If you go down in the woods today, you’re in for an online delight as Park Bench Theatre streams summer hit Teddy Bears’ Picnic

One sandwich short of a picnic: Cassie Vallance’s Jo clowns around on her Friends Garden park bench at Rowntree Park in a scene from Teddy Bears’ Picnic last summer. Picture: Northedge Photography

PARK Bench Theatre’s hit summertime children’s show, Teddy Bears’ Picnic, will be streamed by producers Engine House Theatre from today (26/2/2021).

Performed by Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre actress and Story Craft Theatre interactive storyteller Cassie Vallance in all weathers last summer, it was one of three solo performances staged in the Friends Garden of Rowntree Park under Covid-safe conditions, with more than 1,000 adults and youngsters seeing the open-air show over 30-plus performances.

Now, director Matt Aston’s company, Engine House Theatre, is to stream the show, suitable for everyone aged three and over, newly bolstered by a Make Your Own Teddy Bear craft workshop video by Cassie, bringing her Story Craft Theatre craft-making skills to the online venture.

Tickets will give access to viewing for the whole event period of February 26 to March 7, priced at £5 at tpetv.com.

Teddy Bears’ Picnic was inspired by the much-loved John Walter Bratton and Jimmy Kennedy song and based on an original idea by Julian Butler, a freelance children’s theatre composer, lyricist and sound designer who has written several musicals with York playwright Mike Kenny and worked regularly with Aston.

Inspired by Butler’s suggestion when musical director for Aston’s production of Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale, starring Cassie at the York Theatre Royal Studio in 2019-2020, the 30-minute show was co-created by performer Vallance and Engine House artistic director Aston over a few weeks last summer.

Cassie Vallance: Craft-making storyteller for Story Craft Theatre’s Crafty Tales

Now, Matt says: “I’m so pleased to be finally joining the 21st century and having Teddy Bears’ Picnic stream online for people to enjoy at home.

“It seems such a long time ago that we all suddenly had to live and work in a very different way to bring live theatre back to York and I’m still extremely proud of the Park Bench Theatre season and of all the wonderful people who worked on it and helped make it happen.

“We didn’t have any plans to stream the shows, but once we’d gone into this third lockdown, we had a look at what footage could be used. We’re still hopeful we can stream the other two shows as well, featuring Chris Hannon in Samuel Beckett’s First Love and Lisa Howard in Every Time A Bell Rings [a play written by Matt in response to the lockdown].”

The director adds: “I’m also thrilled that Cassie has brought her crafting skills from her award-winning company Story Craft Theatre to present a short film so everyone van make a cardboard teddy at home.

“With the announcement of the Government’s roadmap earlier this week, there seems to be light at the end of the Covid tunnel. Hopefully, Teddy Bears’ Picnic will be another of those small treats to help families get through the final days of home schooling.”

In Park Bench Theatre’s Teddy Bears’ Picnic, every year, Jo’s family used to have a big family gathering: a teddy bears’ picnic. It was always brilliant, but then she grew too old and too cool for that sort of thing, so she stopped going. Now she has grown up, however, she wishes she could have those picnic days all over again.

Matt Aston: Park Bench Theatre artistic director and co-creator/director of Teddy Bears’ Picnic on a Friends Garden park bench. Picture: Livy Potter

Recalling the co-writing experience, where technology came in handy, Cassie says: “I’d write a bit, Matt would write a bit, and we’d share thoughts on Zoom. We then started working on the physical aspect of the show from the beginning of August, as I’m much more of an up-and-about physical person, and then we began running it.

“The main thing, when working on it, was to be flexible, with it being for children and an outdoor show. Visually, it had to have lots of big stuff, and our thinking was, ‘if we can say it physically, let’s do that’, but it’s also a play full of memory moments, which we’ve made more intimate.”

Now, Teddy Bears’ Picnic can be enjoyed all over again, online, teddy bear-making craft workshop and all. “Considering how life has changed so dramatically for so many over the past months, I once again find myself feeling very grateful to be able to be part of creating a piece of live theatre for families,” says Cassie. 

Did you know?

The song Teddy Bears’ Picnic combines a 1907 melody by American composer John Walter Bratton with lyrics added by Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy, a Dublin University graduate, in 1932.

It has been recorded widely since Peckham crooner Henry Hall’s idyllic version that year, being used in television series, commercials and films. Recordings range from Bing Crosby to The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, while Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan recited the lyrics as a poem at the start of a recording of Bad Attitude.

