REVIEW: Love Bites, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, May 17 and 18

Send in the clown : James Lewis-Knight in his Love Bite, Staying Connected. Picture: Tom Arber

YORK Theatre Royal has reopened after 427 days. The longest, darkest hiatus since the Second World War at England’s longest-running theatre has ended with a declaration of love.

More precisely, 22 love letters to the power of theatre, a craving for freedom of movement, expression and identity and the need for human connection: a collective, anything-but-cautious hug that was as much a sigh of relief as a breath of fresh York air in the form of a fiesta of five-minute vignettes commissioned from 220 applicants.

Let’s repeat that. 22O applicants for £1,000 commissions from York’s diverse arts community that refuses to accept Rich Boy Risha Sunak’s slight that such talents are non-viable. A community that will laugh off the Beano comic’s laughable Hilarity Report finding that the average York resident laughs only 14 times a day, the second lowest in the country. Are you joking? Laugher aplenty could be heard on Monday night, alongside the joy, the sadness, the uncertainty but hope.

Indeed, The 22 would surely challenge York Mix e-letter writer John Wolfe’s scalding, agent-provocateur assertion that York is a city of “no real festivals or decent venues. No sports centres or entertainment for locals. No chance of change either. Why do you think all of the young people move away? Outside of its history it’s drab and bl**dy awful.”

Crying Wolfe? Well, John, in the city of the York Community Stadium, four state-of-the-art cinemas, myriad theatres, ever more restaurants, café bars, coffee houses, independent galleries and a rising tide of street art, perhaps you should go York Theatre Royal, one of the country’s great theatres, tonight (Tuesday) to see the spread of talent, both young and older.

Some were born in the city and are determined to stay here, when the arts are becoming less London-centric; others have been drawn to the city from, for example, Canada and Zimbabwe, and here they gathered under one rainbow umbrella to express their love for York and their place in it. 

Trouble is, John, you can’t buy a seat because, as with the first night, tonight’s Love Bites have sold out at the outset of a Love Season pulsing with life, vigour and, yes, love, topped off by Ralph Fiennes performing T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in late-July.

In the words of chief executive Tom Bird, Love Bites and The Love Season are a chance to “experience again the electric excitement that only live performance can bring. This spring and summer, we’re putting on a season of brave, bold love stories to celebrate the return of human connection. We’re doing it with passion, fervour and heart, as you’d expect.”

Monday night began with the much-loved veteran BBC broadcaster Harry Gration in host mode, toasting his 50-year love affair with the Theatre Royal before making way for the flurry of short pieces.

The screen backdrop could and probably should have been used for announcing each show title, writer and performer, especially as flicking through the e-programme on your phone in the dark would have been distracting for others, even in the socially distanced seating with the capacity reduced from 750 to 340.

Actor Toby Gordon’s hair has grown to Dave Grohl length in locks-down lockdown, but the golden tongue that delivered both Satan and later Jesus’s lines in the York Minster Mystery Plays now glistened anew in the questing, vexed poetry of W H Auden’s O Tell Me The Truth About Love.

Film would feature on several occasions through the night, first in a cinematic riparian soundscape by Ben Pugh to accompany the poetic ebb and flow of Robert Powell and Kitty Greenbrown’s The Angels Of Lendal Bridge, imagining those painted “angels” conversing above the Ouse, recalling so much water that has passed under their iron bridge amid a rising tide of love.

Luella Rebbeck, Jamie Marshall-White and Isla Bowles in The Art Of Losing. Picture: Tom Arber

CAPA College student trio Luella Rebbeck, Jamie Marshall-White and Isla Bowles, in glowing green and pink socks to suit the occasion, were nevertheless in contemplative mood in The Art Of Losing, tempo slow, bodies graceful, in what they emphasised were three “non-love stories”, but instead felt more like a lament; a year’s absence making the heart grow fonder for “what it means to have contact with one another”.

Playwright, poet and slam champ Hannah Davies’s tweets at @davieswords have charted her enervating health frustrations, but no York shaper of words captures a sense, meaning and memory of place so movingly, so evocatively, and what a joy it was to see back on a stage for Love Song To Spring.

Accompanied by Jack “Pascallion” Woods’s exploratory guitar paths, her lockdown love story journeyed through the freshly discovered joys of city walking and spring renewal in York’s myriad green spaces. Listen to Hannah, and you will step into spring with added spring in your step.

New discovery of the night was much-travelled Zimbabwean playwright Butshilo Nleya, who “wondered if my pockets are big enough to carry home with me” as he moved to York.

Explosive bursts of drumming and film imagery by Sunnie Hsia of Butshilo on York streets, stairways and in the dank Leeman Road tunnel formed a triptych with his soliloquy, Ekhaya, Love Them Both?, as he mulled over place, love and self, with humour rooted in observation of York’s idiosyncrasies, but a deeper wish to find his place, wherever he plays his drum, whatever life throws at him. One to watch, definitely.

For aeons, a Nightingale’s nocturnal song has had writers reaching for metaphors for love and beauty. Musician, performance writer and actor Tom Nightingale’s song, Elaine, is to “show everyone my gratitude to the only lady who has ever helped me”, his wife.

In its cautious yet unguarded way it was a song of love and beauty suffused with unshaven, wry, deadpan frankness, delivered in the spirit of John Otway and Jonathan Richman beneath Martin Stephenson’s cocked hat. Nightingale writes as a “therapeutic outlet”, to make sense of life; on Monday, it worked for your reviewer; hopefully it does for Elaine too.

The name in the Love Bites e-programme and in her Q&A answers to CharlesHutchPress is Erika Noda, but the Japanese-English actor and East 15 graduate born in York introduced herself on Monday as Aiaka, the name that a teacher found so difficult, she called her ‘Ai’ and banished her from the classroom for insubordination in challenging her.

So began the journey to Ai, Erika/Aiaka’s semi-autobiographical debut solo-writing work, examining her dual heritage and encounters with racist “microaggression”, growing up in York, (a city once so white it was dubbed “Persil Town”). On the evidence of Ai, this quest for identity remains unresolved, a bumpy ride with such familiar stones in the road as “no, but where are you really from?”.

Even the inventor of Zoom apparently has had enough of all those enervating Zoom-and-gloom meetings, but loveable York musical-comedy double act Fladam (pianist-singer Adam Sowter and funny face-puller and singer Florence Poskitt) found the funny side of this digital bridge to connecting in lockdown-separation in the tartly topical Love Bytes. Aptly, the cheeky, witty, melodious encounter was long-distance, Adam on stage, Flo online, filling the screen with a squelchy face as ripe for comedy as Thora Hird or Victoria Wood.

Surprise of the night? Seeing Paul Birch on stage and then wondering why he does not frequent this space more often. Maybe he is just too busy writing and directing, and running Out Of Character, the York company for artists with experiences of mental illness.

His twisting-and-turning five-minute gem, Lost For Words, was a mind-game in motion as the quicksilver Birch fought to save his most precious relationship in a race against time where a killjoy voice from beyond kept stripping him of the right to use letters from the alphabet, letter by letter. You found yourself joining him in his mental exercise, smugly spotting him still using a ‘V’ when barred from doing so, but cheering him on as he tried to keep his head above water as the wds rn t. Could this be a game show in the making?

All around is frown time, but clown time is never over for the red-nosed James Lewis-Knight, actor and artistic director of Clown Space, purveyor of comical pandemonium amid a pandemic. After a year as the Clown in Lockdown, wandering the busking streets of York turned silent, James unlocked his dusty case to make his mimed plea for Staying Connected. He kept saying “Picnic”, but where Birch was lost for words, James was a little lost for meaning, one punchline short of his Picnic having more bite.

If you heard Dora Rubinstein’s perkily assertive rendition of Gus Gowland’s The Streets Of York blind, you would swear it was from a musical. Sure enough, Gowland, latterly moved to York, is a musical theatre writer/composer with the award-winning Pieces Of String to his name. Gowland’s celebration of Gentleman Jack Anne Lister’s wedding vows in a York church will surely grow from a love letter to a full-blown show, a progression the Theatre Royal should encourage and activate.

