REVIEW: Every Time A Bell Rings, Park Bench Theatre, Engine House Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, until September 5 ****
SCARF, tick. Jumpers, tick. Hat, tick. Thick socks, tick. Rugs. Tick. Don’t you love preparing for a night’s outdoor theatre in the York summertime?
The day before, one family had stoically braved the rain to watch Cassie Vallance clowning around in Teddy Bears’ Picnic. They wanted to make a day of it, rather than a meal of it, such is the resilient nature of the British theatregoer.
Come Saturday night, all the audience for the premiere of Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston’s lockdown monologue, Every Time A Bell Rings, had kitted out in attire more suited to Bonfire Night.
Actor Lisa Howard, luminary of Slung Low and Northern Broadsides productions, had her coat hood up too, as she walked to the park bench under the linden tree in a corner of the Friends Garden in Rowntree Park, while the audience headsets, tuned into a receiver, took them back to those early innocent days of Johnson and Trump not taking Coronavirus seriously with statements that now sound hauntingly crass.
Howard is playing Cathy; the day is Easter Sunday, April 12 2020, in the grave first month of the pandemic lockdown. Cathy has been in isolation; her husband has Covid; he insists she quarantines for 14 days, not the mandatory seven at the time; an alarm bell for what is to follow. She has been outside only to join in the Thursday night clapping-and-cheering ritual for the NHS and key workers.
This is the first time Cathy has left the house, to take up her favourite park bench seat in her favourite park, Rowntree Park (she lives nearby off Bishopthorpe Road).
She is quietly spoken, contemplative, on edge, addressing the audience like one of the episodes of Alan Bennett’s newly revived Talking Heads as she seeks solace. She recalls the minutiae of the early days of lockdown: one hour’s exercise day; the heightened awareness of birdsong; the way people started saying hello to each other in the street; the striped Barnacle geese joining the Canada geese regulars in Rowntree Park.
So far, so familiar, her sentiments, her darkly humorous observations, no different from those of countless others, but it as if the tentative Cathy is gaining the confidence to reveal more, to peel back the poignant, disturbing layers, once the audience is warmed up (proverbially speaking, not in reality as the wind has started picking up).
Here the high-quality craft of writer, actor and director Tom Bellerby alike shines through: Every Time A Bell Ring’s revelations grow ever more shattering, and it would be wrong to reveal the last.
Suffice to say that death hangs heavy over Cathy’s story: the sudden loss of her beloved first husband; likewise, the passing of her treasured daughter in the past year. Howard shows mastery of text and emotion, never over-stated and all the more impactful for its realism, her grief contained but ever present.
Drip, drip, drip – Aston’s very words – we learn of Cathy’s second husband controlling her, not through physical abuse, but barbed words. Gaslighting, in other words.
The ever-darkening Every Time A Bell Rings is the third of three Park Bench Theatre storytelling productions – after Samuel Beckett’s First Love and Teddy Bears’ Picnic – to open in August, marking the return of live theatre in York, glory be.
Aston and his team, together with Friends of Rowntree Park and the City of York Council, are to be thanked for a summer season of diversity, imagination, vision and no little courage. A season that has been Covid-secure, socially distanced, but still social and intimate, the latter courtesy of the headsets.
Whatever uncertainty lies ahead for theatres still stymied in the dark over autumn, winter and beyond, let us hope that Park Bench Theatre can return next summer, the park benchmark set high from all three shows this season.
Tickets for the 7pm evening performances and 4pm Saturday matinee are on sale at tickets.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
A BANK Holiday on Monday, the return to schools drawing ever closer, masked or unmasked, the summer calendar is speeding by.
Make the most of the outdoors before the crepuscular Covid uncertainty of autumn and beyond arrives for theatres, concert halls and gig venues alike.
Charles Hutchinson pops outside, then quickly head back indoors in the rain with these recommendations.
Comedy for your living room…from theirs: Your Place Comedy presents Paul Sinha and Angela Barnes, Sunday, 8pm
YORKSHIRE virtual comedy project Your Place Comedy returns after a summer break to deliver a second series of live streamed shows over the next three months, re-starting with The Chase star Paul Sinha and BBC Radio 4 News Quiz guest host Angela Barnes this weekend.
Corralled by Selby Town Council arts officer Chris Jones, ten small, independent theatres and arts centres from God’s Own Country and the Humber are coming together again, amid continued unease for the industry, to provide entertainment from national touring acts.