Any good at the hurdles? Cassie Vallance tries to negotiate the gate to enter the Friends Garden at Rowntree Park. Picture: Northedge Photography

WHAT was the CharlesHutchPress verdict last summer?

REVIEW: Teddy Bears’ Picnic, Park Bench Theatre, Engine House Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, August 22 to early September 2020. ****

THROUGH stealth and goofy coming timing, Cassie Vallance had stolen Twelfth Night, the Jazz Age hit of last summer’s Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York before the rest of Joyce Branagh’s superb cast could do anything about it.

After that Pop-Up Elizabethan theatre season on the Castle car park, Vallance has popped up again at York Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival, presenting Crafty Tales with her Story Craft Theatre cohort Janet Bruce last Saturday lunchtime.

She would have done so again this Saturday too at 1pm but for the fact she needs to be at Rowntree Park for the 1.30pm performance of Teddy Bears’ Picnic, her solo performance for this summer’s Park Bench Theatre season.

For all her oodles of comic energy, not even Vallance can be in two places at once and so Janet Bruce will be bringing a picture-book story to life on her own on the patio this weekend.

In between Twelfth Night and Teddy Bears’ Picnic came Vallance’s starring role in director Matt Aston’s adaptation of Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale stories for the York Theatre Royal Studio’s Christmas show for children.

Cassie Vallance in The Storm Whale at the York Theatre Royal Studio. It was during this production that musical director and composer Julian Butler first came up with the idea for a production of Teddy Bears’ Picnic, based on the song

Now, Aston, artistic director of Engine House Theatre, resumes his creative partnership with Vallance for this season’s Park Bench Theatre resurrection of outdoor theatre for the post-lockdown age.

Together, they have co-created a new version of the Teddy Bears’ Picnic story spun from the threads of the popular children’s ditty and an original idea by musical director Julian Butler; Aston directing, Vallance performing with all that impish clowning, physical comedy and pathos that has marked the York actor’s performances over the past year.

If you go down in the Covid-secure Friends Garden tomorrow, or on various dates until September 5, you are in for a children’s show to delight three year olds and upwards. Take a picnic, take a child or two, or more, within a family bubble to sit in socially distanced pods marked out by chalk circles, with room to accommodate your favourite teddy bear too.

On arrival, you will pick up the necessary equipment to listen on a head set to the feed of Vallance’s storytelling, sound effects (from lasers to a send-up of The Six Million Dollar Man intro for the adults present) and reprises of the familiar song, complemented by Julian Butler’s incidental music.

Vallance is playing Jo, struggling with her big case as she tries to negotiate her way through the not very high gates to the Friends Garden on a sunny Thursday afternoon.

Who would name a teddy after a beach? Cassie Vallance’s Jo would do exactly that, holding Filey aloft in Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Picture: Northedge Photography

Eventually, she does so, taking up residence on and around the park bench beneath the linden tree in the garden corner, as a squirrel looks on, front paws in that distinctive squirrel position where they look to be on the cusp of bursting into applause.

Vallance’s Jo is in three quarter-length dungarees with yellow buttons and matching head band and anything but matching pumps (purple instead), her bravura attire denoting a funny woman has just entered the garden.

Jo begins to unpack the case, taking out case after smaller case, as if opening up a Russian doll. She puts up bunting, does a spot of juggling. Vallance has said nothing, as much mime artist or silent movie actor to this point, but once she puts on a pair of spectacles, she “realises” she has an audience and starts talking…excitedly.

She seeks to give this re-telling a context for Covid-19 2020, as Jo talks to the children about the experience of coming out to play again, to see friends again, to be outdoors again, to be enjoying a Teddy Bears’ Picnic again, after being stuck inside in lockdown for an eternity.

“It’s a bit weird,” she says, and who would disagree. “There’s been lots of Zooming,” she notes. “For a word that sounds so fast, it seems to take so long!”

A teddy bear in Park Bench Theatre’s production of Teddy Bears’ Picnic last summer. Now, Cassie Vallance will lead a cardboard teddy bear craft-making video session to accompany the streaming of the show. Picture: Northedge Photography

Picking a banana from her picnic, Vallance’s Jo bounces around the audience, revelling in “just being”, “feeling happy”, “enjoying stuff”, but then her thoughts turn to memories. “All memories are important. They may not be happy, but that’s OK, they can help us learn,” she says.