Janet-Emily Bruce and Cassie Vallance in Story Craft Theatre’s She Can Go Anywhere. Picture: Tom Arber

In a night of storytelling, butter-rich with words, the shadow puppetry of children’s theatre company Story Craft Theatre silently spoke volumes to the accompaniment of Jonathan Glew’s beautiful score in She Can Go Anywhere. Who knew you could say so much with a sheet, folded and unfolded by Cassie Vallance and Janet-Emily Bruce as if a cotton version of origami, freeing imaginations when the pandemic has shrunk the world to the home, transforming life’s caterpillars into butterflies.

Hannah Wintie-Hawkins was a dancer at the double in her terpsichorean love letter In The Beginning, at once on stage and in digital artist Aaron Howell’s accompanying film, dancing with baby Mabel in her arms.  It was as though Hannah, like us, was watching in wonder at the joy of a new arrival: a beacon of hope amid the pandemic turbulence, only in her case it was moving her to break out into a dance. The dual focus, however, was not wholly satisfying, as she danced with herself, the one distracting from the other, rather than intertwining like mother and daughter on screen.

Richard Kay, actor, singer, pantomime writer and Zoom choir leader, asked his choir members two questions: how and why do you like singing? Whereupon he compiled the answers into the composition For The Love Of Singing, a song as nimble on its feet as Fred Astaire and wittily delivered in the crisply enunciated manner of a Richard Stilgoe, with digital choir backing and the projection of words dancing in and out of formation in David Todd’s playful animation. Clever, humorous, warm and briskly energetic, and tuneful to boot, it would sit well in a cabaret revue.

How did it feel to be back in the theatre after 427 days? Actor Maurice Crichton caught those feelings as he cast his net of observations in Where Are We Now, You And I?, and he looked in such a hurry to deliver his thoughts, it was as if he had come straight from a rehearsal room in tracksuit trousers and The Show Must Go On T-shirt, hair unkempt.

Not that he rushed through his sage counsel, instead understanding feelings of anger, advising a policy of gentleness with each other and not expecting too much too soon, while breathing in the wonder of theatre once more.  How right he was; how emotional too.

Canadian-born papercut artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner, countertenor and composer James Cave and libretto editor Bethan Ellis promised Magic and delivered it too in a four-minute mini-musical, set in a constantly evolving paper theatre that grew ever prettier under Elena’s delicate guidance.

Elena seeks to discover “magic and meaning in everyday, mundane experiences”, the transcendent magic rising through her imagery and the beauty of James’s singing, and in the stasis of the pandemic, a walk, birdsong, gardening, baking banana bread, have indeed taken on a heightened magical air.

On their Twitter account, non-binary, unapologetically autistic creator Ashleigh J Mills (they/them) calls themselves Angry Black Changeling. Identity and accessibility into theatre lay at the heart of In Progress, their spoken-word exploration of the “interplay between race, self-understanding and the shifting boundaries of gender over the span of a solitary year” when experiencing life on the margins.

Ashleigh has kept a Good Words List for four years, and on the screen behind them, the constant, measured flicking through a book revealed word after word standing proud from the text, each building a picture of Ashleigh’s questing, creative fascination with words.

Those words were knitted together to form their soliloquy, a still-evolving expression of Ashleigh as a work in progress in changing times, and only good words can be said of their poetic candour.

Of all the five minutes, nothing brought a broader smile than the sheer joy in dancing together of Alice Boddy and Leanne Hope, friends since Northern Ballet School days, who burst out of a restricted year of living-room creativity to revel in a Love Letter To Female Friendship on the dancefloor in the face of such trying times. They were so in their moment, they were in their own world, but one we all could recognise and wish to join in.

The title, Mise En Aby-Me, may have been baffling, but life model, milliner and costumier Claire Spooner made a fascinating body of work in her physical theatre piece that testified to her desire to tell a story through the human form, rather than words, in this case aided by Richard Stephenson’s artwork and LEMNIS’s music.

Claire turned herself into a Russian doll, peeling off layers, adding masks, revealing how she presented herself in relationships, love in different guises, until nothing could hide the constant persona within, beauty beyond the eye of the beholder.

Deaf director and “self-proclaimed proactive busy-body” Harri Marshall composed a semi-autobiographical love letter to oneself via cards and correspondence collected over the past year…and then handed over the task of interpreting them aloud to Sarah Huggett, accompanied by the exact wording on the screen behind.

I say “exact” because text and voice did not always say the same lines and you found yourself checking for differences as much as concentrating on Harri’s flow of meaning. What’s more, the rhythm of the language was broken too, screen and voice going in and out of synch. Hopefully, I Often Think Of You had a better second night.

Before Reverie came a nightmare, thankfully only briefly, as a flick of a switch belatedly awoke the somnambulant keyboard for composer, pianist and piano teacher Vanessa Simmons’s retelling of a dream in musical form. Ah, what peace, after the fizzing fireworks, as an unperturbed Vanessa rejoiced in “the beauty, sorrow and power of real love”.

Last, but anything but least and rightly chosen as the finale was 5 Minute Call, penned by esteemed York playwright Bridget Foreman, writer of 30 plays, both large and solo, with another, My Place, on the way.

Chief exec Tom Bird’s Irish-accented actor wife, Laura Pyper, took on the guise of a theatre “techie” five minutes before curtain-up, taking instruction on checking lighting for stage positions while capturing how the theatre itself felt about the return of life on its boards, warming up to the reunion with its lifeblood, both performers and audiences. The feeling of love was mutual, as the Pied Pyper led us back to our spiritual home.

These Love Bites left their mark, so much so, let’s hope York Theatre Royal can look to open further seasons with showcases for the city’s talents, £1,000 commissions et al.

Review written on May 18 with later additions

If you go down in the woods today, you’re in for an online delight as Park Bench Theatre streams summer hit Teddy Bears’ Picnic

One sandwich short of a picnic: Cassie Vallance’s Jo clowns around on her Friends Garden park bench at Rowntree Park in a scene from Teddy Bears’ Picnic last summer. Picture: Northedge Photography

PARK Bench Theatre’s hit summertime children’s show, Teddy Bears’ Picnic, will be streamed by producers Engine House Theatre from today (26/2/2021).

Performed by Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre actress and Story Craft Theatre interactive storyteller Cassie Vallance in all weathers last summer, it was one of three solo performances staged in the Friends Garden of Rowntree Park under Covid-safe conditions, with more than 1,000 adults and youngsters seeing the open-air show over 30-plus performances.

Now, director Matt Aston’s company, Engine House Theatre, is to stream the show, suitable for everyone aged three and over, newly bolstered by a Make Your Own Teddy Bear craft workshop video by Cassie, bringing her Story Craft Theatre craft-making skills to the online venture.

Tickets will give access to viewing for the whole event period of February 26 to March 7, priced at £5 at tpetv.com.

Teddy Bears’ Picnic was inspired by the much-loved John Walter Bratton and Jimmy Kennedy song and based on an original idea by Julian Butler, a freelance children’s theatre composer, lyricist and sound designer who has written several musicals with York playwright Mike Kenny and worked regularly with Aston.

Inspired by Butler’s suggestion when musical director for Aston’s production of Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale, starring Cassie at the York Theatre Royal Studio in 2019-2020, the 30-minute show was co-created by performer Vallance and Engine House artistic director Aston over a few weeks last summer.

Cassie Vallance: Craft-making storyteller for Story Craft Theatre’s Crafty Tales

Now, Matt says: “I’m so pleased to be finally joining the 21st century and having Teddy Bears’ Picnic stream online for people to enjoy at home.

“It seems such a long time ago that we all suddenly had to live and work in a very different way to bring live theatre back to York and I’m still extremely proud of the Park Bench Theatre season and of all the wonderful people who worked on it and helped make it happen.

“We didn’t have any plans to stream the shows, but once we’d gone into this third lockdown, we had a look at what footage could be used. We’re still hopeful we can stream the other two shows as well, featuring Chris Hannon in Samuel Beckett’s First Love and Lisa Howard in Every Time A Bell Rings [a play written by Matt in response to the lockdown].”

The director adds: “I’m also thrilled that Cassie has brought her crafting skills from her award-winning company Story Craft Theatre to present a short film so everyone van make a cardboard teddy at home.

