REVIEW: The Park Keeper, Park Bench Theatre, Rowntree Park, York

Whistle blower: Sean McKenzie as James ‘Parky’ Bell in Mike Kenny’s The Park Keeper. All pictures: Northedge Photography

The Park Keeper, Park Bench Theatre, The Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, until July 17. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

MIKE Kenny has been thinking about retirement but has no thoughts of retiring.

The prolific York playwright has turned 70, and only the other day, as he crossed Millennium Bridge, a teenager chirped up: “You won’t be here in ten years, mush”. Kenny was not offended, instead smiling at what he thought was probably a fair point after a life lived to the full in the allotted span of three score years and ten.

As a writer, save for a sudden shortage of commissions, inspiration or writer’s block, the conventional clocking off with a watch does not apply, but whatever hand is dealt, Kenny nevertheless has been contemplating the impact of retirement.

His landmark birthday has its played, but it is as much to do with the subject matter of his latest commission from Matt Aston, artistic director of Engine House Theatre and director of Park Bench Theatre, the York company Aston set up last summer after the first lockdown to stage three monologues in the socially distanced Friends Garden.

Now, after lockdown three, Park Bench Theatre returns with The Park Keeper to mark Rowntree Park’s centenary with the story of its first park keeper, James ‘Parky’ Bell, who was in charge from 1921 to 1945.

When the cap still fits, but time is up: Sean McKenzie’s ‘Parky’ Bell contemplates a future after being “kicked out of paradise”

July 16 was his retirement day, and as the 55-minute monologue opens, Sean McKenzie’s immaculately dressed and well-groomed Bell is preparing his retirement speech, breaking down theatre’s fourth wall to ask us if he can try it out on us.

At the same time, Bell has his beady eye on the park, quick to blow his famous shrill whistle when he spots a miscreant. “I know where you live,” he shouts. “I don’t,” he admits to the audience.

Where Kenny has a choice whether to retire or not but won’t because the creative juices still flow so zestfully, Bell has no such choice and does not feel ready to concentrate on gardening or whatever.  

Like so many men, he is defined by his job; his validation, even if the physical strength is not what it once was. “I can’t do as much as I once did,” he concedes. Retirement? “I don’t know how to stop. What will I do,” he asks, forlornly. “If I’m not ‘Parky’, who am I? What am I.”

All this is supposition because Kenny has worked from skeletal information. What is known is that Bell and his family did live in the lodge that now houses the Reading Room café; the blast of the Bell whistle was feared by all; he did make a retirement speech.

Bench duty: York playwright Mike Kenny, commissioned to write the play marking the 100th anniversary of Rowntree Park

Kenny fleshes out the story to make Bell a Rowntree cocoa factory worker, a survivor of the First World War (unlike his best friend) and what ensues is a study of the futility and terrible impact of war; the senseless death of so many young men; father-and-son relationships; the value of recreation and public play areas for the ordinary man, woman and child; the denuding effect of retirement.

This is the “what’s it all been for?” moment of reflection for a man who has no faith in religion, for whom hope has been hollowed about by the experience of a war that left him angry at everything and everybody; for whom heaven is empty.

“We all came back with stories. We just couldn’t tell them,” says Bell. That said, in the absence of faith, he found purpose, subsequently loving his work in his “back garden”, Rowntree Park, calling it a “miracle”, where 54,000 plants and trees were planted by the Rowntree family and the park life made him well again.

All the while, The Park Keeper becomes as much a story of Mike Kenny as James ‘Parky’ Bell, who keeps rising from his park bench note-making, still on duty to the last, but suddenly in the grip of a memory, something that troubles, angers or baffles him, and troubles the playwright too. 

Consequently, it is both the most personal piece Kenny has ever written and yet a tribute to a stoical, staunch, hard-working pillar of a bygone time, when as many as 12 gardeners worked at Rowntree Park.

Taking his last stand: Sean McKenzie’s ‘Parky’ Bell in the Friends Garden at Rowntree Park, York.

Kenny’s authorial voice is strong – typified by his townie quip that “in the country[side], everywhere belongs to someone” – but Sean McKenzie’s rounded performance makes Bell’s voice equally strong and opinionated under Aston’s well-balanced direction. “First of all they take all your time, then you get a watch, so you can see all your seconds tick away,” Bell says of his retirement gift. 

McKenzie’s eyes say it all in a performance where he finds the poetry, the profundity, but also the guiding principles of the working man.

Kenny makes reference to cheeky lads calling Bell a “jumped-up  caretaker”, but he has Bell saying, “If we take care of it, it will take care of us”, a message for our times when climate change threatens our future as much as war ever did.

Bell hopes for a fairer world, wishing that something can be done to make this world right. Clearly, Kenny has the same wish. “I’m about to get kicked out of paradise,” bemoans Bell. “On with the future. Cheers,” his speech concludes, but with all the uncertainty whether peace will last after the handshakes in Romeo & Juliet.

Kenny has placed us in the last chance saloon, but who will blow ‘Parky’ Bell’s whistle to stop the pattern of bad behaviour?  

Sean McKenzie unlocks the key to the heart of ‘Parky’ Bell, the Rowntree Park keeper

Sean McKenzie on a Rowntree Park park bench in the lead-up to The Park Keeper opening. The beard has since gone! Picture: Northedge Photography

SEAN McKenzie hasn’t had a job for 18 months. An acting job, that is.

