Green light for The Wedding Present musical after “Gedge pledges” hit £10,000

David Gedge: Writing new material for Reception, a musical built around his songs of love and loss, break-ups and breakdowns for The Wedding Present and Cinerama

THE Crowdfunder appeal to kick-start work on The Wedding Present musical, Reception, has hit the initial £10,000 target with more than a day to spare.

You can still visit @crowdfunderuk where the @ReceptionSoon page welcomes further contributions today and tomorrow to aid York writer-director Matt Aston start crafting a story of “love, loss, break-ups and breakdowns – everything you’d expect really from a musical based on the songs of David Gedge”.

The Crowdfunder Gedge pledge will facilitate work on the first draft, artwork and branding of a show that will combine Gedge’s songs for his Leeds band The Wedding Present and Cinerama with new material by the 60-year-old songwriter, who now lives in Brighton.

Reception writer-director Matt Aston in his Wedding Present T-shirt when rehearsing Park Bench Theatre’s summer production of Samuel Beckett’s First Love with actor Chris Hannon. Picture: Northedge Photography

Aston and production partner Tony Ereira anticipate beginning research and development in early  2021 to road test their ideas – Covid-19 Government guidance permitting – with a group of actor-musicians, incorporating Gedge’s new songs. The premiere is pencilled in for Leeds in 2022, to be followed by a small tour that would take in Brighton.

Full details on Reception can be found in an earlier CharlesHutchPress article, filed on  September 15.

“The crowdfunding campaign is a chance for fans to get involved from the beginning with a bunch of rewards that are all exclusive to this production, including specially commissioned artwork from Lee Thacker,  illustrator of David’s autobiography, Tales From The Wedding Present,” says Matt, artistic director of Engine House Theatre, who staged the Park Bench Theatre season in the Friends Garden, Rowntree, Park, York, this summer.

To support the project, go to: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/reception-the-musical

Gedge pledge launched by York director to fund The Wedding Present musical UPDATED

David Gedge: Creative consultant for a new musical based around his songs for The Wedding Present

DO you have a gift for a Wedding Present project?

To explain, a crowdfunder campaign is being launched to support the creation of a musical based on the songs of David Gedge’s “semi-legendary“ Leeds group and John Peel favourites, The Wedding Present…with “some brand new material” from Gedge too.

The driving force behind Reception, The Wedding Present Musical, is York writer, theatre director and Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston, fresh from mounting this summer’s season of Park Bench Theatre monologues in the Friends Garden at Rowntree Park.

“Reception will be a story of love…loss…break-ups…and breakdowns,” says Matt. “Everything you’d expect, really, from a musical based on the songs of David Gedge.”

Gedge, who turned 60 in April, will be the creative consultant for a show that will incorporate his songs for both The Wedding Present and Cinerama, plus the aforementioned new material, targeting 2022 for a Leeds premiere.

The Gedge pledge crowdfunder campaign “gives fans the opportunity to get involved at the very beginning of an exciting journey – and pick up a bunch of specially commissioned artwork and merchandise, only available here, in doing so”.

Reception is the story of a group of friends from Leeds University who keep in touch over two decades of trials, tribulations, and receptions. Their stories are rooted in Gedge’s songs and the title is inspired by the name of The Wedding Present’s original record label, Reception Records.

Matt Aston: Artistic director of this summer’s Park Bench Theatre season at Rowntree Park, York, now working on a musical play inspired by his favourite band The Wedding Present. Picture: Livy Potter

The idea of doing such a musical has been brewing for writer/director Aston for several years. When he met Tony Ereira, director of the Come Play With Me and Clue Records record labels – where else but at a Wedding Present gig, in Leeds in early 2019 – the concept was batted around still further.

The concept of the play started to take shape, with the documentary nature of Gedge’s candid, darkly humorous song-writing in the never-ending minefield of love and loss, lovers and losers, longing and lost opportunity suited to transferring those anguished stories and their quotidian protagonists onto the stage.