At this juncture, Jo transforms into her younger self, recalling childhood Teddy Bears’ Picnics in Rowntree Park, surrounded by her teddies, all except her favourite, Kelly, who came off worst in an unfortunate encounter with her father’s Flymo mower.

Vallance’s crestfallen pathos at this juncture is a joy, so too are the Scottish and Welsh accents she adopts for Jo’s mum and dad (even though they are from Welwyn Garden and Fulford!).

Aston and Vallance’s charming short story ends on a positive and reassuring note in these strange times for children and adults alike, Jo saying that things can and always will change…and “change can be really, really good”.

Ironically, the only sting in this tale was, well, not a sting but a horsefly bite suffered by director Matt Aston pre-show. Kelly went to hospital in the story, Aston to A&E with his arm swollen. Is ted not dead? Did both have a happy ending? That would be telling!

REVIEW: Connecting Voices, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, 17/10/2020

Beautifully differentiated vowels: Gillene Butterfield as Elle in La Voix Humaine at Leeds Playhouse. Picture: Anthony Robling

Connecting Voices, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, at Leeds Playhouse, October 17

COLLABORATIONS between Opera North and Leeds Playhouse in recent years have been proving increasingly fruitful.

This latest, a four-show programme in different locations throughout the Playhouse, was just what the doctor ordered: its umbrella title Connecting Voices homed in on the social interactions we have all been craving.

It was designed to “examine the power and expression of the solo voice” and ranged the gamut from pure opera to straight theatre.

Poulenc’s monodrama La Voix Humaine, in the Barber Studio, led the way. In Sameena Husain’s production, Gillene Butterfield poured her heart and voice into Elle’s desperate efforts to repair her faltering romance, using telephones from three different eras.

Plus ça change! She might as well have been on Zoom, so vivid were her emotions, made more so by superb diction and – a rarity among sopranos in my experience – beautifully differentiated vowels.

Annette Saunders’ piano was ideally attuned, blasting out jagged darts whenever Elle listened, calm when she spoke. The two of them combined to notable effect in the nostalgic waltz that follows Elle’s highest outburst.

Riveting voice: Niall Buggy in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Picture: Anthony Robling

Opera North was involved in two of the remaining items. Under its Resonance programme for Black and Asian musicians, Reflections: Dead And Wake explored the Caribbean funerary tradition of Nine-Nights from a specifically Jamaican perspective.

Alongside ethnic choruses, sounding perhaps more African than Caribbean, Paulette Morris caressed her solo songs lovingly. The recurring soundscape of Jamaican voices by the director Khadijah Ibrahiim was not especially intelligible, but certainly added atmosphere.

Among similar non-native sounds was the powerful contribution of the rapper Testament (aka Andy Brooks), in the title role of Orpheus In The Record Shop, injecting much sardonic humour while doubling as composer and writer.

Aletta Collins’ production gradually introduced eight members of the Opera North orchestra and the excellent wordless mezzo of Helen Évora, to bring an optimistic conclusion as bankruptcy loomed. Definitely a tale for our times.

The other riveting voice was that of Niall Buggy, raging and cackling against the dying of the light and his own misspent years in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Dominic Hill. Like the Poulenc, it was written in 1958.

These days, theatre staff are front-line workers too. The small army of stewards here, totally tuned in and extremely helpful, deserve a final word of thanks.                                                   

Review by Martin Dreyer

Opera North and Leeds Playhouse unite for October season of Connecting Voices

Testament: Leeds rapper, writer and beatboxer commissioned for new piece for Connecting Voices. Picture: Anthony Robling

OPERA North and Leeds Playhouse are collaborating on a celebration of the power and expressiveness of the human voice that will bring audiences back into the Quarry Hill theatre next month for the first time since the March lockdown.

They will co-produce Connecting Voices: six new and existing 40-minute pieces of live performance staged safely and Covid-securely in four areas of the Playhouse, played over three weekends in October, fusing classic and contemporary theatre on themes of isolation and connection, resilience and reflection 

Leeds rapper, writer and world record-holding beatboxer Testament has been commissioned to explore the power of the solo voice within a communal space and the relationship between performer and audience, while freelance artists Matthew Eberhardt and Khadijah Ibrahiim will be devising new work together with musicians, poets, actors and young people 

Running from October 2 to 17, Connecting Voices will mark the reopening of Leeds Playhouse six months after lockdown began by “partnering with the wider arts industry to find new and innovative ways of reintroducing audiences to live theatre, in a safe and secure environment, contributing to the life and vibrancy of the Leeds city region”.

