SEAN McKenzie hasn’t had a job for 18 months. An acting job, that is.
“I have been working, at Thorntons, at their Alfreton factory in Derbyshire, just off the M1,” said Sean, whose lockdown-enforced break from the boards has come to an end in York, the most famous home of chocolate of all, in the role of Rowntree worker ‘Parky’ Bell in The Park Keeper.
“I’ve been learning how to ice at Thorntons; I became one of their main ‘icers’, so if anyone has had any icing from Thorntons in the past year and a half, chances are it’s been my icing. Either me or Paul, the only other bloke doing the icing.”
The cherry on the icing on Sean’s cake is that he has returned to performing at last in York playwright Mike Kenny’s 55-minute monologue about Rowntree Park’s first park keeper, the shrill whistle-blowing James ‘Parky’ Bell, running until July 17 in the Friends Garden at the York park.
“Before this, I was last on stage playing Widow Twankey for Theatr Clwyd, with Hannah Chissick directing, who I’ve done five or six pantomimes for now,” said Sean, still sporting a lockdown beard in rehearsals as he met CharlesHutchPress in the Reading Café at Rowntree Park, beneath the very lodge where ‘Parky’ Bell and his family lived during his 24 tenure as park keeper from 1921 to 1945.
“I won’t lie, it’s scary. If nothing else, I’m honest,” said Sean, as he faced brushing off the ring rust from being out of action for 18 months. “But I’ll say this, and I know every actor says it, when doing a new piece, but it’s a beautiful piece of writing by Mike, based on the real character of James ‘Parky’ Bell.
“Bell’s story is intertwined with Mike’s own story, and there’s so much in there drawn from Mike’s life now and his past relationship with his father, and the big thing in the play is wrestling with all these things: life, death; nature; religion.
“Hopefully, it’s funny in parts, but it’s also really heartwarming, reflective and very poignant. That means, for me, as an actor, it’s an absolute gift and I just hope can deliver the gift.”
Analysing ‘Parky’ Bell’s character, as depicted by Kenny, Sean said: “He’s obviously very old school; he fought in the First World War; became a corporal, and survived the war, but what suddenly occurred to me when reading Mike’s play was that though Bell survived and came home, can you imagine what he saw in those four years?
“He had all that stuff on his shoulders, but eventually getting the job as the park keeper, after everything he’d been through, was his paradise on Earth, and in a way, he was ‘God’ there: ruling the roost, stopping trouble, stopping the littering.
“He was a strict man, a disciplinarian, who couldn’t talk about what he’d seen in wartime – ‘if you haven’t been through it, you can’t understand it, so what’s the point of telling you?’, he says at one point – but he had found his paradise, though now he’s being asked to leave it after 24 years.
“So there are elements of Prospero in The Tempest, having to let go of the magic, because being the park keeper is his identity.”
Sean has taken on such roles as sleazebag talent agent Ray Say in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre and Leeds playwright Alan Bennett in Bennett’s Lady In The Van for Hull Truck Theatre.
He has handled lines aplenty in myriad comedy roles in the National Theatre’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime, as Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Jim Cartwright’s two-hander Two at Derby Theatre and a long stint in War Horse at the National Theatre and British, Irish and South African tours.
The Park Keeper is, however, his first monologue. “It’s my first play for 18 months, and I’m flying solo. It feels like being Chris Bonnington or Donald Campbell,” he said. “I’ve gone from Two to one! I know an hour ‘on stage’ on your own doesn’t sound a lot, but it is!
“I got a call on the Friday from my agent, saying ‘they want you to read on Monday’, so I had two days to read it before my chat with Matt [Matt Aston, director of producers Engine House Theatre and director of Park Bench Theatre].
“I’m offered the part and that’s when the adrenaline kicks in and you think, ‘Can I do this?’. There’s a niggling voice going, ‘Can you still do this?’, but once I made the decision that yes, I could, it was a massive weight off my shoulders.”
That still left Sean with a massive pile of words to learn. “Before starting rehearsals, I did five 12-hour days to learn the script, when normally you’d have more like five weeks. So, between line learning and rehearsals, I’m doing everything in 18 days, rather than eight weeks,” said Sean, who brought a bench indoors to help him “get into character” at his village home in Heage, near Belper, in Derbyshire’s Amber Valley. “I called it my ‘Judi bench’, as I love Dame Judi Dench!”
The first week of rehearsals with Matt Aston were conducted on Zoom, focusing on the text, before the two met up in the second week in an impromptu rehearsal room at Southlands Methodist Church, and then transferring to the Friends Garden for final preparations on a park bench.
“Rather than just being a monologue, you have to try to flesh out the characters that ‘Parky’ Bell talks about,” said Sean. “There’s so much in this play, and the language he uses is not how we’d speak today; sometimes sentences would even be the other way round to now! That’s how precise Mike Kenny is.
“This is my first Mike Kenny script, and when you think what a great writer he is, how could I say ‘No’ to such a beautiful piece, with lots of comedy, lots of pathos. I really hope that after lockdown everyone will come out and enjoy it, as we do what we’ve always done, tell stories, like the ancient Greeks did, by the fire. Or in this case, the audiences bringing their own ‘fire’ in the form of Prosecco!”
Sean is “just the other side of 50 now” with a career in performing stretching back to the age of 11, raised in Blackpool, the son of Henry (“Harry”) Joseph Patrick McKenzie, the “Golden Voice Of Ireland”, who himself used the stage name of Sean McKenzie.
“I used to go and see all the Blackpool shows, all the great singers, the variety acts and the great comics, Doddy, Les Dawson and Frank Carson,” said Sean. “My dad was one of seven, I was one of four, and though I came from a singing family – my dad first sang in the group The Gale Brothers – I never wanted to be a singer; I always wanted to be an actor.
“I loved Buster Keaton, Abbott and Costello, Harold Lloyd, The Three Stooges, Will Hay and my particular favourites, Laurel and Hardy. That’s where I learnt about timing. You’ve got to have funny bones; you can’t teach timing, but I did learn it to an extent by watching.”
Sean trained at RADA but, as this interview encounter over a late lunch revealed, he is naturally humorous company. “Believe it or not, I am shy, and I know it’s a cliché, but there’s something about becoming another self on stage, and after 18 months of doing no acting, this has been a right baptism of fire,” he said.
Shy? That leaves Sean once he is on stage, when all that performing energy surges through him. “I think why I’ve survived for so long in this business is that people can rely on me. I will never sell an audience short,” he said. “Whatever I play, they always ‘get me’, even as the dame!”
He and Matt Aston have long wanted to do a show together. “About 15 years ago, I first came to him with an idea after seeing Tom Courtenay in Moscow Stations in the West End, to see if he would do it at the Nottingham Lakeside, when he was there,” recalled Sean.
“It didn’t happen but we’ve remained in contact and he came to see me playing Toad in The Wind Of The Willows. Now we’re doing The Park Keeper together.”
Did you know?
Sean McKenzie played opposite Berwick Kaler’s dame when they starred as the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella at York Theatre Royal in 1995-1996.
“He asked me to do it after we worked on a film together,” said Swan, who will be “frocking up” again this winter as dame in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at Stafford Gatehouse Theatre.
“I don’t wear any false eyelashes. Just a bit of red cheeks, a bit of red nose and a bit of mascara to open the eyes.”
Park Bench Theatre in The Park Keeper, The Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, until July 17. Box office: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on 01904 623568.