As Gedge himself said in Gigslutz on August 24 2015: “I’m interested in the minutiae of relationships. I like to write about what actually happens, rather than some imaginary situation cloaked in metaphor, hence the references to the everyday, though I have been known to decorate the songs with science fiction or comic book references!”

Aston first saw The Wedding Present at Confettis nightclub in Derby in 1988. “So, you could say this musical is over 30 years in the making,” he says. “I’ll always be grateful to my older brother and his mates for taking his little 15-year-old brother to his first ever gig. I got a T-shirt, a set of badges and a nosebleed. Not to mention a new favourite band.”

How come Aston suffered a nosebleed? “I remember standing there, when the support band were on, and everyone was being very polite…and then…The Wedding Present came on and there was this huge surge. That’s when I got the nosebleed!” he recalls.

Gedge’s songs “really struck a chord” in Aston’s teenage days. “They are those difficult 15 to 19 years, and his lyrics really connected with me; his songs have stuck with me ever since. They’re just good songs – they’ve never got the recognition they deserve. They’re down-to-earth stories of love gone wrong and they’ve been there for me in both good times and dark times.”

Writer-director Matt Aston in a Wedding Present T-shirt – not the one from 32 years ago! – in rehearsals with actor Chris Hannon for Park Bench Theatre’s production of Samuel Beckett’s First Love. Picture: Northedge Photography

Aston elaborates on their suitability for a musical play: “I’ve always felt there was something very theatrical about David’s songs. The storytelling, the arrangements, the anguish,” he says. “And, as proven with Cinerama’s 2012 re-recording of The Wedding Present’s Valentina album, they have the flexibility to be arranged in a number of different, epic and dramatic ways. Although the show will, of course, still have plenty of fast guitars too!”

Attending a Cinerama concert five years ago affirmed that conviction. “They did this gig with a 15-piece orchestra and I thought, ‘these are musical theatre songs’; that’s what will work on stage,” says Matt. “‘The show will connect with fans, but people who are not Wedding Present fans will connect with the songs too, making for a good show, a new musical story rather than a typical jukebox musical’.”

Aston and Ereira put the idea to Gedge, along with an early synopsis for the story, and never one to shy away from a new medium to present his work, Gedge was equally excited to explore the idea further.

“With this crowdfunder campaign, we are looking to raise initial funding to get a first draft of the script written, some artwork and branding in place, and to start preparing for a period of research and development in early 2021 to road test our ideas – Covid-19 permitting – with a group of actors/musicians and some brand new material from David,” says Matt.

“Once I get down to writing the script in full, it will become clear whether and where new songs may be required. When we met up, David he said he’d be happy to get writing for the show, and it will be exciting to have new David Gedge work in there.”

Aston anticipates working on the script over the next six months. “There’s just huge potential for this show,” he enthuses. “The intention is to be in a position to premiere the musical in Leeds in 2022 and then do a small tour after that, hopefully taking it to Brighton, where David now lives.

“This crowdfunding campaign is a chance for fans to get involved from the beginning with a bunch of rewards that are all exclusive to this production, including specially commissioned artwork from Lee Thacker,  illustrator of David’s autobiography, Tales From The Wedding Present.”

To support the project, go to: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/reception-the-musical

Crowdfunder appeal launched by York director for The Wedding Present musical

David Gedge: Creative consultant for a new musical based around his songs for The Wedding Present

DO you have a gift for a Wedding Present project?

To explain, a crowdfunder campaign is being launched to support the creation of a musical based on the songs of David Gedge’s “semi-legendary“ Leeds group and John Peel favourites, The Wedding Present…with “some brand new material” from Gedge too.

The driving force behind Reception, The Wedding Present Musical, is York writer, theatre director and Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston, fresh from mounting this summer’s season of Park Bench Theatre monologues in the Friends Garden at Rowntree Park.

Gedge, who turned 60 in April, will be the creative consultant for a show that will incorporate his songs for both The Wedding Present and Cinerama, plus the aforementioned new material, targeting 2022 for a Leeds premiere.

The crowdfunder campaign “gives fans the opportunity to get involved at the very beginning of an exciting journey – and pick up a bunch of specially commissioned artwork and merchandise, only available here, in doing so”.