“I have been working, at Thorntons, at their Alfreton factory in Derbyshire, just off the M1,” said Sean, whose lockdown-enforced break from the boards has come to an end in York, the most famous home of chocolate of all, in the role of Rowntree worker ‘Parky’ Bell in The Park Keeper.

“I’ve been learning how to ice at Thorntons; I became one of their main ‘icers’, so if anyone has had any icing from Thorntons in the past year and a half, chances are it’s been my icing. Either me or Paul, the only other bloke doing the icing.”

The cherry on the icing on Sean’s cake is that he has returned to performing at last in York playwright Mike Kenny’s 55-minute monologue about Rowntree Park’s first park keeper, the shrill whistle-blowing James ‘Parky’ Bell, running until July 17 in the Friends Garden at the York park.

“Before this, I was last on stage playing Widow Twankey for Theatr Clwyd, with Hannah Chissick directing, who I’ve done five or six pantomimes for now,” said Sean, still sporting a lockdown beard in rehearsals as he met CharlesHutchPress in the Reading Café at Rowntree Park, beneath the very lodge where ‘Parky’ Bell and his family lived during his 24 tenure as park keeper from 1921 to 1945.

“I won’t lie, it’s scary. If nothing else, I’m honest,” said Sean, as he faced brushing off the ring rust from being out of action for 18 months. “But I’ll say this, and I know every actor says it, when doing a new piece, but it’s a beautiful piece of writing by Mike, based on the real character of James ‘Parky’ Bell.

“Bell’s story is intertwined with Mike’s own story, and there’s so much in there drawn from Mike’s life now and his past relationship with his father, and the big thing in the play is wrestling with all these things: life, death; nature; religion.

“Hopefully, it’s funny in parts, but it’s also really heartwarming, reflective and very poignant. That means, for me, as an actor, it’s an absolute gift and I just hope can deliver the gift.”

“Getting the job as the park keeper, after everything he’d been through, was ‘Parky’ Bell’s paradise on Earth,” says Sean McKenzie

Analysing ‘Parky’ Bell’s character, as depicted by Kenny, Sean said: “He’s obviously very old school; he fought in the First World War; became a corporal, and survived the war, but what suddenly occurred to me when reading Mike’s play was that though Bell survived and came home, can you imagine what he saw in those four years?

“He had all that stuff on his shoulders, but eventually getting the job as the park keeper, after everything he’d been through, was his paradise on Earth, and in a way, he was ‘God’ there: ruling the roost, stopping trouble, stopping the littering.

“He was a strict man, a disciplinarian, who couldn’t talk about what he’d seen in wartime – ‘if you haven’t been through it, you can’t understand it, so what’s the point of telling you?’, he says at one point – but he had found his paradise, though now he’s being asked to leave it after 24 years.

“So there are elements of Prospero in The Tempest, having to let go of the magic, because being the park keeper is his identity.”

Sean has taken on such roles as sleazebag talent agent Ray Say in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre and Leeds playwright Alan Bennett in Bennett’s Lady In The Van for Hull Truck Theatre.

He has handled lines aplenty in myriad comedy roles in the National Theatre’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime, as Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Jim Cartwright’s two-hander Two at Derby Theatre and a long stint in War Horse at the National Theatre and British, Irish and South African tours.

The Park Keeper is, however, his first monologue. “It’s my first play for 18 months, and I’m flying solo. It feels like being Chris Bonnington or Donald Campbell,” he said. “I’ve gone from Two to one! I know an hour ‘on stage’ on your own doesn’t sound a lot, but it is!

“I got a call on the Friday from my agent, saying ‘they want you to read on Monday’, so I had two days to read it before my chat with Matt [Matt Aston, director of producers Engine House Theatre and director of Park Bench Theatre].

Unlocking a character: Actor Sean McKenzie during the rehearsal period for playing James ‘Parky’ Bell in The Park Keeper at Rowntree Park, York. Picture: Northedge Photography

“I’m offered the part and that’s when the adrenaline kicks in and you think, ‘Can I do this?’. There’s a niggling voice going, ‘Can you still do this?’, but once I made the decision that yes, I could, it was a massive weight off my shoulders.”

That still left Sean with a massive pile of words to learn. “Before starting rehearsals, I did five 12-hour days to learn the script, when normally you’d have more like five weeks. So, between line learning and rehearsals, I’m doing everything in 18 days, rather than eight weeks,” said Sean, who brought a bench indoors to help him “get into character” at his village home in Heage, near Belper, in Derbyshire’s Amber Valley. “I called it my ‘Judi bench’, as I love Dame Judi Dench!”

The first week of rehearsals with Matt Aston were conducted on Zoom, focusing on the text, before the two met up in the second week in an impromptu rehearsal room at Southlands Methodist Church, and then transferring to the Friends Garden for final preparations on a park bench.

“Rather than just being a monologue, you have to try to flesh out the characters that ‘Parky’ Bell talks about,” said Sean. “There’s so much in this play, and the language he uses is not how we’d speak today; sometimes sentences would even be the other way round to now! That’s how precise Mike Kenny is.

“This is my first Mike Kenny script, and when you think what a great writer he is, how could I say ‘No’ to such a beautiful piece, with lots of comedy, lots of pathos. I really hope that after lockdown everyone will come out and enjoy it, as we do what we’ve always done, tell stories, like the ancient Greeks did, by the fire. Or in this case, the audiences bringing their own ‘fire’ in the form of Prosecco!”