“With the announcement of the Government’s roadmap earlier this week, there seems to be light at the end of the Covid tunnel. Hopefully, Teddy Bears’ Picnic will be another of those small treats to help families get through the final days of home schooling.”

In Park Bench Theatre’s Teddy Bears’ Picnic, every year, Jo’s family used to have a big family gathering: a teddy bears’ picnic. It was always brilliant, but then she grew too old and too cool for that sort of thing, so she stopped going. Now she has grown up, however, she wishes she could have those picnic days all over again.

Matt Aston: Park Bench Theatre artistic director and co-creator/director of Teddy Bears’ Picnic on a Friends Garden park bench. Picture: Livy Potter

Recalling the co-writing experience, where technology came in handy, Cassie says: “I’d write a bit, Matt would write a bit, and we’d share thoughts on Zoom. We then started working on the physical aspect of the show from the beginning of August, as I’m much more of an up-and-about physical person, and then we began running it.

“The main thing, when working on it, was to be flexible, with it being for children and an outdoor show. Visually, it had to have lots of big stuff, and our thinking was, ‘if we can say it physically, let’s do that’, but it’s also a play full of memory moments, which we’ve made more intimate.”

Now, Teddy Bears’ Picnic can be enjoyed all over again, online, teddy bear-making craft workshop and all. “Considering how life has changed so dramatically for so many over the past months, I once again find myself feeling very grateful to be able to be part of creating a piece of live theatre for families,” says Cassie. 

Did you know?

The song Teddy Bears’ Picnic combines a 1907 melody by American composer John Walter Bratton with lyrics added by Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy, a Dublin University graduate, in 1932.

It has been recorded widely since Peckham crooner Henry Hall’s idyllic version that year, being used in television series, commercials and films. Recordings range from Bing Crosby to The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, while Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan recited the lyrics as a poem at the start of a recording of Bad Attitude.

Any good at the hurdles? Cassie Vallance tries to negotiate the gate to enter the Friends Garden at Rowntree Park. Picture: Northedge Photography

WHAT was the CharlesHutchPress verdict last summer?

REVIEW: Teddy Bears’ Picnic, Park Bench Theatre, Engine House Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, August 22 to early September 2020. ****

THROUGH stealth and goofy coming timing, Cassie Vallance had stolen Twelfth Night, the Jazz Age hit of last summer’s Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York before the rest of Joyce Branagh’s superb cast could do anything about it.

After that Pop-Up Elizabethan theatre season on the Castle car park, Vallance has popped up again at York Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival, presenting Crafty Tales with her Story Craft Theatre cohort Janet Bruce last Saturday lunchtime.

She would have done so again this Saturday too at 1pm but for the fact she needs to be at Rowntree Park for the 1.30pm performance of Teddy Bears’ Picnic, her solo performance for this summer’s Park Bench Theatre season.

For all her oodles of comic energy, not even Vallance can be in two places at once and so Janet Bruce will be bringing a picture-book story to life on her own on the patio this weekend.

In between Twelfth Night and Teddy Bears’ Picnic came Vallance’s starring role in director Matt Aston’s adaptation of Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale stories for the York Theatre Royal Studio’s Christmas show for children.

Cassie Vallance in The Storm Whale at the York Theatre Royal Studio. It was during this production that musical director and composer Julian Butler first came up with the idea for a production of Teddy Bears’ Picnic, based on the song

Now, Aston, artistic director of Engine House Theatre, resumes his creative partnership with Vallance for this season’s Park Bench Theatre resurrection of outdoor theatre for the post-lockdown age.

Together, they have co-created a new version of the Teddy Bears’ Picnic story spun from the threads of the popular children’s ditty and an original idea by musical director Julian Butler; Aston directing, Vallance performing with all that impish clowning, physical comedy and pathos that has marked the York actor’s performances over the past year.

If you go down in the Covid-secure Friends Garden tomorrow, or on various dates until September 5, you are in for a children’s show to delight three year olds and upwards. Take a picnic, take a child or two, or more, within a family bubble to sit in socially distanced pods marked out by chalk circles, with room to accommodate your favourite teddy bear too.

On arrival, you will pick up the necessary equipment to listen on a head set to the feed of Vallance’s storytelling, sound effects (from lasers to a send-up of The Six Million Dollar Man intro for the adults present) and reprises of the familiar song, complemented by Julian Butler’s incidental music.

Vallance is playing Jo, struggling with her big case as she tries to negotiate her way through the not very high gates to the Friends Garden on a sunny Thursday afternoon.

Who would name a teddy after a beach? Cassie Vallance’s Jo would do exactly that, holding Filey aloft in Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Picture: Northedge Photography

Eventually, she does so, taking up residence on and around the park bench beneath the linden tree in the garden corner, as a squirrel looks on, front paws in that distinctive squirrel position where they look to be on the cusp of bursting into applause.

Vallance’s Jo is in three quarter-length dungarees with yellow buttons and matching head band and anything but matching pumps (purple instead), her bravura attire denoting a funny woman has just entered the garden.

Jo begins to unpack the case, taking out case after smaller case, as if opening up a Russian doll. She puts up bunting, does a spot of juggling. Vallance has said nothing, as much mime artist or silent movie actor to this point, but once she puts on a pair of spectacles, she “realises” she has an audience and starts talking…excitedly.

She seeks to give this re-telling a context for Covid-19 2020, as Jo talks to the children about the experience of coming out to play again, to see friends again, to be outdoors again, to be enjoying a Teddy Bears’ Picnic again, after being stuck inside in lockdown for an eternity.

“It’s a bit weird,” she says, and who would disagree. “There’s been lots of Zooming,” she notes. “For a word that sounds so fast, it seems to take so long!”

A teddy bear in Park Bench Theatre’s production of Teddy Bears’ Picnic last summer. Now, Cassie Vallance will lead a cardboard teddy bear craft-making video session to accompany the streaming of the show. Picture: Northedge Photography

Picking a banana from her picnic, Vallance’s Jo bounces around the audience, revelling in “just being”, “feeling happy”, “enjoying stuff”, but then her thoughts turn to memories. “All memories are important. They may not be happy, but that’s OK, they can help us learn,” she says.

At this juncture, Jo transforms into her younger self, recalling childhood Teddy Bears’ Picnics in Rowntree Park, surrounded by her teddies, all except her favourite, Kelly, who came off worst in an unfortunate encounter with her father’s Flymo mower.

Vallance’s crestfallen pathos at this juncture is a joy, so too are the Scottish and Welsh accents she adopts for Jo’s mum and dad (even though they are from Welwyn Garden and Fulford!).

Aston and Vallance’s charming short story ends on a positive and reassuring note in these strange times for children and adults alike, Jo saying that things can and always will change…and “change can be really, really good”.

Ironically, the only sting in this tale was, well, not a sting but a horsefly bite suffered by director Matt Aston pre-show. Kelly went to hospital in the story, Aston to A&E with his arm swollen. Is ted not dead? Did both have a happy ending? That would be telling!

More Things To Do in and around York once lockdown loosens grip and at home now. List No. 27, courtesy of The Press, York

Sandwich time: Teddy Bears’ Picnic, Cassie Vallance’s hit show from last summer in Rowntree Park, York, can be streamed from tomorrow

THE return of live entertainment is on the horizon at last, hopefully from May 17, prompting a surge in show confirmations, but in the meantime Stay Home activities remain prominent in Charles Hutchinson’s diary too.

Children’s streamed show of the weeks ahead: Park Bench Theatre’s Teddy Bears’ Picnic, February 26 to March 7

ONE of the hits of last summer’s Park Bench Theatre open-air season at Rowntree Park, York, is to be streamed by producers Engine House Theatre from tomorrow.

Children’s show Teddy Bears’ Picnic was performed by Cassie Vallance under Covid-safe conditions with more than 1,000 adults and youngsters seeing the show at 30-plus performances.

Suitable for everyone aged three and over, the streamed show will be bolstered by a Make Your Own Teddy Bear craft video. Tickets cost £5 at tpetv.com.

Hal Cruttenden and Rosie Jones: Your Place Comedy double bill at the weekend

Streamed comedy gig of the weekend: Rosie Jones and Hal Cruttenden, Your Place Comedy, Sunday

ROSIE Jones, Bridlington-born comedian, scriptwriter and actor, will join television comedy mainstay Hal Cruttenden in a virtual double bill on Sunday night, streamed from their living rooms into homes via YouTube and Twitch at 8pm.

