she lives nearby off Bishopthorpe Road).
She is quietly spoken, contemplative, on edge, addressing the audience like one of the episodes of Alan Bennett’s newly revived Talking Heads as she seeks solace. She recalls the minutiae of the early days of lockdown: one hour’s exercise day; the heightened awareness of birdsong; the way people started saying hello to each other in the street; the striped Barnacle geese joining the Canada geese regulars in Rowntree Park.
So far, so familiar, her sentiments, her darkly humorous observations, no different from those of countless others, but it as if the tentative Cathy is gaining the confidence to reveal more, to peel back the poignant, disturbing layers, once the audience is warmed up (proverbially speaking, not in reality as the wind has started picking up).
Here the high-quality craft of writer, actor and director Tom Bellerby alike shines through: Every Time A Bell Ring’s revelations grow ever more shattering, and it would be wrong to reveal the last.
Suffice to say that death hangs heavy over Cathy’s story: the sudden loss of her beloved first husband; likewise, the passing of her treasured daughter in the past year. Howard shows mastery of text and emotion, never over-stated and all the more impactful for its realism, her grief contained but ever present.
Drip, drip, drip – Aston’s very words – we learn of Cathy’s second husband controlling her, not through physical abuse, but barbed words. Gaslighting, in other words.
The ever-darkening Every Time A Bell Rings is the third of three Park Bench Theatre storytelling productions – after Samuel Beckett’s First Love and Teddy Bears’ Picnic – to open in August, marking the return of live theatre in York, glory be.
Aston and his team, together with Friends of Rowntree Park and the City of York Council, are to be thanked for a summer season of diversity, imagination, vision and no little courage. A season that has been Covid-secure, socially distanced, but still social and intimate, the latter courtesy of the headsets.
Whatever uncertainty lies ahead for theatres still stymied in the dark over autumn, winter and beyond, let us hope that Park Bench Theatre can return next summer, the park benchmark set high from all three shows this season.
Tickets for the 7pm evening performances and 4pm Saturday matinee are on sale at tickets.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.