Sean is “just the other side of 50 now” with a career in performing stretching back to the age of 11, raised in Blackpool, the son of Henry (“Harry”) Joseph Patrick McKenzie, the “Golden Voice Of Ireland”, who himself used the stage name of Sean McKenzie.

“I used to go and see all the Blackpool shows, all the great singers, the variety acts and the great comics, Doddy, Les Dawson and Frank Carson,” said Sean. “My dad was one of seven, I was one of four, and though I came from a singing family – my dad first sang in the group The Gale Brothers – I never wanted to be a singer; I always wanted to be an actor.

“I loved Buster Keaton, Abbott and Costello, Harold Lloyd, The Three Stooges, Will Hay and my particular favourites, Laurel and Hardy. That’s where I learnt about timing. You’ve got to have funny bones; you can’t teach timing, but I did learn it to an extent by watching.”

Laurel & Hardy: Sean McKenzie’s favourite comedy act

Sean trained at RADA but, as this interview encounter over a late lunch revealed, he is naturally humorous company. “Believe it or not, I am shy, and I know it’s a cliché, but there’s something about becoming another self on stage, and after 18 months of doing no acting, this has been a right baptism of fire,” he said.

Shy? That leaves Sean once he is on stage, when all that performing energy surges through him. “I think why I’ve survived for so long in this business is that people can rely on me. I will never sell an audience short,” he said. “Whatever I play, they always ‘get me’, even as the dame!”

He and Matt Aston have long wanted to do a show together. “About 15 years ago, I first came to him with an idea after seeing Tom Courtenay in Moscow Stations in the West End, to see if he would do it at the Nottingham Lakeside, when he was there,” recalled Sean.

“It didn’t happen but we’ve remained in contact and he came to see me playing Toad in The Wind Of The Willows. Now we’re doing The Park Keeper together.”

Did you know?

Sean McKenzie played opposite Berwick Kaler’s dame when they starred as the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella at York Theatre Royal in 1995-1996.

“He asked me to do it after we worked on a film together,” said Swan, who will be “frocking up” again this winter as dame in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at Stafford Gatehouse Theatre.

“I don’t wear any false eyelashes. Just a bit of red cheeks, a bit of red nose and a bit of mascara to open the eyes.”

Park Bench Theatre in The Park Keeper, The Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, until July 17. Box office: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on 01904 623568.

When the Rowntree Park keeper whistled and everyone jumped to attention…

Actor Sean McKenzie at the gates to Rowntree Park, where he will perform Mike Kenny’s monologue The Park Keeper in the Friends’ Garden from July 7 to 17. Picture: Northedge Photography

THE 100th birthday of Rowntree Park, York, will fall on July 16, the penultimate night of Park Bench Theatre’s premiere of The Park Keeper, marking that centenary.

Commissioned from York playwright Mike Kenny by director Matt Aston, the 55-minute monologue will be performed by Sean McKenzie in the Friends’ Garden, the setting for three Park Bench solo plays as the first theatre rainbow across last summer’s skies after the initial release from lockdown.

“I’m delighted that Park Bench Theatre is returning to Rowntree Park in its 100th birthday year,” says Matt, artistic director of Engine House Theatre. “Mike has written a beautiful script that I’m sure will capture the hearts of everyone who has ever been to and loved the park over the years, as well as anyone who might be enjoying their first visit.”

Running from July 7 to 17 with social distancing measures in place, The Park Keeper is set in York in the summer of 1945 when Rowntree Park’s first park keeper, ‘Parky’ Bell, is about to retire after 24 years in post, 24 years with a piercing whistle in mouth.

He must make a speech, but what can he say and how can he close this chapter on his life? Will he be able to lock the gates to his kingdom one last time?

“Inspired by York’s very own ‘Parky’ Bell, this is a heartfelt and poignant one-man show that celebrates 100 years of Rowntree Park while also asking the question, ‘what happens when we’re not needed anymore?’.”

Park Bench Theatre director Matt Aston on a park bench in the Friends’ Garden, Rowntree Park

‘Parky’ Bell, who lived in the Rowntree Park lodge that now houses Explore York’s Reading Café,  took on his post when Messrs Rowntree & Co gifted Rowntree Park to the City of York as a memorial to the cocoa works staff who fell and suffered during the First World War.

“The story is inspired by ‘Parky’ Bell rather than entirely biographical, but the stories about him are legion: the park keeper with his shrill whistle to bring children to attention and kick everyone out by 6pm,” says Matt.

“He was the only ever park keeper at Rowntree Park and he was in post for the years between the wars. What must he have thought when were back at war after only 21 years? We’re getting things wrong now, but they were getting things terribly wring then, not learning lessons in their lifetime, when so many young men had been killed in the Great War.”

Such questions, taking in the value of life, reflections on a life lived, mark out The Park Keeper as Aston and Kenny renew their fruitful partnership. “I’ve worked with Mike five times on new works for children and families – Red Riding Hood, Two Little Boys, Flat Stanley, Beauty And The Beast and Snow White – but this is different and it’s pretty much the best thing he’s done,” says Matt.

He is delighted too to be working with Sean McKenzie, rehearsing on Zoom for the first week and then at Southlands Methodist Church this week.

“I’ve known Sean for years though we’ve never worked together until now. We met a few people for the job and he just read beautifully,” he says.

“In ‘Parky’ Bell’s character, there’s an undercurrent of not wanting to move on, but there’s also that bustling nature that park keepers have to have, yet you have to empathise with him, and Sean really captures that. I’ve wanted to work with him for ages and I’m really pleased that we now are.”