Matt Aston: Artistic director of this summer’s Park Bench Theatre season at Rowntree Park, York, now working on a musical play inspired by his favourite band The Wedding Present. Picture: Livy Potter

Reception is the story of a group of friends from Leeds University who keep in touch over two decades of trials, tribulations, and receptions. Their stories are rooted in Gedge’s songs and the title is inspired by the name of The Wedding Present’s original record label, Reception Records.

The idea of doing such a musical has been brewing for writer/director Aston for several years. When he met Tony Ereira, director of the Come Play With Me and Clue Records record labels – where else but at a Wedding Present gig, in Leeds in early 2019 – the concept was batted around still futher.

The concept of the play started to take shape, with the documentary nature of Gedge’s candid, darkly humorous song-writing in the never-ending minefield of love and loss, lovers and losers, longing and lost opportunity suited to transferring those anguished stories and their quotidian protagonists on to the stage.

As Gedge himself said in Gigslutz on August 24 2015: “I’m interested in the minutiae of relationships. I like to write about what actually happens, rather than some imaginary situation cloaked in metaphor, hence the references to the everyday, though I have been known to decorate the songs with science fiction or comic book references!”

“I first saw The Wedding Present in Derby in 1988, so you could say this musical is over 30 years in the making,” says Matt. “I’ll always be grateful to my older brother and his mates for taking his little 15-year-old brother to his first ever gig.

Writer-director Matt Aston in a Wedding Present T-shirt in rehearsals with actor Chris Hannon for Park Bench Theatre’s production of Samuel Beckett’s First Love. Picture: Northedge Photography

“I got a T-shirt, a set of badges and a nosebleed. Not to mention a new favourite band. I’ve always felt there was something very theatrical about David’s songs. The storytelling, the arrangements, the anguish.

“And, as proven with Cinerama’s re-recording of The Wedding Present’s Valentina album, they have the flexibility to be arranged in a number of different, epic and dramatic ways. Although the show will, of course, still have plenty of fast guitars too!”

Aston and Ereira put the idea to Gedge, along with an early synopsis for the story, and, never one to shy away from a new medium to present his work, Gedge was equally excited to explore the idea further.

“With this crowdfunder campaign, we are looking to raise initial funding to get a first draft of the script written, some artwork and branding in place, and to start preparing for a period of research and development in early 2021 to road test our ideas – Covid-19 permitting – with a group of actors/musicians and some brand new material from David,” says Matt.

“The intention is to be in a position to premiere the musical in Leeds in 2022  – and this campaign is a chance for fans to get involved from the beginning with a bunch of rewards that are all exclusive to this production, including specially commissioned artwork from Lee Thacker,  illustrator of David’s autobiography, Tales From The Wedding Present.”

To support the project, go to: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/reception-the-musical

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

REVIEW: Every Time A Bell Rings, Park Bench Theatre, Rowntree Park, York ****

A collage of Lisa Howard in the role of Cathy in Every Time A Bell Rings in Rowntree Park. Picture: Northedge Photography

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.

Matt Aston: artistic director of Engine House Theatre and Park Bench Theatre and writer-in-lockdown of Every Time A Bell Rings. Picture: Livy Potter

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).

Director Tom Bellerby in rehearsal for Park Bench Theatre’s Every Time A Bell Rings. Picture: Northedge Photography

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.

Deep in thought: Lisa Howard’s Cathy on her favourite bench in her favourite park in Park Bench Theatre’s premiere of Every Time A Bell Rings. Picture: Northedge Photography

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.

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

REVIEW: First Love, Park Bench Theatre, Rowntree Park, York, until August 22 ****

One man, one monologue, one park bench: Chris Hannon in Samuel Beckett’s First Love. All pictures: Northedge Photography

REVIEW: First Love, Park Bench Theatre, Engine House Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, until August 22, 7pm nightly and 4pm matinee, August 22. Box office: parkbenchtheatre.com

DARKNESS descended on theatres in March, for rather more than 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness.