Sunday’s show will be broadcast live to viewers’ homes for free, with full details on how to watch on YouTube and Twitch at yourplacecomedy.co.uk. “As before, viewers will have an option to make a donation to the venues if they have enjoyed the broadcast,” says Chris.
Garden theatre part three: Park Bench Theatre in Every Time A Bell Rings, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, until September 5
SAMUEL Beckett’s First Love has left the bench for good. Children’s show Teddy Bears’ Picnic, starring Cassie Vallance, resumes daytime residence from today. From this week, the premiere of Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston’s lockdown monologue Every Time A Bell Rings occupies the same bench on evenings until September 5.
Performed by Slung Low and Northern Broadsides regular Lisa Howard and directed by Tom Bellerby on his return to York from London, Aston’s 50-minute play is set in Lockdown on Easter Sunday 2020, when isolated, grief-stricken Cathy searches for solace on her favourite park bench in her favourite park in this funny and poignant look at how the world is changing through these extraordinary times.
Tickets for performances in the Covid-secure Friends Garden must be bought in advance at parkbenchtheatre.com or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Bring picnics, blankets and headphones to tune in to shows delivered on receivers.
Deckchairs will be provided: Pop-Up On The Patio, week three at York Theatre Royal, August 28 and 29
YORK Theatre Royal’s Covid-secure summer festival of outdoor performances on Hannah Sibai’s terrace stage climaxes with five more shows, three tomorrow, two on Saturday.
First up, tomorrow at 4pm, is York company Cosmic Collective Theatre’s cult show Heaven’s Gate, an intergalactic pitch-black comedy starring satirical writer Joe Feeney, Anna Soden, Lewes Roberts and Kate Cresswell as they imagine the final hour of four fictionalised members of a real-life UFO-theistic group.
York performance poet Henry Raby puts the word into sword to slice up the past decade in Apps & Austerity at 6.30pm; Say Owt, the York outlet for slam poets, word-weavers and “gobheads”, follows at 8pm. On Saturday, York magician, juggler and children’s entertainer Josh Benson is unstoppable in Just Josh at 1pm before York pop, soul and blues singer Jess Gardham closes up the patio at 4pm.
York exhibition of the week and beyond: Jo Walton, Paintings and Rust Prints, Pyramid Gallery, Stonegate, York, until September 30
YORK artist Jo Walton uses rust and rusted metal sheet in innovative ways to create her artworks. Iron filings are applied as ‘paint’ and as they rust, reactions occur, resulting in every painting being unique and unrepeatable.
“Jo’s work is abstract, inspired by horizons,” says Pyramid Gallery owner Terry Brett. “Her work features enhanced rust-prints on plaster surfaces, combinations of rusted sheet metal with oil painting and painting seascapes on gold-metal leaf.”
First blockbuster of the summer…at last: Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, at York cinemas
THE wait is over. This summer has been more blankbuster than blockbuster, thanks to the stultifying impact of the Covid lockdown and the big film companies’ reluctance to take a chance on a major release in the slow-burn, socially distanced reopening of cinemas.
Step forward Christopher Nolan, director of Memento, Inception, three Dark Knight/Batman movies and Dunkirk to grasp the nettle by releasing the 151-minute psychological thriller/action movie Tenet.
John David Washington (yes, Denzel’s son), Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh ride a rollercoaster plot that follows a secret agent who must manipulate time in order to prevent the Third World War. Apparently, Tenet is a “film to feel, not necessarily understand”, like a Scarborough fairground ride, then.
Double bills galore outside a church: Songs Under Skies, National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York, between September 2 and 17
SONGS Under Skies will bring together the National Centre for Early Music, The Crescent, The Fulford Arms and the Music Venues Alliance for an open-air series of acoustic concerts next month in York.
Dates for the diary are: September 2, Amy May Ellis and Luke Saxton; September 3, Dan Webster and Bella Gaffney; September 9, Kitty VR and Boss Caine; September 10, Wolf Solent and Rosalind; September 16, Polly Bolton and Henry Parker; September 17, Elkyn and Fawn.
Gates will open at the NCEM’s Walmgate home, St Margaret’s Church, at 6.30pm for each 7pm start; acts will perform either side of a 30-minute interval with a finishing time of 8.30pm.
And what about…
Discovering The Waterboys’ new album, Good Luck, Seeker, Mike Scott’s latest soulful blast, met with universal thumbs-up reviews. Or bunking down with 1981 Ashes-winning captain turned psychoanalyst Mike Brearley’s new book for the end of summer, Spirit Of Cricket.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
…“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.