The Park Keeper director Matt Aston, left, actor Sean McKenzie and writer Mike Kenny in Rowntree Park, York

Matt believes the rehearsal process works well too. “With the play being a monologue, it’s good to start by concentrating on text on Zoom before getting it on its feet in week two in the rehearsal room and then in the park,” he says.

The director had contemplated not doing another Park Bench Theatre production this summer, content with the audience response to Samuel Beckett’s First Love, his own lockdown work, Every Time A Bell Rings, and a new adaptation of Teddy Bears’ Picnic, co-created by Aston and actor Cassie Vallance. 

“Last summer went so well; I’ll never forget that emotional feeling when everyone clapped together again for the first time because none of us had done anything together for so long,” he says.

“But then I started thinking, ‘it’s the park’s 100th birthday this year, we really should do something. That’s when I spoke to Mike, who lives only five minutes’ walk from the park, and straightaway his eyes had that glint, saying ‘this one’s for me’.

“He wrote it so quickly, it was astonishing:  like songwriters saying the best songs are written in five minutes!  He’s turned 70 and, like ‘Parky’ Bell, he’s faced thoughts of retirement, but he’s desperate not to do that, and so everything aligned for him to do this play.”

Park Bench Theatre in The Park Keeper, The Friends’ Garden, Rowntree Park, York, July 7 to 17, except July 11; 7.30pm start, bar the July 7 preview at 6pm. Age guidance: 12 plus. Box office: 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or via parkbenhtheatre.com.

Copyright of The Press, York

More Things To Do in and around York as ‘Byrne out’ strikes tonight’s comedy gig. List No. 39, courtesy of The Press, York

Shock of the new: Milton Jones looks startled at the prospect of replacing Ed Byrne at short notice for tonight’s comedy bill at York Theatre Royal

AWAY from all that football, Charles Hutchinson finds plenty of cause for cheer beyond chasing an inflated pig’s bladder, from a late-change comedy bill to Ayckbourn on film, York artists to a park bench premiere.

Late substitution of the week: Byrne out, Jones in, for Live At The Theatre Royal comedy night, York Theatre Royal, tonight, 7.30pm

ED Byrne will not top the Live At The Theatre Royal comedy bill tonight after all. “We are sorry to announce that due to circumstances beyond our control, Ed is now unable to appear,” says the official statement.

The whimsical Irish comedian subsequently has tweeted his “You Need To Self-Isolate” notification, running until 23.59pm on July 7.

Well equipped to take over at short notice is the quip-witted pun-slinger Milton Jones, joining Rhys James, Maisie Adam and host Arthur Smith. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Naomi Petersen and Bill Champion in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door at the SJT and now on film too. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“Film of the week”: Alan Ayckburn’s The Girl Next Door, from Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until Sunday

THE SJT’s film of Alan Ayckbourn’s latest premiere, The Girl Next Door, is available on the Scarborough theatre’s website, sjt.uk.com.

Directed by Ayckbourn, his 85th play can be seen on stage in The Round until Saturday and now in a filmed recording in front of a live audience until midnight on Sunday.

One day in 2020 lockdown, veteran actor Rob spots a stranger hanging out the washing in the adjoining garden, but his neighbours have not been around for months. Who is the mysterious girl next door? And why is she wearing 1940s’ clothing?

Ray of sunshine: Edwin Ray as Tick/Mitzi in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert at Leeds Grand Theatre. Picture: Darren Bell

Musical of the week ahead: Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, Leeds Grand Theatre, July 6 to 10

PRISCILLA Queen Of The Desert returns to Leeds for seven socially distanced performances in a new production produced by Mark Goucher and, for the first time, Jason Donovan, star of the original West End show and two UK tours.

Loaded up with glorious costumes, fabulous feathers and dance-floor classics, three friends hop aboard a battered old bus bound for Alice Springs to put on the show of a lifetime.

Miles Western plays Bernadette, Nick Hayes, Adam/Felicia and Edwin Ray, Tick/Mitzi, in this heart-warming story of self-discovery, sassiness and acceptance. Box office: 0113 243 0808 or at leedsgrandtheatre.com.

Solo show: Polymath Phil Grainger puts his songwriting in the spotlight in his Clive concert in Stillington

Gig of the week outside York: Clive, alias Phil Grainger, At The Mill, Stillington, near York, tomorrow, 7.30pm

CLIVE is the solo music project of Easingwold singer, songwriter, musician, sound engineer, magician, actor, Gobbledigook Theatre director and event promoter Phil Grainger.

As the voice and the soul behind Orpheus, Eurydice and The Gods The Gods The Gods, Clive finds the globe-trotting Grainger back home, turning his hand to a song-writing project marked by soaring vocal and soulful musicianship. Expect a magical evening wending through new work and old classics in two sets, one acoustic, the other electric. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill/512182.

Emily Hansen’s Pilgrim 14 as Mary Magdalene in a rehearsal for A Resurrection For York at Dean’s Park. Picture: John Saunders

Open-air theatre event of the weekend: A Resurrection For York, Residents Garden, Minster Library, Dean’s Park, York, Saturday and Sunday, 11am, 2pm, 4pm

THE wagons are in place for A Resurrection For York, presented by York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, York Festival Trust and York Minster.

Philip Parr, artistic director of Parrabbola, directs a community cast in an hour-long outdoor performance, scripted by Parr and 2018 York Mystery Plays director Tom Straszewski from the York Mystery Plays cycle of the crucifixion and the events that followed. Tickets are on sale at ticketsource.co.uk/whats-on/york/residents-garden-deans-park/a-resurrection-for-york/.

