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.

No resurrection for Jesus Christ Superstar after council ‘admin error’, but what next for unstoppable Bev Jones Music Company?

Bev Jones Music Company cast members gather at Rowntree Park last September

THE York version of The Masked Singer is coming to a head.

Bev Jones Music Company’s open-air production should have opened at Rowntree Park amphitheatre this afternoon but instead Jesus Christ Superstar has turned into Jesus Christ Supersnag – all because of masks.

In a nutshell, producer Lesley Jones was given an edict 12 days ago by City of York Council that Claire Pulpher’s cast of 27 must wear masks when singing to meet Covid regulations, not least Claire herself in the role of Mary.

Oh, and the not-for-profit York company would need to pay for professional security staff too for safety purposes, to stop anyone who had not booked from congregating on the periphery. Oh, and could the company provide portable lavatories too, please?

All this came via an email to Lesley from a Public Health Specialist Practitioner Advanced. “Whilst I have every sympathy with anyone trying to deliver an event, we can only give them the advice we have and cannot offer anything other than what the government guidance allows at the time of review,” the council apparatchik wrote.

“It is also worth noting that as this is a musical and involves singing, there is specific reference in the performing arts guidance to singing and the additional risks this poses in relation to Covid transmission. This is not currently considered in the Covid plan supplied by the organiser.”

The official cited an extract from the guidance “requiring the event organiser to pro-actively discourage activities which can create aerosol such as shouting, chanting and singing…as this is a popular musical can we be assured this will be realistic or achievable? Also wearing face coverings reduces the mass of aerosol expelled when singing, so masks should be worn during the event. Probably not possible?”

Probably not possible? Impossible, decided Lesley, as the additional costs would be prohibitive, and so, down the drain went many hours of rehearsals and hundreds of ticket sales for today’s 3pm show and tomorrow’s 2pm and 5pm performances that would need to be reimbursed (a task now being handled by the Joseph Rowntree Theatre box office).

And yet everything had been possible when Bev Jones Music Company staged the socially distanced Strictly Live In The Park on September 13 last year, same location, but no requirement to mask up the singers. Just as York Stage had been able to perform shows at the amphitheatre from August 23 to 25 (York Stage Musicals revue) and September 18 to 20 (Jukebox Divas).

When Lesley made the booking in February for the return to Rowntree Park, she planned the event in line with the council’s event management plans, requiring a Covid risk assessment and a health and safety assessment, plus contingency plans in the event of a terrorist attack or flooding.

Put in place were Covid testing for the cast; thermometer testing for cast, crew and public at each performance; ticket-only admission; the audience placed in socially distanced bubbles. The new normal, in other words.

The council’s later demands over masks and security came after its discussions with Public Health England and the Safety Advisory Group, but what was the difference this time?

City of York Council, in effect, made an admin error, as explained to Lesley Jones by Sarah Stoltz, the council’s director of public health, in an email on June 6. “One of my staff was asked by Trading Standards on 26th May 2021 to provide public health feedback to the Safety Advisory Group (SAG) on the proposals for your event,” she wrote. 

“I must stress, here, that the feedback in the email was only intended to be shared with SAG members for them to consider this, along with all the other expert advice from members of SAG, e.g. North Yorkshire Police, so that SAG could make a decision on whether the event should go ahead and what mitigations might need to be in place.

“We are in stage 3 of the government roadmap out of lockdown and so it is entirely appropriate that SAG undertook due diligence on the safety of the event, as happens with all events across York.”

Here comes the crucial part: “But the email was never intended to be shared with you and it did not constitute public health advice to you personally as the organiser; it was feedback to SAG and members would have considered the appropriateness of this feedback in due course,” said the director.

“However, it was shared and unfortunately taken out of context. I understand how angry and frustrated you must have felt in receiving it and can only apologise for the distress this has caused you.”

The explanation came too late to resurrect Jesus Christ Superstar, alas. “We were given such restrictive regulations by City of York Council, we had no option but to pull the production,” says Lesley, who is launching a formal complaint.

Is there any good news for Bev Jones Music Company devotees, however? “I must tell you that an ‘angel’ has appeared in the form of Jamboree Entertainment, who have offered us their professional [Sounds In The Grounds] festival stage on June 24 as compensation, if we could put together a music event suitable for the venue,” says Lesley.

“Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, we’ve taken on the challenge, resulting in the aptly named Strictly Unstoppable, featuring every member of the JCS cast in a new-style production for The Bev Jones Music Company with the emphasis on ‘an evening of fun with massive pop tracks to suit all, plus a beer wagon to help the atmosphere’.

“For those who love festivals, this will be popular, with numbers such as Boogie Shoes, Forget You, Uptown Funk, Sweet Caroline, a Whitney Houston song, Somebody To Love, Barcelona, to name a few, plus a smattering of show tunes from Chicago and The Rocky Horror Show and dozens more. We want the audience to get up in their social bubbles and dance.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DO you have a gift for a Wedding Present project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much hand sanitiser will Lady Macbeth get through? Take a seat for YSP’s Sit-down Sonnets in a churchyard for the answer

Mick Taylor, York Shakespeare Project’s director for Sit-down Sonnets, aptly takes a seat for last Saturday’s rehearsal at the Rowntree Park amphitheatre

YORK’S purveyors of Shakespeare’s Sonnet Walks are staging a sit-down, but not as an act of protest.

Instead, the mood will be celebratory as York Shakespeare Project present a special production of Shakespeare’s sonnets from Friday, allowing audiences to enjoy live theatre outdoors.

YSP’s Sit-down Sonnets can be seen at the Holy Trinity churchyard, in Goodramgate, where the 45-minute production will feature Shakespearean characters responding to the pandemic, each sharing a famous Shakespeare sonnet as part of their monologue.

“The conceit this time is that the sonneteers are well-known Shakespeare characters in the present day, coping as best they can with lockdown,” says producer Maurice Crichton. “In what is now time-honoured fashion, each has a sonnet to tee up, the pairing of character and sonnet hopefully opening up some unknown sonnets in an accessible way and giving some well-known ones a new angle.

York Shakespeare Project cast members Shirley Williams, left, and Di Starr performing Shakespeare’s Sonnet Walks in 2019 in the churchyard at Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, where Sit-down Sonnets will open on Friday

“Thinking of some of the characters I’ve played, I wondered how might they each be placed? Ulysses is no longer troubled that Achilles won’t come out of his tent because all the Greeks are stuck under canvas waiting for the latest R number estimates.

“Claudius is annoyed he’s had to postpone his marriage to Gertrude but is relieved there are no trains home from Wittenburg for Hamlet to catch; Feste can’t sing in public, so he’s planning an online concert from a willow cabin he’s constructing at Olivia’s gate…It’s a fun game to play and not just with Shakespeare.” 

Conceived and directed by Mick Taylor and produced by Crichton, the sonnets show will be performed by Frank Brogan; Nigel Evans; Emily Hansen; Sue Harris; Margaret Hillier; Judith Ireland; Emilie Knight; Mick Liversidge; Phyllis Carson-Smith; Di Starr; Mick Taylor himself and Helen Wilson, “sharpening up her Miss Jean Brodie act”.

As to who they will play, Maurice teases: “We are being coy about which Shakespeare characters you will see…but Mick has had some fun pulling a script together.”

Note the face mask: York Shakespeare Project’s topical poster for September’s Sit-down Sonnets

For the past few years, the York community theatre company has produced Sonnet Walks, a guided walk around York where the audience meets a range of connected characters with a story to tell and a Shakespearean sonnet to share.

Now comes the sit-down variation, under Taylor’s direction. “Like everyone involved with theatre, we’ve missed being able to enjoy and take part in live performance,” he says. “Having staged the Sonnet Walks previously, we knew that, as a format, it could be adapted in a way that would allow us to perform to a seated audience outdoors. And Holy Trinity is a beautiful place to do it: a leafy sanctuary in the centre of the city.”

Explaining the 2020 format, Mick says: “In these Sit-down Sonnets, we’ve taken some of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters and written new monologues for them as they find themselves in the middle of this pandemic.

“How might things have turned out for them if they’d been stuck in lockdown? How can Brutus get near to Caesar to put his knife in when all the senate meetings are on Zoom? Where can Romeo get his fateful poison if the apothecary’s on furlough? And how much hand sanitiser will Lady Macbeth get through? They’ll share their thoughts on a world of lockdowns, masks and social distancing, along with a sonnet that reflects their feelings.”