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.
LISA Howard will be spending the weeks ahead performing in the Friends Garden in Rowntree Park, York, but she has been no stranger to the world of gardens in lockdown.
“I went ‘allotmenting’, growing stuff and trying to feed the world from my allotment,” says Lisa, who will be playing Cathy in the Park Bench Theatre premiere of Matt Aston’s Every Time A Bell Rings from August 26 to September 5.
“I was imagining the worst, that there would be no fresh food in the shops. I wanted to provide my own food. I had already started hoarding last year because of the fear of Brexit. I’d already gathered toilet rolls. I got a bit paranoid.
“I didn’t do what a lot of actors did and make a sound studio or practise getting on to Zoom. I thought I’d never work again. I did get a bit down about it, so I buried myself with getting mucky hands in the allotment. Something that felt real and connected to the earth.”
In The Park Bench Theatre season that begins with Wakefield Theatre Royal pantomime dame Chris Hannon performing Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s short story First Love from Wednesday, Lisa will play a woman seeking solace as she emerges from isolation in lockdown on Easter Sunday 2020.
As Cathy sits on her favourite park bench in her favourite park, she reflects on her situation: a scenario that chimes with our Covid times in a play prompted by writer – and Park Bench Theatre artistic director – Matt Aston doing likewise on his regular exercise routine in Rowntree Park during lockdown.
Not that Lisa was aware of the script – a 45-minute monologue that takes a touching, humorous and poignant look at how the world is changing through the extraordinary circumstances of 2020 – before taking on the part. Asked to play the role by director Tom Bellerby, she agreed to do so without reading the script first. “Later that afternoon I did read it and was glad I’d said ‘yes’,” she says.
She has worked with Tom previously, firstly when he was a member of York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre. He was in the cast of artistic director Damian Cruden’s 2005 production of Macbeth, wherein Lisa played one of the three Witches, and later he was associate director for the Pilot Theatre/Slung Low/York Theatre Royal promenade production of Blood + Chocolate in York in 2013.
“Every Time A Bell Rings is an inner monologue about a woman who is out of isolation after 14 days of not going anywhere or seeing anybody. Basically, it’s the story of her life. She’s a woman in her fifties who’s had a life full of ups and downs,” says Lisa.
“I’ve done my fair share of new writing. I enjoy creating characters and working through stuff that’s fresh and people haven’t seen before. It’s good to be working on something that’s so ground-breaking about a situation that none of us have experienced before.”
She is no newcomer to outdoor theatre or site-specific productions, especially for Alan Lane’s Leeds company Slung Low whose “sense of adventure” she so admires, typified by the epic promenade production of Blood + Chocolate, where the audience listened on headsets as they followed the cast around the centre of York and out to Clifford’s Tower. Blood and Chocolate was an epic promenade production around the city
Last year, Lisa appeared in Twelfth Night, The Borrowers and Henry V in Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, in Chester, but she is new to Rowntree Park, despite having worked and stayed in York many times.
She has only one worry. “I hope I don’t fidget too much sitting in one place on a park bench for a long time. I might have a cushion sewn into my trousers,” she says.
Her most recent appearances in York came at the Theatre Royal in Sabrina Mahfouz’s stage adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s novel Noughts And Crosses for Pilot Theatre in the main house in April 2019 and Joyce Branagh’s comedy bus-trip Ladies That Bus in the Studio in February this year before the world as we knew it was stopped in its tracks.
“Luckily we finished the tour of Ladies That Bus before lockdown happened. We were in our own little bubble on a rural tour with no concept of what was happening,” says Lisa.
“We mentioned it once when we were washing our hands and singing Happy Birthday. The tour ended and lockdown happened.”
As well as more acting, she would love to see the return of Lula And The BeBops, dormant for far too long. “It feels like we’ve been scuppered at every turn,” says Lisa, the band’s lead singer. “The last gig we did was a couple of years ago. We’ve haven’t done anything recently mainly because I’ve been working away a lot with different tours.
“I’m desperate for us to get back together again. It’s wanting to perform with other people in groups. It’s great to be part of a band.”
Engine House Theatre present Matt Aston’s Every Time A Bell Rings, at Park Bench Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, August 26 to September 5, 7pm; August 29 and September 5, 4pm matinees. Running time: 45 minutes. Please note: contains very strong language.
The Friends Gardenis 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.
You are encouraged to bring blankets if booking for the first few rows or chairs for the back few rows.