Co-ordinator Chris Jones, manager of Selby Town Hall, says: ““I know that times are tough for many people, and so we’re committed to keeping these shows completely free, so please do come and join Hal, Rosie and Tim via yourplacecomedy.co.uk for some top entertainment at an unbeatable price, as for now streaming is the only show in town.”

Thunk-It Theatre’s Becky Lennon and Jules Risingham: Setting up youth theatre classes with Pocklington Arts Centre

Youth theatre project launch: Thunk-It Theatre in tandem with Pocklington Arts Centre, from this weekend

YORK company Thunk-It Theatre are partnering with Pocklington Arts Centre to provide youth theatre for the East Riding and beyond.

Weekly drama classes will be available to children aged six to 11 from February 28, initially on Zoom until it is safe to re-open the Market Place venue, when sessions can be held in person.

The all-levels drama sessions for Years 2 to 6 will take place from 10am to 11am every Sunday during term time, run by Becky Lennon and Jules Risingham. To book a place, visit pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Asterisk tweet: Liam Gallagher found a typically eff-usive way on Wednesday to express his delight at the thumbs-up for Leeds Festival in August

Game-changing festival announcement of the year so far:  Leeds Festival, Bramham Park, near Wetherby, to go ahead

LEEDS Festival, Yorkshire’s biggest outdoor musical gathering of the year, is ON. Organiser Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Reepublic, confirmed the decision yesterday (24/2/2021) in the wake of the Government’s Monday statement on the four-step route out of Covid lockdown strictures.

Already confirmed as headliners are Stormzy, Catfish And The Bottlemen, Post Malone, Disclosure, Liam Gallagher and Queens Of The Stone Age in a new initiative for the August 27 to 29 event that sees the long-running festival introducing a second main stage to enable two bill-toppers per day.

Aljaž Škorjanec and Janette Manrara: New date for Remembering The Oscars dance show at York Barbican. Picture: Colin Thomas

Dance delay: Aljaž Škorjanec and Janette Manrara: Remembering The Oscars, York Barbican, put back to April 2022

STRICTLY Come Dancing regulars Aljaž Škorjanec and Janette Manraraare moving their Remembering The Oscars show at York Barbican for a second time. The persistent pandemic has enforced a switch to April 7 2022 for the only Yorkshire performance of next year’s tour, after an earlier change from Spring 2020 to March 2021. Tickets are still valid.

In the meantime, Aljaž and Janette will star in a streamed one-hour performance of Remembering The Oscars for a limited three-week season from March 27 to April 17. To book, go to: rememberingtheoscars.com.

Just Steve, A Guitar And You: the tour poster for Seasick Steve’s York Barbican return in the autumn

York gig announcement of the week: Seasick Steve, York Barbican, November 11

CALIFORNIAN country blues singer-songwriter Seasick Steve will return to York Barbican on November 11 on his Just Steve, A Guitar And You Tour.

Tickets go on sale tomorrow (26/2/2021) from 9am at yorkbarbican.co.uk for the only Yorkshire gig of the American’s nine-date autumn solo tour in support of his second album of 2020, last November’s Blues In Mono.

“I’m lookin’ forward to coming and playing for y’all,” says Seasick Steve, 69. “Just gonna be me, you and my guitar. A few songs and a few stories, kinda like we just hangin’ out together! Gonna be fun. See ya there.”

Jesse Malin: Pocklington Arts Centre gig in December

East Yorkshire gig announcement of the week: Jesse Malin, Pocklington Arts Centre, December 7

POCKLINGTON Arts Centre has secured a new date for New York City singer-songwriter Jesse Malin. He will play on December 7 2021, fully 18 months after he was originally booked to perform there in June 2020 as part of PAC’s 20th anniversary programme.

Malin, 53, released his seventh studio album, Sunset Kids, in 2019, produced by Lucinda Williams, American roots icon, country music queen and 2016 Platform Festival headliner at the Old Station, Pocklington.

Grayson Perry: Channel 4 return, York Barbican show and York Art Gallery exhibition at CoCA

And what about?

THE return of Grayson’s Art Club for a second series on Channel 4 on Fridays after Grayson Perry’s championing of people’s art was such a spirit-lifting boost to home creativity in the early days of Lockdown 1 last spring.

Perry, by the way, is booked into York Barbican for September 6 on his A Show For Normal People tour and his delayed early pottery exhibition, The Pre-Therapy Years, should open at the Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA), York Art Gallery, on May 28, if Step 3 re-opening comes into effect from May 17, as planned.

Story Craft Theatre to deliver Zoom storytelling sessions for The Worrysaurus

Cassie Vallance invites you to join Story Craft Theatre’s Crafty Tales session for The Cranky Caterpillar

STORY Craft Theatre’s next few weeks of Crafty Tales storytelling and craft-making sessions on Zoom are filling up quickly.

The York children’s theatre company, run by professional actors and mums Janet Bruce and Cassie Vallance, have a few tickets left for Oliver Jeffers’ This Moose Belongs To Me and Richard Graham’s The Cranky Caterpillar.

“We’re also doing four days during half-term of Rachel Bright’s The Worrysaurus,” say Janet and Cassie. “Book now for craft and storytelling fun for two to seven year olds.

Half-term fun: Story Craft Theatre duo Janet Bruce and Cassie Vallance will be hosting Crafty Tales sessions for The Worrysaurus

“Each 10am session is based around a popular picture book and is packed full of fun with lots of activities to keep your little folk’s imagination alight. We begin the session with a craft activity using basic materials; we go through the instructions with you step by step.”

Five spaces are left for tomorrow morning’s 50-minute session for This Moose Belongs To Me; six for Friday; none for Saturday. Ten spaces remain for The Cranky Caterpillar on February 10; seven for February 12; none for February 13. Six spaces are up for grabs for February 17’s hour-long session for The Worrysaurus; 18 for February 18; ten for February 19; nine for February 20.

As for the back story on Story Craft Theatre, Janet Bruce appeared in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street in the West End; Cassie Vallance was part of the Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre company at the Castle car park in 2019 and last seen in a York show in Park Bench Theatre’s Teddy Bears’ Picnic in Rowntree Park last  summer.

To book for Crafty Tales, go to: bookwhen.com/storycrafttheatre.

More Things To Do indoors in and around York in Stay Home Lockdown 3. List No 24, courtesy of The Press, York

A Long night: Josie Long will be performing for the Your Place Comedy live-stream from her living room on January 24

AS LOCKDOWN 3 urges everyone to “stay home”, Charles Hutchinson takes that advice in selecting entertainment for the dark days and nights ahead.

Somewhere over the pandemic horizon, he highlights a couple of shows in the diary for the autumn.

Ahir Shah: Joining Josie Long in a remote double bill for Your Place Comedy

Live-stream lockdown humour from living room to living room: Josie Long and Ahir Shah, Your Place Comedy, January 24

LOCKDOWN 3 has brought another round of Your Place Comedy home entertainment. “As before, we’ll be broadcasting from comedians’ living rooms, kitchens and attics or, as was the case with Lucy Beaumont, her homemade pub,” says virtual comedy club organiser Chris Jones, Selby Town Council’s arts officer.

The format remains the same: two headline comedians, some stand-up and some chat, all juggled by regular compere Tim FitzHigham. First up will be Josie Long and Ahir Shah on January 24; line-ups are yet to be confirmed for February 28 and March 28.

The live-stream shows will be free to watch but with donations keenly encouraged at yourplacecomedy.co.uk.

Pea’s home; green: Story Craft Theatre storyteller Cassie Vallance looks forward to next week’s Crafty Tales session

Interactive stories for children: Story Craft Theatre’s Crafty Tales

CASSIE Vallance and Janet Bruce cannot hold their Crafty Tales sessions in person during Lockdown 3 but will continue to deliver sessions “directly to you via the power of Zoom”.

“Each 50-minute session is packed full of crafting, storytelling and educational fun with lots of activities to keep your little folk’s imagination alight,” says Cassie. “There are still a few spaces left for next week’s 10am sessions based around Julia Donaldson’s The Runaway Pea on January 20, 22 and 23.”

