“And that’s that. A massive thank you to everyone involved in making #parkbenchtheatre 2020 possible. We’re going to have a short break and then start work on the next thing. Wherever that might be… X”
Farewell to summer Tweet from Park Bench Theatre producers Engine House Theatre.
In return, thank you artistic director and writer Matt Aston, fellow director Tom Bellerby, Samuel Beckett’s estate, actors Chris Hannon, Cassie Vallance and Lisa Howard, the Friends of Rowntree Park and City of York Council for bringing to fruition the return of live theatre in York in Covid-19 2020.
Roll on, that next thing…and keep reaching for the stars. Live theatre cannot give in to the killjoy pandemic.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.