Autonomous, by Sharon McDonagh, from the Momentum Summer Show at Blossom Street Gallery, York

Exhibition of the week and beyond: Momentum Summer Show, Westside Artists, Blossom Street Gallery, by Micklegate Bar, York, until September 26

YORK art group Westside Artists, a coterie of artists from the city’s Holgate and West areas, are exhibiting paintings, portraits, photomontage, photography, metalwork, textiles, ceramics and mixed-media art at Blossom Street Gallery.

Taking part are Adele Karmazyn; Carolyn Coles; Donna Maria Taylor; Ealish Wilson; Fran Brammer; Jane Dignum; Jill Tattersall; Kate Akrill and Lucy McElroy. So too are Lucie Wake; Marc Godfrey-Murphy; Mark Druery; Michelle Hughes; Rich Rhodes; Robin Grover-Jaques, Sharon McDonagh and Simon Palmour.

The Park Keeper director Matt Aston, left, actor Sean McKenzie and writer Mike Kenny at Rowntree Park, York. Picture: Northedge Photography

Theatre premiere of the week ahead: Park Bench Theatre in The Park Keeper, The Friends’ Garden, Rowntree Park, York, July 7 to 17 (except July 11)

AFTER last summer’s trilogy of solo shows, Matt Aston’s Park Bench Theatre return to Rowntree Park with Olivier Award-winning York writer Mike Kenny’s new monologue to mark the park’s centenary.

Performed by Sean McKenzie, The Park Keeper is set in York in the summer of 1945, when Rowntree Park’s first, and so far only, park keeper, ‘Parky’ Bell, is about to retire. That can mean only one thing, a speech, but what can he say? How can he close this chapter on his life? Will he be able to lock the gates to his kingdom one last time? Box office: 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or via parkbenchtheatre.com.

Andy Fairweather Low: Booked into Pocklington Arts Centre for next February

Gig announcement of the week outside York: Andy Fairweather Low, Pocklington Arts Centre, February 11 2022

ANDY Fairweather Low, the veteran Welsh guitarist, songwriter, vocalist and producer, will return to Pocklington next February.

Founder and cornerstone of Sixties’ hitmakers Amen Corner and later part of Eric Clapton and Roger Waters’ bands, Cardiff-born Fairweather Low, 72, will perform with The Low Riders: drummer Paul Beavis, bassist Dave Bronze and saxophonist Nick Pentelow. Box office: pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Jane McDonald: Lighting up York Barbican in July 2022 rather than July 4 this summer

Rearranged gig announcement of the week in York: Jane McDonald, York Barbican, July 22 2022

WAKEFIELD cabaret singer and television personality Jane McDonald’s Let The Light In show is on the move to next summer.

For so long booked in as the chance to “Get The Lights Back On” at York Barbican on July 4, the Government’s postponement of “Freedom Day” from June 21 to July 19 at the earliest has enforced the date change for a show first booked in for 2020. Tickets remain valid; box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Wish Upon A Frozen Star outdoor spectacle at Castle Howard frozen out by Covid

Cancelled: Wish Upon A Frozen Star at Castle Howard

WISH Upon A Frozen Star, this season’s illuminated Castle Howard Christmas event, has been cancelled “with great sadness”.

In response to the Government enforcing national Lockdown 2 from today until December 2, the senior team at the North Yorkshire country house has “spent a lot of time trying to find ways to make the light show event work”.

“However, the conclusion is that it is not logistically or financially viable to try to delay the get-in period and the opening of the event,” reads today’s official statement.

Wish Upon A Frozen Star would have combined a light-trail walk through the Walled Gardens, a performance of a 20-minute theatre piece by York playwright Mike Kenny, presented by Leeds children’s theatre company Tutti Frutti, and a light show projected onto the façade of the John Vanbrugh-designed late-17th century house by projection designer Ross Ashton’s company The Projection Studio, experts in delivering magical illuminated outdoor events.

When Wish Upon A Frozen Star was first announced, Ross said: “Castle Howard is a jewel of British architecture and a beautiful and inspiring place to work. I believe that this will be the largest projection mapping at any illuminated garden this year; the house alone will be covered with over eight million pixels.

“Creating the light trail and the projection in this year especially has been a challenge and we salute Castle Howard for having the vision to create something new.”

Billed as a “festive outdoor spectacle like no other”, the hour-long Christmas event would have run from November 27 to December 31, replacing the usual themed spectacular Christmas decoration tour through the house.

Playwright Mike Kenny

Castle Howard’s website says: “All bookers will be contacted by See Tickets to organise refunds and we thank you for your support and understand there will be many disappointed people.

“We are extremely disappointed ourselves not to be able to make this new magical event happen this year, but the safety of our staff, our visitors and the financial stability of the organisation have to take priority to ensure we can come back next year with another Christmas event that will once again surprise and delight our visitors.

“We’d like to say a huge thanks to our creative partners on these events, who have worked so hard alongside Castle Howard to explore every option during the past few months and particularly given the lockdown news we received at the weekend.”

What will Wish Upon A Frozen Star ticket holders now be missing? Picture the scene: Jack Frost has cast an icy spell, turning the Castle Howard Walled Gardens into a beautiful winter wonderland.