Coming up on January 27, 29 and 30 will be Elaine Wickson’s Super Stan. For more details and to book, go to storycrafttheatre.co.uk.

Parasols aplenty: A scene from the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company production of The Pirates Of Penzance at the 2019 International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, now available online. Picture: Jane Stokes

Operetta on screen: International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, G&S Opera TV On-Line Streaming Service

WHEN the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to the 2020 International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival at Harrogate Royal Hall, the festival launched its online streaming subscription service at gsoperatv.

“New content is being continually added,” says festival stalwart Bernard Lockett. “It features the very best of more than 26 years of the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, along with top amateur productions performed at our festival, G&S films and fascinating documentaries and interviews, and is the only place to experience so many outstanding Savoy operas.”

The subscription rates for general viewers is £9.99 per month or £99 annuallyThe 2021 festival is in the diary for August 8 to 22 in Harrogate, preceded by Buxton Opera House the week before.

Chelsey Gillard: Stephen Joseph Theatre associate director, hosting online script-reading sessions

Play for the day appraisal: Online script-reading sessions, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from January 20

RUNNING online on Wednesdays from 11.30am to 1.30pm for five weeks, the fun sessions will dive into five classic comedies: Aristophanes’s Lysistrata on January 20; Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, January 27; Moliere’s Tartuffe, February 3; Sheridan’s The Rivals, February 10, and Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear, February 17.

Participants will read sections of the plays aloud and work with SJT associate director Chelsey Gillard to consider their themes, stories, writing styles and historical context in a relaxed discussion. Session bookings can be made at sjt.uk.com.

Clowning around: Jon Marshall’s Ringmaster with Steve Collison’s Clown in Magic Carpet Theatre’s Magic Circus

Online children’s show of the month: Magic Carpet Theatre in Magic Carpet, Pocklington Arts Centre YouTube channel

HULL company Magic Carpet Theatre filmed their fun family-friendly show, Magic Carpet, behind closed doors at Pocklington Arts Centre last October. By public demand, its free streaming run is being extended to January 21 at: youtu.be/CNrUixTMWdQ.

Performed by director Jon Marshall and Steve Collison with magical illusions, comedy, circus skills and puppets, it tells the humorous tale of what happens to the ringmaster’s extravaganza plans after the artistes and elephants fail to arrive and everything has to be left in the calamitous hands of the clowns. Disaster!

His master’s voices: Alan Ayckbourn recorded his audio version of Haunting Julia at home. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Online ghost play of the season: Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

ALAN Ayckbourn’s 2020 audio version of his ghost play Haunting Julia is being given an afterlife. Originally available at sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia until January 5, the winter chiller now will be online until January 31.

Revisiting his 1994 play, Ayckbourn’s audio recording features the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 81-year-old director emeritus. Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, who plays all three parts.

Rufus Wainwright: Songs inspired by middle age, married life, fatherhood, friends, loss, London and Laurel Canyon

Baroque’n’roll gig of the autumn: Rufus Wainwright, York Barbican, October 13

LAUREL Canyon singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s October 27 2020 tour date at York Barbican has moved to October 13 2021. Tickets remain valid for the rearranged date with his new band.

Last July, Wainwright, 47, released his ninth studio album, Unfollow The Rules, his first since 2012. “I consider it my first fully mature album; it is like a bookend to the beginning of my career,” says Rufus, whose fearless, mischievous songs were inspired by middle age, married life, fatherhood, friends, loss, London and Laurel Canyon.

Taking the mic: Omid Djalili looks forward to letting the Good Times roll again

Ready for a laugh: Omid Djalili, The Good Times Tour, Grand Opera House, York, November 10

OMID Djalili cannot wait to be back where he belongs, on stage, after experimenting with a Zoom gig where he was muted by no fewer than 639 people and a drive-in gig when he witnessed one audience member leave his car, attach a hose pipe to his exhaust and feed it through the window.

The British-Iranian stand-up’s 2021 excursions could not have a more positive title: The Good Times Tour. Let’s hope he is right, although who can predict if his shows at Harrogate Theatre on May 6 and Hull City Hall on May 26 will be given the go-ahead.

In his diary too are: Platform Festival, The Old Station, Pocklington, July 22, and Masham Town Hall, September 18 and 19. Oh, and Leeds Town Hall on October 28 in faraway 2022.

Story Craft Theatre’s Janet and Cassie to raise funds for Shine21 charity for 21 hours

Lift-off: Story Craft Theatre’s Janet Bruce, left, and Cassie Vallance are ready to Shine for York charity. Picture: Lucy Bedford Photography

STORY Craft Theatre’s Janet Bruce and Cassie Vallance are to provide 21 hours of craft and storytelling fun this month to raise vital funds for York charity Shine21.

Since Lockdown 1, the pair have moved their interactive storytelling sessions online, attracting audiences from all over the world to their creative and educational classes, held three times a week via Zoom. 

Now, Janet and Cassie will host classes for you to enjoy on Zoom on November 27 and 28, running all day each day from 7am. All the duo ask in return is a donation to Shine21.

Story Craft Theatre’s logo

“There are lots of storybook adventures to choose from: Going On A Bear Hunt, The Gruffalo, Hairy Maclary, Aliens Love Underpants and so many more,” says Cassie. “We’re even providing hour-long interactive craft classes.” 

All the sessions can be booked online at: www.bookwhen.com/storycrafttheatre. “As these classes are interactive, numbers are limited, so we advise you to book in advance to avoid disappointment,” says Janet. “Tickets are now on sale.

“This 21-hour storytelling event is an opportunity for you to help Shine21, where you don’t even need to attend the two-day event to donate. So, please feel free to donate whatever you can.”

Shine on: Janet Bruce and Cassie Vallance will be spending 21 hours telling stories and doing interactive crafts for York charity Shine 21 on November 27 and 28. Picture: Lucy Bedford Photography

Donations can be made at: justgiving.com/fundraising/storycraft21. Please note, 100 per cent of the money raised through Story Craft will go directly to the charity. 

Story Craft Theatre is a York children’s theatre company run by professional actors and mums Janet Bruce, who appeared in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street in the West End, and Cassie Vallance, part of the Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre company at the Castle car park in 2019 and last seen in Park Bench Theatre’s Teddy Bears’ Picnic in Rowntree Park, York, this summer.

Together, Janet and Cassie have hosted sell-out shows at York Theatre Royal and Goose play centre, at Hornbeam Business Park, Harrogate, and this Christmas, Story Craft Theatre will team up with Matt Aston’s Engine House Theatre at Castle Howard, near York.

Ready, Teddy, go: Cassie Vallance performing in Park Bench Theatre’s Teddy Bears’ Picnic in Rowntree Park in August. Picture: Northedge Photography

From December 4, they will present Stories With Santa In The Courtyard Grotto. “Come and join us for a magical storytelling event here in the historic Courtyard,” they say. “Meet Santa’s helpers as they guide you through into our festive library, where children will get to meet Santa, make their Christmas wishes and settle down to hear a brand new, enchanting winter’s tale, The Snowflake, by popular children’s author Benji Davies.”

Last Christmas, Cassie performed in writer-director Aston’s stage adaptation of Davies’s The Storm Whale at the York Theatre Royal Studio.

The Shine21 charity helps to enhance the lives of children with Down Syndrome and their families. Janet Bruce’s second child was born with Down Syndrome and a heart condition, both being discovered after birth.

Whale meet again: Cassie Vallance in The Storm Whale at York Theatre Royal Studio last December. Picture: Northedge Photography

“The diagnosis was unexpected and at first, scary, but the support and advice offered by Shine21 was phenomenal,” says Janet. “Shine21 have supported me and my family every step of the way and introduced us to others who have been through a similar experience.  

“The charity does invaluable work to help children and their families, but unfortunately, due to the pandemic, they have not been able to raise the vital funds they need this year. So, we’re providing this chance for you to help Shine21.”

For Castle Howard bookings, go to castlehoward.co.uk/whats-on/Christmas for more details.