Auditoria are still gathering cobwebs, but the green shoots of a theatre resurrection are beginning to burst through in the great outdoors as live performance undergoes its own re-wilding.

Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston pounded Rowntree Park on his Government-ordained hourly stretch of lockdown exercise, sewing the seeds for Park Bench Theatre. He settled upon staging three solo shows, on a park bench, in the shade of a linden tree in the Covid-secure setting of the enclosed Friends Garden (audience capacity: 70).

Serving on the bench: Chris Hannon returns to acting after the lockdown hiatus to play a love lightning-struck Irishman in First Love

Greeted by two of those Friends at the gate, this was indeed an occasion for greeting old friends: theatre itself, let alone familiar faces from the York theatre scene, the critics’ circle too, on press night. Oh, how we have missed this: communion; communication; conversation; conviviality; common ground for uncommon thought.

There was much anew about theatre-going too: a digital programme available for everyone, rather than a print edition; de rigueur hand sanitiser; social distancing in conversation; and the grass marked out in chalk circles, as if a convention of baby UFOs had just vacated the garden.

Issued with receivers on arrival, audience members sat in bubbles or on park benches to tune into to the dialogue, sound effects and music on plug-in headphones/earphones (on sale at £1 if you don’t bring any), to eliminate the surround-sound of play and chatter from elsewhere in the park.

Enter a lean, unshaven man in obligatory Samuel Beckett men’s attire: scuffed boots in need of a polish, jauntily-angled bowler hat, an over-sized coat with the sleeves too long, high-waisted charcoal trousers, braced up, and a grubby collarless shirt. A man with plenty to say, as much to himself as those watching.

“A lean, unshaven man in obligatory Samuel Beckett men’s attire”: Chris Hannon in First Love

You will know the tragicomic type from Waiting For Godot, Irish playwright Beckett’s 1953 epiphany of existential angst. First Love is an earlier work, a short story from 1945, premiered in French in 1970 and published in English in 1973. A minor piece by comparison with Godot, yet well worth 70 unbroken minutes of your summertime.

Performed by Chris Hannon, Wakefield Theatre Royal’s pantomime writer and dame for a decade and star of CBeebies’ Topsy And Tim, First Love is a monologue, a one-to-one with each audience member, delivered from where else but a park bench, The Man’s preferred bed for the night.

Billed as a tale of a man, a woman, a recollection, it begins in a graveyard. The Man’s father is dead; he has no job at 25; he is, not to put too fine a point on it, rather strange. He doesn’t like, in no particular order, furniture, children, people in general, taking off his clothes, or the aforementioned woman taking off hers, although he seems happy enough to live off her earnings as a lady of the night.

His candour, yet lack of self-awareness, makes him a thoroughly reliable witness for his recollections. He is from the Beckett school of clown with a frown. Not everything he says, in his elliptical way of talking, makes sense, definitely not to the audience and probably not to him too.

Arms and the man: Chris Hannon in First Love in Rowntree Park

As for love, or, First Love, he mulls over that four-letter word over and over, but as Prince Charles once said evasively: “Whatever ‘in love’ means”. Be warned, he is wont to using other four-letter words too, prompting the website warning: “Contains very strong language”.

Directed by Matt Aston with suitable economy, but acute detail, the verbally and physically adroit Hannon presents a shrugged shoulder of a man, both odd and at odds with the world and himself, walking the wire betwixt comedy and tragedy.

In truth, you wouldn’t want to know him in “real life”, but meeting Yer Man in a York garden on a sunny night for the three Ps – park bench, picnic and pontification – why not?

Oh, and as the Northern Irishman in the Hutch bubble was quick to praise, @runcornchris’s southern Irish accent was spot-on.

Suspicious even of a park bench: Chris Hannon as the Man in First Love

More Things To Do out and about, indoors, in and around York, and back home, courtesy of The Press, York. List No. 12

Good to be back: Musician Phil Grainger and writer Alexander Flanagan-Wright in Alex’s back garden at Stillington Mill for their At The Mill week of shows. Now they will pop down to the Pop-Up On The Patio festival.
Picture: Charlotte Graham

MUSEUMS, galleries and cinemas are welcoming you in, but in the summertime, when the weather is surprisingly fine, now is the chance to capitalise on the great outdoors, from pop-up patio shows to musical theatre in an amphitheatre.