As twilight falls, you would journey through this enchanted world lit up by festive illuminations and immersive soundscapes. The only way to thaw the frosty spell and bring good cheer back in time for Christmas is to make a wish under Yorkshire’s starry skies and step out into a golden landscape of warmth, joy and wonder.

Your journey would climax with an epic story, projected as a light show by Sheffield-born Ross Ashton, who created the Northern Lights installation for York Minster in June 2018 and October 2019.

Working in tandem with audio artist and designer Karen Monid, whose layers of sounds enrich the sensory experience, he also has lit up the exterior of Buckingham Palace and Durham Cathedral and provided lighting extravaganzas for the 2012 London Olympics and the Edinburgh Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle.

Tutti Frutti and writer Mike Kenny had been working with the creative lighting and sound team to bring to life the characters to be discovered as you adventure through the light trail.

The Projection Studio’s design for Wish Upon A Frozen Star on the Castle Howard facade. Picture: The Projection Studio

On your journey though Jack Frost’s frozen kingdom you would meet the live action animals who have fallen foul of the icy spell and would need you to wish for Christmas and warmth to return to their world.

The animal characters would interact with audiences on the walk through the Walled Gardens, in a socially distanced way, both keeping the flow of visitors moving and telling magical and humorous stories along the way. Olivier Award-winning Kenny was writing the live-action material to be performed by a cast of five, directed by Tutti Frutti artistic director Wendy Harris, with costumes designed by Catherine Chapman.

For the light show event, timed ticketing, limited capacity and careful management of the socially distanced visitor flow of parties of up to six to the large South Front lawn would have been the Covid-safe measures.

Mike Kenny says: “It all started with the visual idea for the big lighting show and we came on board later when Abbi [Castle Howard head of marketing Abbigail Ollive], with her theatre background, suggested adding actors and a narrative.”

He came up with a story rooted in Christmas in the shadow of Covid. “Jack Frost has frozen the gardens, so there’ll be no Christmas and Father Christmas is being kept out. Only a battle between Father Christmas and Jack Frost can resolve this.”

The conundrum faced by Mike was the need to keep the drama as well as the audience on the move, “rather than being rooted to the spot or creating a log jam”. “In the gardens, the actors would not be in touch with each other, not close enough to communicate, so the stories wouldn’t have too much narrative because it wouldn’t matter if the audience members didn’t catch everything when they were constantly on the move,” he says.

Mike would have worked further on the script in situ, discovering what would and would not have been possible, but he had settled on the story featuring animals that would have been most affected by a frozen winter.

“I learnt that in that situation, animals either migrate, hibernate or store food,” he says. “We chose animals you would find in the Castle Howard gardens, without going the full Enid Blyton on it, and we gave them human personas connected with the house.

Northern Lights at York Minster. Picture: The Projection Studio

“The Robin had the character of a steward or butler, greeting audience members as they went into the gardens. The Squirrel was the gardener; the Hedgehog, the housekeeper; the Peacock, the Lady’s maid, with a Cinderella vibe to her, dressing in her mistress’s posh clothes, and the Rabbit, the scullery maid.”

Mike does not hide his disappointment at Wish Upon A Frozen Star not going ahead. “To have pulled something out of the hat for Christmas was great, and we were all really fired up for doing a show,” he says. “The whole Covid situation has sapped the energy of the creative industries, but this Christmas event would have looked amazing.

“The Castle Howard architecture has its own theatricality, which was such a gift for us. You can tell that someone with a sense of theatre had his hand in it [playwright turned architect John Vanbrugh]!”

No-go for Wish Upon A Frozen Star, but Castle Howard is continuing to plan for both Father Christmas in the House and the Courtyard Grotto from Friday, December 4.

“We have had to cancel Father Christmas performances in the House from November 28 to December 3 due to lockdown restrictions,” the Castle Howard statement reads. “See Tickets will be in touch with bookers to offer refunds on these performances or try to get you into a later show.

“It is our sincere hope that performances from December 4 will be allowed to continue. For people who booked Father Christmas tickets in conjunction with the light show, we will be contacting you directly to refund a proportion of your ticket. 

“If you would like to cancel your Father Christmas tickets – either Enchanted Audience with Father Christmas or the Storytime with Santa Grotto – because you cannot now come to the light show, then this is fine and you will be offered a refund. Please bear with us while we work through all bookers with our partners at See Tickets.”

Wish Upon A Frozen Star may have been frozen out by the ongoing Corona crisis, but Castle Howard’s website affirms the possibility of revisiting the collaboration: “We certainly hope, and intend, to continue the partnership with The Projection Studio, Tutti Frutti and our associated production teams on future events,” it says.

Good Godber! Stephen Joseph Theatre to re-start indoor live shows next month. Hull Truck Theatre to reopen too in November

Family drama: Playwright John Godber with wife Jane Thornton and daughters Martha and Elizabeth

LIVE indoor theatre will return on the East Coast this autumn at both Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre and Hull Truck Theatre.

Today, the SJT announces an “innovative autumn and winter season for 2020 that has been carefully crafted to combine live theatre for socially distanced audiences with digital work for those that prefer to stay at home”.

In the SJT’s headline news, the waiting for Godber’s new play is over. The world premiere of the ground-breaking former Hull Truck artistic director’s Sunny Side Up! will be a family affair, starring John Godber, his wife Jane Thornton and their daughter Martha Godber from October 28 to 31 in The Round.

Written and directed by Godber, the humorous and moving Sunny Side Up! depicts a struggling Yorkshire coast B&B and the people who run it. “Join proprietors Barney, Cath and Tina as they share their stories of awkward clients, snooty relatives and eggs over easy in this seaside rollercoaster that digs into what our ‘staycations’ are all about,” invites John.