A last word, but not the last word, from the makers of Park Bench Theatre…

The Park Bench Theatre bench, now resuming vacant possession in the Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York

“And that’s that.
A massive thank you to everyone involved in making #parkbenchtheatre 2020 possible.
We’re going to have a short break and then start work on the next thing.
Wherever that might be…
X”

Farewell to summer Tweet from Park Bench Theatre producers Engine House Theatre.

In return, thank you artistic director and writer Matt Aston, fellow director Tom Bellerby, Samuel Beckett’s estate, actors Chris Hannon, Cassie Vallance and Lisa Howard, the Friends of Rowntree Park and City of York Council for bringing to fruition the return of live theatre in York in Covid-19 2020.

Roll on, that next thing…and keep reaching for the stars. Live theatre cannot give in to the killjoy pandemic.

LIsa Howard, as Cathy, in the last Park Bench Theatre monologue of Summer 2020, Matt Aston’s Every Time A Bell Rings. Picture: North Edge Photography

One garden, three shows, Park Bench Theatre is in full bloom in Rowntree Park

There must be an easier way: Cassie Vallance takes a leap of faith to enter the Friends Garden, rather than opening the gate to begin her Park Bench Theatre performance of Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Picture: Northedge Photography

NO Chelsea Flower Show this summer.  No Harrogate Autumn Flower Show in its Newby Hall debut year. York, however, has three shows in one garden.

Theatre shows, that is. Monologues, to be precise, staged by Engine House Theatre under the title of Park Bench Theatre in the Covid-secure, socially distanced setting of the Friends Garden at Rowntree Park.

The first, First Love, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s short story of a man, a woman, a recollection, is in its last bloom with Wakefield Theatre Royal pantomime dame Chris Hannon earning Best in Show awards galore for his tragicomic turn.

The second, artistic director Matt Aston and actor Cassie Vallance’s playful adaptation of the familiar song Teddy Bears’ Picnic, is bedding in nicely in morning and afternoon performances that began on Wednesday.

The first shoots of the third, Tom Bellerby’s premiere of Aston’s lockdown play Every Time A Bell Rings, will poke through on August 26, with its topical tale of tentative first steps being taken from long-term isolation.

Chris Hannon had last performed in the first week of January, in Jack And The Beanstalk, in the dame role he has made his own over a decade at Wakefield Theatre Royal. Little could he have imagined what lay ahead…or, rather, did not once Covid-19 spread its pandemic wings.

Chris Hannon as the Man, beset by hazy memories as he looks quizzically at the park bench in Samuel Beckett’s First Love. Picture: Northedge Photography

“I had lots of nice things lined up, starting with a TV series, The 4 O’Clock Club for CBBC, but at least that should still happen next year,” says Chris.

“This summer I should have been doing Alice In Wonderland, a promenade show around Williamson Park in Lancaster, put on by The Dukes theatre. That would have been the first time I’d done that, with a holiday in Mallorca in between, but that all fell by the wayside.”

In Lockdown, Chris had watched the series of National Theatre streams of NT Live productions, only exacerbating how his absence from theatre made the heart grow fonder for a return to performing.

“The NT plays were great, but all it reminded you of was how much you missed being in a theatre with an audience, sharing a room with actors, that feeling of being together. It really made you want to be there,” he says.

“That’s what’s been hard. Not being close to people. Missing that connection. That’s why it’s been so exciting to be able to do Park Bench Theatre, to be performing to an audience again.

“Mind you, the Beckett piece is a singular challenge: performing an hour’s worth of material on your own.”

Director Matt Aston and actor Chris Hannon in rehearsal for First Love. Picture: Northedge Photography

Rehearsals with Matt Aston had begun on Zoom, followed by a week in a space on the University of York campus, before tech preparations at Rowntree Park. “As it’s a one-man show, we did four hours a day on Zoom, and that was about as much as I could take each day in screen!”

For each production, audience members must tune in on a headset, cutting out extraneous noise from elsewhere in the park. “It works well for First Love as the monologue is about a man working through a hazy memory, and if you were to perform it to 600 people, it would be more technically demanding, but it suits the intimacy of headsets, when you’re playing to a maximum audience of 70.”

Cassie Vallance finished her run in Aston’s production of The Storm Whale in the York Theatre Royal Studio on January 4 but has kept busy in lockdown by moving Story Craft Theatre’s participatory Crafty Tales sessions for children online, working in tandem with fellow actor Janet Bruce.

“It was a very quick learning curve: one of my two-year-old daughter’s first words was ‘Zoom’!” she says.

“I also auditioned for Juliet Forster’s July production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad at York Theatre Royal but that had to be postponed in March. I really hope they will do it next year.” [Editor’s note: The York Theatre Royal website states “the production will now be staged in 2021.]

“I’ve also been doing some R&D [research and development] work for a friend and had time away too, so we’ve just changed things around a bit for me to do Teddy Bears’ Picnic, which is great,” Cassie adds.

Bear in the air: Cassie Vallance’s Jo with teddy Filey in Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Picture: Northedge Photography

“In June I was thinking ‘that’s it for 2020′ but then this show happened and I just know how lucky I’ve been compared with many of my friends in theatre, where the situation is changing all the time but theatres are still dark.

“It’s so nice that City of York Council and Make It York have been so enthusiastic about Park Bench Theatre, and we’re so lucky that York is really up for it. ”

From an original idea by The Storm Whale musical director Julian Butler, Cassie and Matt Aston have co-created the aptly outdoor performance of Teddy Bears’ Picnic for children aged three upwards.

Again, Zoom has come in handy. “I’d write a bit, Matt would write a bit, and we’d share thoughts on Zoom,” says Cassie. “We then started working on the physical aspect of the show from August 1, as I’m much more of an up-and-about physical person, and then we began running it.

“The main thing, when working on it, has been to be flexible, with it being for children and an outdoor show. Visually, it has to have lots of big stuff, and our thinking was, ‘if we can say it physically, let’s do that’, but it’s also a play full of memory moments, which we’ve made more intimate.”

Director Tom Bellerby, once associate artist at York company Pilot Theatre and associate director at Hull Truck Theatre, headed for London in 2018 to take up the post of resident assistant director at the Donmar Warehouse. He left that role last year but had stayed in the capital, only for theatre suddenly to be cast into the wilderness.

Director Tom Belllerby in the rehearsal room for Park Bench Theatre’s premiere of Matt Aston’s Every Time A Bell Rings. Picture: Northedge Photography

…“The day that Boris Johnson made his big speech, effectively closing theatres, no warning, I was on day one of rehearsals for a play at the Bush Theatre,” Tom recalls. “I’d just done my first eight hours and then got the message that that was that.

“I came back to my family in York and I’ve only been back to London for one day since then to pack up my flat down there. Being back here has reminded how much I love it here, working for four years in York, two at Hull Truck, before I had two amazing years at the Donmar.”

As chance would have it, the flat in York where Tom had lived when he was 23, was available again. “So, I sent the landlady a note and told her my situation and my partner Lydia’s situation – she writes for continuing BBC dramas – and after ten weeks of living at my parents, we moved back into the old flat,” he says.

As well as his curtailed Bush Theatre production, Tom should have been directing Anders Lustgarten’s The Seven Acts Of Mercy at Derby Theatre in late-May but lockdown put a line through that one too.

Not that lockdown was an entirely negative experience. “There were times when I loved the change of pace, getting into the routine of a daily walk,” he says.

At Aston’s invitation, Tom is directing the Park Bench Theatre artistic director’s new monologue, Every Time A Bell Rings, wherein Slung Low and Northern Broadsides regular Lisa Howard plays Cathy, who has been living in isolation.

Taking notes: Actor Lisa Howard and director Tom Bellerby working on Every Time A Bell Rings. Picture: Northedge Photography

On Easter Sunday 2020, in the uncertain world of lockdown, she searches for solace on her favourite park bench in her favourite park in Aston’s poignant but humorous look at how the world is changing through the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.

“I love working on new writing, being the first person to tell this story” says Tom. “Matt has responded to this moment in history with a powerful piece and because I’m a geeky type, I’ve enjoyed looking at the nuances of the writing.”

Whereas he is linking up with Aston for the first time, he is renewing acquaintances with Lisa Howard. “I worked with Lisa on Blood + Chocolate in York in 2013 and I’m really excited to be working with her again for the first time since then,” he says. “Again, the audience will be  using headsets for the show, like they did for Blood + Chocolate, which will help to make it more intimate.”