In the interests of balance, Charles Hutchinson’s recommendations also take in a new exhibition indoors and a night in that drags on and on…in spectacular vocal and visual fashion.

Balloons, magic, jokes: Josh Benson in his Just Josh show for Pop-Up On The Patio at York Theatre Royal

Outdoors entertainment number one: Pop-Up On The Patio, at York Theatre Royal, August 14 to 29

TAKING part in a Covid-secure summer season of outdoor performances, on a terrace stage designed by Yorkshire theatre designer Hannah Sibai, will be “Yorkshire’s finest theatre and dance makers”.

Step forward York Dance Space’s Dance//Shorts; Mud Pie Arts; Story Craft Theatre for Crafty Tales; Paul Birch’s Fool(ish) Improv; The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre in Orpheus and Eurydice and puppeteer Freddie Hayes in Fred’s Microbrewery.

Look out, too, for Cosmic Collective Theatre in the cult show Heaven’s Gate; York performance poet Henry Raby in Apps & Austerity; Say Owt, the York outlet for slam poets, word-weavers and “gobheads”; magician, juggler and children’s entertainer Josh Benson in Just Josh and pop, soul and blues singer Jess Gardham.

One hat, one coat, one monologue: Chris Hannon in rehearsal for Park Bench Theatre’s production of Samuel Beckett’s First Love at Rowntree Park, York. Picture: Northedge Photography

Theatre in a summer’s garden: Engine House Theatre’s Park Bench Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, until September 5

ROLL up, roll up, for Samuel Beckett’s rarely performed monologue, First Love, artistic director Matt Aston’s new play, Every Time A Bell Rings, and a family show inspired by a classic song, Teddy Bears’ Picnic.

Each production is presented in Covid-secure, carefully laid out and spacious gardens, allowing audience members to keep socially distanced from each other. Chris Hannon performs the Beckett piece; Lisa Howard, the play premiere; Aston’s co-creator, Cassie Vallance, the new children’s show.

Headphones or earphones will be required to hear the dialogue, sound effects and music in performances. All audience members will be given a receiver on entry; takeaway headphones cost £1 when booking a ticket online. Bring blankets or chairs.

Richard Upton as Stacee Jaxx in York Stage Musicals’ Rock Of Ages: Now he will be rocking up at Rowntree Park. Picture: Robin May

Musical celebration of the month: York Stage at Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, York, August 23 to 25

YORK Stage are bringing musical theatre back to life this summer with their first ever outdoor show, taking over the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre for three nights.

Songs from Grease, Hairspray, Cats, Cabaret, The Greatest Showman, West Side Story and many more will be sung by Emily Ramsden, Ashley Standland, May Tether, Joanna Theaker and Richard Upton under the musical direction of Jessica Douglas.

“We wanted to keep it light, with singers of great quality and a band of great quality performing songs we all know so well, presented as a concert rather than as a staged performance, so it’s very much about the music,” says producer and director Nik Briggs.

Out on the moors: North York Moors Chamber Music Festival artistic director, founder and cellist Jamie Walton.
Picture: Paul Ingram

Outdoor festival of the month: North York Moors Chamber Music Festival, Welburn Abbey, Ryedale, until August 22

AN evolution as a much as a Revolution, the 2020 North York Moors Chamber Music Festival has swapped the indoors for the outdoors, now taking place in an open marquee sited in the grounds of Welburn Abbey, Welburn Manor Farms (YO62 7HH), between Helmsley and Kirkbymoorside, in Ryedale.

For its theme of Revolution! in the festival’s 12th year of celebrating chamber works, the focus is on and around the music of Beethoven – the “revolutionary” – and beyond to mark the 250th anniversary of the German composer’s birth in Bonn.

Full details can be found at northyorkmoorsfestival.com. Season tickets have sold out, but do check if tickets remain available for individual concerts on 07722 038990.