How prescient: York Shakespeare Project founder Frank Brogan predicts the end of the world in last summer’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet Walks. Cue Covid-19…

Making an historical link, Mick points out: “Shakespeare himself was no stranger to the impact a pandemic can have on theatre. Between 1603 and 1613, the theatres were closed for a total of six and a half years. Thankfully, we can return in performances like this a little sooner!”

York Shakespeare Project were just over a week away from the opening night for their spring production of Macbeth when lockdown began in late-March, stalling the 20-year mission to produce all of Shakespeare’s known plays by 2021 on the home straight, when only two big hitters, Macbeth and The Tempest, were left to perform.

Committee member Tony Froud says: “We were obviously very disappointed to have to postpone Macbeth and, like other companies, we are waiting to see how and when indoor live performance can safely return before deciding when we can prepare to stage the plays again.

“That’s why we’re so pleased to be able to perform Shakespeare in front of an audience in this way. Mick and Maurice have done a tremendous job in a short amount of time to prepare a production that audiences can enjoy safely and that brings the beauty of the sonnets to life in new ways.

Take a seat: York Shakespeare Project’s Sit-down Sonnets cast members listen to director Mick Taylor, fourth from right, when rehearsing in Rowntree Park, York, last weekend

“We hope that people will be able to join us for what should be a fun and unique performance, and a long-overdue chance to watch live theatre.”

YSP pass on their thanks to the Churches Conservation Trust and the volunteers at Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, for accommodating Sit-Down Sonnets this summer.

“We looked at Dean’s Park and the Museum Gardens but in both cases that would have involved opening late specially for us,” says Maurice. “Last year, Ed van der Molen at Holy Trinity Church was very responsive to our idea of bringing our Sonnet Walks through the churchyard and this year even more so: he could not have been more welcoming.

“The review in The Press last year said: ‘What can be more lovely than a marriage of Shakespeare’s golden verse and York’s heritage’. Holy Trinity is a jewel in York’s heritage and its churchyard a haven in the city centre. It was our first choice for trying out this new format.”

Frank Brogan in rehearsal for the Sit-down Sonnets

The Covid-secure Sit-down Sonnets will be presented from September 4 to 12 (except September 7) at 5.45pm and 7pm nightly, bolstered each Saturday by a 4.15pm matinee.

“The audience capacity is ten social bubbles or 20 souls, whichever maximum we reach first,” says Maurice. “We don’t really know how it will feel to have a static show rather than a walk, but the sonnets will come thicker and faster and it will be colder, so dress warmly.

“There are five park benches in the churchyard, which we will be using, so a cushion would be a useful thing to bring, as would a rug and a camp chair. Maybe a flask and a packet of biscuits too.

“We’re delighted to see that the latest weather forecast for this week’s opening performances is: Friday, 16C, 5% chance of rain, 11mph breeze; Saturday, 15C, 6% chance of rain, 9mph breeze.” 

Tickets are available at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk, priced at £7 for adults, £4 for 14-17 year olds, and two under-14s may accompany each adult for free. To find out more about dates, tickets and the production, go to: yorkshakespeareproject.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what about…

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

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

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

After allotment gardening in lockdown, Lisa Howard turns her hand to solace-seeking monologue in Rowntree Park garden

Green Howard: Lisa Howard has enjoyed time spent on her allotment in lockdown before returning to performing in the Friends Garden in Rowntree Park, York, in Every Time A Bell Rings. Picture: Northedge Photography

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.”

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

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.

Lisa Howard and director Tom Bellerby on the first day of rehearsals for Every Time A Bell Rings. Picture:
Northedge Photography

“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.

Lisa Howard in Pilot Theatre’s Noughts And Crosses at York Theatre Royal in April 2019

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.”

Bus trip: Lisa Howard, left, with Helen Longworth and writer Joyce Branagh in Ladies That Bus at York Theatre Royal Studio in February 2020. Picture: Joel Chester Fildes

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.

Full details, including tickets and the audience use of headphones, can be found at: parkbenchtheatre.com. Box office: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/show/every-time-a-bell-rings-park-bench-theatre/.

“It’s good to be working on something that’s so ground-breaking about a situation that none of us have experienced before,” says Lisa Howard

PERFORMANCE AREA

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.

The capacity is 75 tickets for each performance.