Further news bongs go to a new audio recording by former SJT artistic director Sir Alan Ayckbourn and a one-woman Christmas show, likely to be one of the few in the region, specially rewritten to adapt to prevailing Covid-19 pandemic circumstances.

After the lockdown success of his debut audio play, Anno Domino, premiered by writer-director Ayckbourn and his wife, actor Heather Stoney, Ayckbourn goes solo for Haunting Julia, his ghostly 1994 play, wherein he will play all three parts. As before, his master’s voice can be heard only via the SJT website, sjt.uk.com, with the play being available online “throughout December”, although the exact dates are yet to be rubber-stamped.

Going solo: Sir Alan Ayckbourn will re-visit his 1994 ghostly play Haunting Julia in a solo audio recording in December

The SJT Christmas show, from December 4 to 30, reassembles the crack team behind the hit productions of the past four winters: director Paul Robinson, writer Nick Lane and musical director Simon Slater, the latter two both serving up shows earlier in the season too.

Adapted by Lane from the Hans Christian Andersen story, the solo version of The Snow Queen will be performed by Polly Lister, who played Mari in Jim Cartwright’s The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice and Di in Amelia Bullmore’s Di And Viv And Rose when part of the SJT’s 2017 summer repertory company.

Scarborough-born Slater, an SJT associate artist, will appear in Douglas Post’s one-man thriller Bloodshot from October 21 to 24 in The Round, where all productions will be mounted, save for the online performances.

Slater will play Derek Eveleigh, a photographer with a serious drinking problem, who pursues a mysterious female subject across 1957 London from racially troubled Notting Hill to the raucous entertainments of Soho.

Often comedic Nick Lane’s sardonic, surreal and “intensely autobiographical” first straight play, My Favourite Summer, was premiered at Hull Truck in January and February 2007. This autumn, the original cast and the belting Nineties’ soundtrack will return in the torrid tale of Dave, who spends a month working alongside a nutcase called Melvin in the summer job from hell in 1995. 

Winter chill: Polly Lister in the SJT’s one-woman Christmas show, The Snow Queen, written by Nick Lane

Saving money to take the girl he loves away on holiday, before she disappears out of his life forever, has never been so hard. Still, at least the weather’s nice in a comedy for “everyone who’s ever been in love and lived to tell the tale”.

Lane, whose adaptation of The Sign Of Four was well received by SJT audiences last year, will direct the semi-staged 2020 performance of My Favourite Summer in a run from November 12 to 14.

The autumn/winter season will begin on October 1 with a live performance on Zoom of Love Letters At Home. “In response to our desire for connection in times of physical distance, Uninvited Guests have created an innovative, digital, wholly personal and wonderfully live experience,” the SJT announces.

By collecting song requests and dedications from audience members, Uninvited Guests create a show guaranteed to be unique to each audience. Join them on Zoom to raise a glass to long lost and current loves, to mums and dads, and to absent friends.

Light entertainment: A switched-on Katie Arnstein in her one-woman show Sexy Lamp

“Have you ever been treated like an inanimate object?” asks Katie Arnstein in her solo show Sexy Lamp on October 15. Katie has suffered that slight, she says, although in reality she is a “friendly, lovable and hilarious real-life person”.

Join her as she re-lives, through story and songs, all the times she was not seen as one, however. Billed as “somewhere between the comedy of Victoria Wood, the comfort of going for a drink with your best mate and the high drama of Hamlet”, Arnstein’s show won both Show of the Week and Pleasance Pick at last year’s VAULT Festival in London. “It’s nothing like Hamlet,” she corrects herself.

In Alison Carr’s dark comedy, Dogwalker, on November 6 and 7, Helen finds a dead body in the local dog park, whereupon suddenly everyone is paying attention to her. At least for a little while.

Now she has had a taste of the limelight, Helen will not fade into the shadows without a fight in a play that first dropped through the SJT Open Script Submissions window and is being developed for a potential run at the Edinburgh Fringe under the direction of Chelsey Gillard, the SJT’s Carne Trust associate director.

Carr, by the way, had the disappointment of her sold-out performances of The Last Quiz Night In Earth in March being scrapped under the Coronavirus theatre shutdown.

On the beach: Serena Manteghi, in her guise as teenage single mum Yasmin in Build A Rocket. In November, she returns to the SJT. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

After writer Alexander Flanagan-Wright and musician Phil Grainger’s performances of linking shows Orpheus and Eurydice in the At The Mill season at Stillington Mill and York Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival, Serena Manteghi will be in the cast for SJT performances from November 19 to 21.

Serena premiered Eurydice to award-winning success in Australia, when joined in the two-hander by actor and designer Casey Jay Andrews. She will be familiar to SJT audiences from playing LV in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice and Yasmin in the premiere of Christopher York’s Build A Rocket.

From The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre stable, Orpheus and Eurydice are modern re-tellings of ancient Greek mythology, interweaving a world of dive bars, side streets and ancient gods. (Newsflash: 21/10/2020: Flanagan-Wright, Grainger, Manteghi and Andrews will be performing the plays together in a new version at the SJT).

A series of rehearsed play readings will take place in the theatre on October 7, 13 and 20, then each Tuesday from November 3 to 24, including Sarah Gordon’s The Underdog, Katie Redford’s Tapped and Rebecca Jade Hammond’s Canton. 