Engine House Theatre presents Park Bench Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, until September 5

Chris Hannon in First Love, tonight, 7pm and tomorrow, 4pm and 7pm.

Cassie Vallance in Teddy Bears’ Picnic, August 22; August 27 to 29; August 31; September 1 to 5, 11.30am and 1.30pm.

Lisa Howard in Every Time A Bell Rings, August 26 to 29; August 31 to September 5, 7pm, plus August 29 and September 5, 4pm.

For tickets, go to parkbenchtheatre.com or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Review: Teddy Bears’ Picnic…One sandwich short of a picnic or a top banana drama?

One sandwich short of a picnic: Cassie Vallance’s Jo clowns around on her Friends Garden park bench in a scene from Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Picture: Northedge Photography

REVIEW: Teddy Bears’ Picnic, Park Bench Theatre, Engine House Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York until September 5. ****

THROUGH stealth and goofy coming timing, Cassie Vallance had stolen Twelfth Night, the Jazz Age hit of last summer’s Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York before the rest of Joyce Branagh’s superb cast could do anything about it.

After that Pop-Up Elizabethan theatre season on the Castle car park, Vallance has popped up again at York Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival, presenting Crafty Tales with her Story Craft Theatre cohort Janet Bruce last Saturday lunchtime.

She would have done so again this Saturday too at 1pm but for the fact she needs to be at Rowntree Park for the 1.30pm performance of Teddy Bears’ Picnic, her solo performance for this summer’s Park Bench Theatre season.

For all her oodles of comic energy, not even Vallance can be in two places at once and so Janet Bruce will be bringing a picture-book story to life on her own on the patio this weekend.

Any good at the hurdles? Cassie Vallance tries to negotiate the gate to enter the Friends Garden. Picture: Northedge Photography

In between Twelfth Night and Teddy Bears’ Picnic came Vallance’s starring role in director Matt Aston’s adaptation of Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale stories for the York Theatre Royal Studio’s Christmas show for children.

Now, Aston, artistic director of Engine House Theatre, resumes his creative partnership with Vallance for this season’s Park Bench Theatre resurrection of outdoor theatre for the post-lockdown age.

Together, they have co-created a new version of the Teddy Bears’ Picnic story spun from the threads of the popular children’s ditty and an original idea by musical director Julian Butler; Aston directing, Vallance performing with all that impish clowning, physical comedy and pathos that has marked the York actor’s performances over the past year.

If you go down in the Covid-secure Friends Garden tomorrow, or on various dates until September 5, you are in for a children’s show to delight three year olds and upwards. Take a picnic, take a child or two, or more, within a family bubble to sit in socially distanced pods marked out by chalk circles, with room to accommodate your favourite teddy bear too.

Juggling tea cups: Cassie Vallance keeps her balance in Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Picture: Northedge Photography

On arrival, you will pick up the necessary equipment to listen on a head set to the feed of Vallance’s storytelling, sound effects (from lasers to a send-up of The Six Million Dollar Man intro for the adults present) and reprises of the familiar song, complemented by Julian Butler’s incidental music.

Vallance is playing Jo, struggling with her big case as she tries to negotiate her way through the not very high gates to the Friends Garden on a sunny Thursday afternoon.

Eventually, she does so, taking up residence on and around the park bench beneath the linden tree in the garden corner, as a squirrel looks on, front paws in that distinctive squirrel position where they look to be on the cusp of bursting into applause.

Vallance’s Jo is in three quarter-length dungarees with yellow buttons and matching head band and anything but matching pumps (purple instead), her bravura attire denoting a funny woman has just entered the garden.

Who would name a teddy after a beach? Cassie Vallance’s Jo does, holding Filey aloft in Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Picture: Northedge Photography

Jo begins to unpack the case, taking out case after smaller case, as if opening up a Russian doll. She puts up bunting, does a spot of juggling. Vallance has said nothing, as much mime artist or silent movie actor to this point, but once she puts on a pair of spectacles, she “realises” she has an audience and starts talking…excitedly.

She seeks to give this re-telling a context for Covid-19 2020, as Jo talks to the children about the experience of coming out to play again, to see friends again, to be outdoors again, to be enjoying a Teddy Bears’ Picnic again, after being stuck inside in lockdown for an eternity.

“It’s a bit weird,” she says, and who would disagree. “There’s been lots of Zooming,” she notes. “For a word that sounds so fast, it seems to take so long!”

Picking a banana from her picnic, Vallance’s Jo bounces around the audience, revelling in “just being”, “feeling happy”, “enjoying stuff”, but then her thoughts turn to memories. “All memories are important. They may not be happy, but that’s OK, they can help us learn,” she says.

A show with bite…a horsefly bite for Teddy Bears’ Picnic director Matt Aston

At this juncture, Jo transforms into her younger self, recalling childhood Teddy Bears’ Picnics in Rowntree Park, surrounded by her teddies, all except her favourite, Kelly, who came off worst in an unfortunate encounter with her father’s Flymo mower.

Vallance’s crestfallen pathos at this juncture is a joy, so too are the Scottish and Welsh accents she adopts for Jo’s mum and dad (even though they are from Welwyn Garden and Fulford!).

Aston and Vallance’s charming short story ends on a positive and reassuring note in these strange times for children and adults alike, Jo saying that things can and always will change…and “change can be really, really good”.

Ironically, the only sting in this tale was, well, not a sting but a horsefly bite suffered by director Matt Aston pre-show. Kelly went to hospital in the story, Aston to A&E with his arm swollen. Is ted not dead? Did both have a happy ending? That would be telling!

Performances: August 21 and 22, 27 to 29 and 31; September 1 to 5; 11.30am and 1.30pm. Box office: parkbenchtheatre.com

One park bench, three shows, prepare for outdoor theatre in Rowntree Park garden

Park Bench Theatre director Matt Aston on a park bench in Rowntree Park, York. Picture: Livy Potter

THREE monologues on a park bench in a Rowntree Park garden herald the return of theatre to York from the Glorious Twelfth onwards.

Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston has assembled a summer season of open-air shows that will combine Samuel Beckett’s rarely-performed First Love with two premieres, Aston’s own new piece, Every Time A Bell Rings, and a new adaptation of the classic children’s song, Teddy Bears’ Picnic, co-created for all the family by Aston and Cassie Vallance.

The trio of productions will be presented from August 12 to September 5 in the Covid-secure setting of the carefully laid-out and spacious Friends Garden at Rowntree Park, allowing audiences of up to 75 to maintain social distance from each other in the park’s most enclosed space.

“Who’d have thought six months ago that we would be having such a stressful, terrifying, bizarre time since March,” says Matt, more heavily bearded in lockdown than when he co-directed York Theatre Royal’s somewhat stressful 2019-2020 pantomime, Sleeping Beauty.

“I first had idea of doing something this summer, running round Rowntree Park in the middle of lockdown on one of my Government-ordained bursts of daily exercise. Sitting on a bench [too late to tell him off now!], I was thinking about doing some socially distanced indoor theatre, but then someone suggested, ‘Why not do some outdoor theatre in Rowntree Park?’.”

The seeds for Park Bench Theatre were sewn. “The name Park Bench Theatre does what it says on the tin: performing theatre on or around a park bench, which I first did 20 years ago in Nottingham,” Matt says.

“The idea was always to keep it simple, having first started thinking about in April/May, knowing that it has to feel safe and secure but also feel ‘normal’, feeling like it would pre-Covid, but keeping the production costs basic.

The Park Bench Theatre production team: Ben Pugh, back left; directors Matt Aston and Tom Bellerby, seated; Luke James and Mike Redley; Harriet Marshall, front left, and Pauline Rourke. Picture: Livy Potter

“Theatre is social, sharing stories, and these shows will be a collective story-telling experience.”

His Rowntree Park exertions set the plays and their subject matter in motion. “I had the idea of someone sitting on a park bench and thinking about what they’re going through,” says Matt, explaining the trigger for Every Time A Bell Rings.

“I thought of the isolation and the fact that she might actually have been isolated for many years. I then remembered First Love was also set on a park bench and the idea rolled on from that.”