Under the spell of the fell: North Eastern artist Jill Campbell, inspired by her walks on Cockfield Fell

York exhibition of the week: Jill Campbell, Featured Artist, Blue Tree Gallery, Bootham, York, until September 19

BLUE Tree Gallery, York, is marking the opening of North Eastern artist Jill Campbell’s exhibition of intuitive and soulful landscape paintings by introducing temporary new opening hours on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 11am to 4pm.

“Most of my work is based on an ancient mining landscape called Cockfield Fell, where I walk nearly every day,” says Jill. “I use elements of what I see and combine these with my imagination to create my paintings.

“I’m fascinated by the fell’s strange, other worldly, abstract shapes defined by the morning shadows and framed by big dramatic skies. Its pools, pathways, mounds, dips and curves are my motifs.”

Showtime, darlings: Velma Celli in a late-summer night’s stream

Drag show of the week: Velma Celli in A Night  At The Musicals, tomorrow, 8pm

YORK drag diva supreme Velma Celli has embraced the world of the live stream through lockdown and beyond.

Velma’s satellite nights from her Bishopthorpe kitchen started in quarantine, back home in York after her Australian travels, and now she has vowed to keep these glamorous, if remote, gatherings going.

“I’m thrilled to be doing another live streamed show on August 14,” says Velma, the exotic cabaret creation of Ian Stroughair. “As venues are now closing up again in London, I will be doing more of these again! Bring on the fun! Watch out for news of special guests.”

For tickets for the live stream from Case de Velma Celli, go to: ticketweb.uk/event/velma-cellis-a-live-stream-tickets/. Tickets come off sale at 5pm tomorrow (14/08/2020); the stream link arrives via email just after 5pm for the 8pm start.

Marilyn (2009/2011, by Joana Vasconcelos: Iconic oversized silver stilettos made from stainless-steel saucepans, on show at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Picture: Michael J Oakes

Trip out of the week: Joana Vasconcelos, Beyond, Underground Gallery and open air, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield, on show until January 3 2021

PORTUGUESE artist Joana Vasconcelos creates vibrant, often monumental sculpture, using fabric, needlework and crochet alongside everyday objects, from saucepans to wheel hubs.

She frequently uses items associated with domestic work and craft to comment from a feminist perspective on national and collective identity, cultural tradition and women’s roles in society.

Crack pot: Your host standing betwixt a crockery tree sculpture at the Himalayan Gardens at Grewelthorpe. Picture: Celestine Dubruel

And what about…

LIGHTS out, sit back and enjoy the big-screen experience anew at City Screen, York, and Cineworld, York, now with masks compulsory.

Discovering Barnsley folk siren Kate Rusby’s new album of unexpected cover versions, from Manic Monday to Friday I’m In Love to Shake It Off, out tomorrow.

Walking among the flowers and sculptures at the Himalayan Gardens, Grewelthorpe, near Ripon, a gem of design all round.

Exit the panto dame, enter Chris Hannon’s clown on a park bench in Rowntree Park

One hat, one coat, one monologue: Chris Hannon rehearsing Samuel Beckett’s First Love for the Park Bench Theatre season at Rowntree Park, York. Pictures: Northedge Photography

CHRIS Hannon’s diary for 2020 had all the makings of being a dream year for the Lunch Monkeys and Topsy And Tim actor.

It promised a TV series, a summer of open-air theatre and a winter of writing the Theatre Royal, Wakefield pantomime and playing the dame there, as he has done for the past decade.

Then the world stopped, sent into lockdown by the Coronavirus pandemic. The TV job never happened, Chris’s pencil had to cross out the summer of theatre work, and the fate of the Wakefield panto, like so many across the country, hangs in the balance.

From today, however, Chris can be found sitting on a bench every evening in the Friends Garden at Rowntree Park in York and, glory be, he will be working – performing Samuel Beckett’s monologue First Love to a socially distanced audience as part of the Park Bench Theatre triple bill  that runs until September 5.