Further shows will be announced soon, among them an evening of conversation with Hull-born Maureen Lipman and an innovative online show from outspoken Denby Dale comedian Daniel Kitson.

“We see it as part of our ongoing civic role to open as soon as is reasonably practicable and to present irresistible work,” says SJT artistic director Paul Robinson

The re-opened SJT has been showing films in the McCarthy at the former Odeon cinema building since last month and will continue to do so. Now, artistic director and joint chief executive Paul Robinson is looking forward to the return of live theatre.

“We’ve worked hard to create an ambitious season of relatively small-scale work, but one that promises great entertainment and really does have something for everyone, including shows for those who are happy to return to the building, and also for those who aren’t.

“We see it as part of our ongoing civic role to open as soon as is reasonably practicable and to present irresistible work alongside meticulously thought-through health and safety measures.

“Our family show at Christmas, for instance, was originally written for five actors, but that would have made rehearsing impossible under current guidelines. Writer Nick Lane has adapted it into a remarkable one-woman show that we’re confident will be every bit as much fun as the original and will really showcase the multi-talented Polly Lister.” 

The SJT has introduced comprehensive measures for the safety and comfort of its audiences – full details at https://www.sjt.uk.com/were_back  – and has been awarded VisitEngland’s We’re Good to Go industry standard mark, signifying adherence to government and public health guidance.

On a knife edge: Simon Slater in Bloodshot, playing the SJT from October 21 to 24

“Everything will pay proper heed to social distancing, for both the audience and for our staff and performers,” says Robinson. “The seating capacity in The Round will vary from show to show but the socially distanced maximum will be 185.”

All the autumn and winter events will be added to the SJT website shortly; booking will open for Circle members from September 8 and for general sales from September 11. 

To book, visit sjt.uk.com/whatson or call the box office on 01723 370541. The box office is open Thursdays to Saturdays, 11am to 4pm, for both phone calls and in-person bookings.

HULL Truck Theatre will reopen with the Hull Jazz Festival from November 12 and a seating capacity reduced to 20 to 30 per cent, but The Railway Children will not go ahead.

A statement from the Ferensway theatre announces: “The Hull Jazz Festival is a key part of our autumn season and we are really pleased that after eight months of closure, we are able to work with long-term partners J-Night to open the building with their exciting programme. Audience capacity will be smaller as we adhere to social distancing, but the programme and experience will still be the same great quality.”

York playwright Mike Kenny’s The Railway Children will be back on track in December 2021 after being de-railed from its 2020 Hull Truck Theatre Christmas run by the Covid curse

However, the theatre bosses have had to make the “difficult decision” to postpone the 2020 Christmas production of E Nesbit’s The Railway Children, scripted by York playwright Mike Kenny in a re-visit of his award-winning adaptation for York Theatre Royal at the National Railway Museum (2008/2009) and Waterloo Station, London (2010).

“The creation of one of our Christmas shows usually begins in August but without an announced date from the Government on when theatre performances can resume without social distancing, a show of this scale would not be economically viable,” the Hull Truck statement reads.

“The Railway Children will be postponed until Christmas 2021 and all tickets will be automatically transferred into the equivalent date, time and original seat selection. We will be contacting all customers with details of their ticket transfer and, with our reduced team, we ask that customers do not contact the box office at this time.”

The statement continues: “While we may not be able to do something in our auditorium on the scale of The Railway Children, we remain committed to creating magical Christmas experiences for our audiences and are delighted to announce we will be producing an alternative show for 2020.”

The new show will be a promenade production of Prince Charming’s Christmas Cracker that will enable audiences to enjoy a festive adventure within small groups and under social-distancing measures as they move through the theatre.

“We are very excited to have a reopening date,” says Hull Truck Theatre artistic director Mark Babych

What lies in store? Every year on Christmas Eve, Prince Charming – soon to be King and deluded Crooner – celebrates the festive season with an annual knees-up:  the Christmas Cracker. This year, a big announcement is imminent and you are all invited.

Further details and on-sale dates for Hull Jazz Festival and Prince Charming’s Christmas Cracker will be announced in September, alongside up-to-date information on how Hull Truck is being made a safe place to visit within Government guidelines.

Announcements on the updated January to March 2021 season will be made later in the autumn, once Hull Truck has more information regarding social-distancing guidelines.

“We are dependent on Government advice on social distancing regarding the ability to stage productions and therefore whether they are financially viable,” the statement emphasises.

Artistic director Mark Babych and his joint chief executive officer, Janthi Mills-Ward, say: “We are very excited to have a reopening date to bring alive our wonderful theatre again. We will obviously be operating at a much-reduced capacity – 20 to 30 per cent – while social distancing is in place, which makes re-opening a difficult financial jigsaw of what and how we present work.

Truck on: Hull Truck Theatre’s main auditorium, reopening from November 12

“But with meticulous planning to ensure the theatre is a safe place and innovative ideas for a programme that is possible with social distancing, we look forward to sharing the joy of live theatre again.”

They continue: “Part of this will be doing Christmas differently this year, which presents lots of creative challenges for the Hull Truck team to work on together, as well as opportunities for freelance artists. 

“Our vision is to create a joyful, fun and uplifting production that takes audiences on an exciting journey through the theatre and we are sure this show is going to be just what we all need to get us in the Christmas spirit after a difficult year!”

Please note, Hull Truck “asks for your patience and kindness at this time as the box-office team work to contact all customers who have booked for The Railway Children”.