The first to open, running from August 12 to August 22, will be Matt’s production of First Love, Beckett’s 45-minute monologue about a man, a woman, a recollection, awash with the Irish playwright’s signature balancing of comedy and tragedy.

First Love was the last piece of the Park Bench Theatre jigsaw to fall into place. “I think the Beckett estate had a few questions about what we were doing, as it’s not a play, but it had been done at the Arcola Theatre [in London] as a learnt reading,” says Matt.

“For me, it reads as a monologue, but we’re being respectful to it as the short story it was written as. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, really accessible, really funny, and Chris is bringing out all the humour.”

The ‘Chris’ in question is Chris Hannon, best known for his CBeebies role as Dad in Topsy And Tim and as the pantomime dame at Wakefield Theatre Royal for more than a decade. “My first panto as director at Wakefield was his first panto as the dame there,” says Matt. “There was a tradition of never inviting anyone back, but he was so brilliant that he’s been going back ever since, and he writes it now as well.”

Tom Bellerby: Director of Every Time A Bell Rings

Next up, from August 26 to September 5, will be Aston’s 50-minute premiere of Every Time A Bell Rings, performed by Northern Broadsides and Slung Low regular Lisa Howard and directed by Tom Bellerby, back in York from London.

Tom had been resident assistant director at the Donmar Warehouse, London, after making his mark at York Theatre Royal as associate artist at Pilot Theatre and as associate director at Hull Truck Theatre from 2016 to 2018, taking in Hull’s year as the 2017 UK City of Culture. 

The play’s setting is Lockdown, Easter Sunday 2020, when Cathy searches for solace on her favourite park bench in her favourite park in Aston’s funny and poignant look at how the world is changing through these extraordinary times.

“I’ve written it in Lockdown, having had a vague notion some years ago of doing a piece revolving around a woman dealing with grief when I was dealing with the death of my stepfather,” says Matt.

“I started having a go at writing a piece in the spare hours between child-care and then felt it would be right for Park Bench Theatre once I felt confident that we were going to get the go-ahead.

“Then I had the idea that someone else should direct it, and though I hadn’t met Tom before, I knew he’d returned to York and it made sense for him to come on board.”

After two shows with “very strong language”, the third will be a complete contrast: Teddy Bears’ Picnic on August 19 to 22, 27 to 29 and 31 and September 1 to 5, based on an original idea by Julian Butler.

Cassie Vallance in The Storm Whale at the York Theatre Royal Studio last December. Picture: Northedge Photography

“I really hope they don’t come to the wrong show!” says Matt, who is renewing his creative partnership with Cassie Vallance after she starred in his adaptation of Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale in the Theatre Royal Studio last Christmas.

Suitable for everyone aged three and over, this 30-minute show carries the billing: “Every year, Jo’s family used to have a big family gathering – a teddy bears’ picnic – but then she got too old and too cool for that sort of thing. Now she’s grown up, she wishes she could have them all over again.”

“Julian Butler and I had the idea for this show when we were doing The Storm Whale, and Cassie and I are creating it over the next few weeks,” says Matt. “She was brilliant in The Storm Whale and has been doing fantastic work online with Crafty Tales, so I’m thrilled to be working with her again.”

Roll on, August 12, for the first Park Bench Theatre performance. “The relief is being able to talk about putting on shows, rather than all the other stuff that’s going on,” says Matt. “Loads of people have been doing creative things in lockdown, and it’s good that Park Bench Theatre has come about in that time.”

Yet Matt strikes a note of caution for the winter ahead for theatre and the arts at large, however. “As I’ve said for many weeks, any organisation that relies on anyone being indoors for any length of time faces a problematic situation,” he says.

“I think the Government will let one industry take a hit and I fear that industry will be the arts, despite arts and culture bringing so much to the national and local economy.”

Cassie Vallance in rehearsal for Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Picture: Northedge Photography

Full details on Park Bench Theatre, including tickets and the audience use of headphones, can be found at: parkbenchtheatre.com.

The monologues:

First Love by Samuel Beckett, August 12 to 22, 7pm; August 15 and 22, 4pm matinee.

A story of a man, a woman, a recollection, awash with Beckett’s signature balancing of comedy and tragedy. Performed by Chris Hannon, directed by Matt Aston. Running time: 70 minutes. Contains very strong language. 

Every Time A Bell Rings, premiere by Matt Aston, August 26 to September 5, 7pm; August 29 and September 5, 4pm matinee. 

Lockdown. Easter Sunday 2020. Cathy emerges from her own isolation to search for solace on her favourite park bench in her favourite park. Touching, funny, poignant look at how the world is changing through these extraordinary times. Performed by Lisa Howard, directed by Tom Bellerby. Contains very strong language. Running time: 50 minutes.

The Park Bench Theatre production team observing social distancing in Rowntree Park, York. Picture: Livy Potter

Teddy Bears’ Picnic, premiere, August 19 to 22, 27 to 29 and 31; September 1 to 5; 11.30am and 1.30pm. Co-created by Cassie Vallance and director Matt Aston.

Every year, Jo’s family had a big, brilliant family gathering – a teddy bears’ picnic. Then she grew too old and too cool for that sort of thing, so she stopped going. But now she’s grown up, she wishes she could have them all over again. Running time: 30 minutes. Suitable for everyone aged three and over. Bring your favourite teddy and a picnic.

A word from: Helen Apsey, head of culture and well-being at Make It York

“This is a fantastic initiative to bring live theatre back to York in the beautiful surroundings of Rowntree Park. It is a great addition to the city’s summer offering – providing a safe outdoor theatre experience designed for families and people of all ages.”

A word from: Abigail Gaines, Friends of Rowntree Park trustee

“We are thrilled to have open-air theatre in Rowntree Park. The park has been a lifeline to many during Lockdown, and hearing it inspired the writing of one of the plays makes hosting the performance even more meaningful.

“The park is a key place for families and we know they will love the family performances. The Friends of Rowntree Park always support arts in the park and are very much looking forward to the shows.”

ANY QUESTIONS?

Headphones?

Yes, headphones will be required to hear the dialogue, sound effects and music in performances. All audience members will be given a receiver on entry that headphones can be plugged into.

Audiences are encouraged to bring their own set, but no wireless or Bluetooth ones. Instead they must be plug-in headphones or earphones. You can buy takeaway headphones for £1 when you book your ticket online, for collection when you visit. 

Director Matt Aston on a Rowntree Park park bench. Audience members will be on blankets or chairs

Performance area?

The Friends Garden is an enclosed lawn at Rowntree Park that will have socially distanced seating in an outdoor Covid-secure setting with clearly delineated areas/boxes marked on the grass – three metres square – for audience members to sit in.

Up to three or four people from the same household can sit in each box. Further individual seats will be spaced around the side of the lawn. 

The capacity for First Love and Every Time A Bell Rings is 75 tickets; the maximum for Teddy Bears’ Picnic is 50 as boxes will be slightly bigger for up to four people from the same household.

Seating?

Audience members are encouraged to bring blankets for the first few rows and chairs for the back few rows.

Ticketing policy?

If you have any symptoms of Covid-19, have been diagnosed with the virus or have been in direct contact with a diagnosed individual in the past 14 days, you must not attend the event.

If unable to attend due to other illness, contact the box office to arrange a ticket transfer. Tickets can be refunded only if the booked performance has sold out.

HEALTH AND SAFETY MEASURES

IN conversation with City of York Council, and in line with Government guidance, Park Bench Theatre has implemented a range of measures to ensure the health and safety of audiences and staff. The measures are under constant review and apply across all performances throughout the season. 

Arriving: Gates will open an hour before the show start time to allow everyone to arrive at their leisure and avoid large queues. All tickets will be digital and checked without contact at a social distance at the entrance to the performance area. There will be a one-way system to enter and exit the performance area.

Social distancing: Each household or social, bubble will be seated at a safe distance from other households or social bubbles. Volunteer stewards will direct audience members to their designated bubble.

Food and refreshments: Bring your own food and drink to all performances but no alcohol is allowed. 

Departure: Stewards will manage the departure so large crowds do not all leave at the same time.

Loos. All performances take place without an interval. The Rowntree Park loos will be open before and after all performances.