First Love director Matt Aston working in rehearsal with actor Chris Hannon

Written in 1946 and published in French in 1970 and in English in 1973, the rarely performed First Love is a 45-minute short story of a man, a woman, a recollection, told with Irish playwright Beckett’s trademark balancing act of comedy and tragedy

The first time Chris encountered Beckett’s work was through a production of his more famous 1958 monologue Krapp’s Last Tape and he has also taken part too in a rehearsed reading of Beckett’s magnus opus, Waiting For Godot.

First Love, he suggests, feels like a young man’s version of Krapp’s Last Tape, whose elderly character is described as “slightly clownish with red nose and white cheeks”. “That’s a big part of the way Beckett writes characters: people looking back on their lives and realising that the life they lived had a comical absurdity, where they end up as sad clowns. It’s quite accessible for audiences,” says Chris.

He finds the prospect of holding the attention of an audience on his own both “exciting and absolutely terrifying”. “It’s just you on your own for an hour, which is quite daunting. On a technical level, there’s a lot of words to learn. I’ve never done a one-man show and am excited to do it.

“It’s a universal, relatable story,” says Chris Hannon of Beckett’s First Love. “The story of a young man coming of age”

“I found the text intimidating at first but as I started to pick it apart, I quickly realised that it’s a universal, relatable story. The story of a young man coming of age.”

Chris is delighted to be acting again after an enforced six-month absence and believes audiences share that feeling. “People are ready to see something live and have a shared experience,” he says.

First Love will be one of the three solo shows presented by Engine House Theatre, whose artistic director Matt Aston responded to his daily exercise around Rowntree Park by putting together the outdoor season, once the easing of Covid-19 restrictions enabled live performances in the open air.

Chris had first worked with First Love director Matt in his debut year in the Wakefield pantomime. Matt was directing, a task undertaken in recent years by Chris’s wife, Rhiannon, the head of learning and participation at the West Yorkshire theatre.

Going bananas: Chris Hannon in discussion with director Matt Aston in rehearsal for First Love

Chris had always wanted to play panto dame but imagined he was too young. “I thought you had to be a theatrical veteran to do it. I just loved it when I did it,” he says.

Now 39, the Runcorn actor does not recall seeing many pantomimes when growing up. “I have a memory of going to one panto as a child:  Peter Pan. All I can remember is the spectacle. Then, as an actor in my 20s, I saw some of the panto greats. I thought ‘that looks so much fun’ – and it is.”

He had written the first draft for this winter’s Beauty And The Beast when the pandemic took up its unremitting residence. “I write the script for the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds as well as for Wakefield. I start writing the scripts in February. It’s first draft, second draft, the rehearsal process and sorting out the music. It’s the rhythm of my year,” says Chris.

“I love panto and playing the dame. It’s become a really big part of my life. Ours is a proper traditional family pantomime. We put so much care into it.”

Dame for a laugh: Chris Hannon as Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington at the Theatre Royal, Wakefield

If making his one-man show debut is a challenge, so too is working with children, as he did when playing Dad in the BAFTA-winning CBeebies series Topsy And Tim for 34 episodes from 2013 to 2015.  

“They wanted to get very spontaneous performances from the kids, so you would never do take after take after take. The adults would work on set with crew, then the kids would come on set – and what happened, happened,” recalls Chris, who has a three-year-old son, Ben, by the way.

“If they dropped a line, the adults had to pick it up. You had to know their lines and your lines. Scenes were never played as written on the page. You just had to keep it going. A huge amount of improvisation was involved.”

That series still brings him recognition, with parents demanding he poses for a picture with their children. “The kids are mortified by this. They don’t want a picture taken with me, so there are lots of pictures of me with unhappy-looking kids,” says Chris.

No children will be present at First Love, however. Beckett’s monologue comes with a Very Strong Language warning!

Chris Hannon performs Samuel Beckett’s First Love, August 12 to 22, at 7pm, and August 15, 4pm, as part of Engine House Theatre’s Covid-secure Park Bench Theatre season in the Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York. Tickets must be bought in advance at parkbenchtheatre.com.