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: 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

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.