Orpheus In The Record Store, written by Testament and directedby Aletta Collins, will fuse spoken word and beatboxing with players from the Orchestra of Opera North in a collaboration in the Quarry Theatre that gives the Greek myth of Orpheus a contemporary Yorkshire twist.

“I’m so excited to be back at Leeds Playhouse with Opera North, especially after this turbulent period,” says Testament. “To be commissioned to create a new piece of work is a massive honour.

“The Playhouse was one of the first organisations to take a chance on me as a theatre maker and it feels like home; their help and support has been invaluable to my growth as an artist.  And only last year I got to work with Opera North as an artist on their Resonance programme, which opened my eyes to new possibilities as a composer.”

Looking forward to live performances returning to Leeds Playhouse, Testament says: “There is much to say and share right now, and I passionately believe theatre has an almost spiritual role in making the direction we wish to go in as a society tangible.

“I can’t wait to be back in front of an actual audience – being together enjoying worlds that we make together in those moments of live connection.”

Khadijah Ibrahiim: Writing and directing Reflections: Dead And Wake for Connecting Voices

What can next month’s audiences expect? “Right now, I’m in the lab creating, pushing buttons, and I’ve got something planned as a beatboxer that has never been like this way before,” says Testament. “I am also super-excited about connecting with Opera North musicians:  we are planning to take the crowd on an epic journey with music, spoken word and live theatre.”

Playing alongside Orpheus In The Record Store will be topical re-awakenings of two pieces from 1958 that present characters isolated from others and struggling to connect again through technology.

The first is Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape, to be performed by Niall Buggy in the Bramall Rock Void, directed by Dominic Hill.  This will be counterpointed by Francis Poulenc’sshort opera La Voix Humaine, performed by Opera North soprano Gillene Butterfield in the Barber Studio, directed by Leeds Playhouse’s Sameena Hussain.

In the Courtyard Theatre, each of the three weekends will see a different and newly devised piece of work from Leeds spoken-word artist Khadijah Ibrahiim and two pieces by freelance director Matthew Eberhardt, whose credits include Opera North’s Street Scene.

They will work  with singers, actors, young people and musicians, including classically-trained singer Keertan Kaur Rehal, Amy J Payne and stalwart Playhouse actor Robert Pickavance, to create contemporary responses to the themes of remembrance, collaboration and the act of storytelling.

James Brining, artistic director at Leeds Playhouse, says: “Re-opening the Playhouse after six months of enforced closure and being separated from each other has made us value even more than before the act of live performance and what that means. 

“Our beautifully refurbished building provides us with many opportunities to safely welcome audiences and artists back into the Playhouse.  Connecting Voices is a carefully curated programme exploring isolation and connection, resilience and reflection, as well as the relationship between performer and audience member in a shared space.”

Brining is delighted to be working once again with Leeds company Opera North. “We’re pooling our resources to help the city of Leeds to get back on its feet and bring joyous and powerful communal shared experiences back to the lives of its citizens,” he says. 

“As we head into our 50th year at this challenging time, it’s vital that we reconnect with audiences and communities and collaborate with bold and diverse voices from across the region. We can’t wait to welcome back artists and participants into the building safely to create and experience live theatre once again.”

“We can’t wait to welcome back artists and participants into the building safely to create and experience live theatre once again,” says Leeds Playhouse artistic director James Brining

Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director, says: “Connecting Voices is a compelling exploration of the power of the human voice and the profound desire to establish meaningful ties out of experiences of isolation and loss.

“We are delighted that we are able to begin the process of welcoming audiences safely back to live performance through this collection of work in partnership with Leeds Playhouse.

“Connecting Voices brings together voices spoken and sung from across the city and wider region, and we are especially thrilled to be collaborating with such a diverse and talented group of freelance artists, singers, musicians, poets and directors who all share artistic ties to both Opera North and to Leeds Playhouse.

“Now, more than ever, it is apparent how strongly intertwined the artistic and cultural community in our region is, and how important collaboration will be in ensuring a vibrant future for the arts and audiences across the city.”

Please note, in line with Government guidelines, audiences will be of limited capacity with social distancing and temperature checking will be conducted too. Tickets will go on sale to Leeds Playhouse’s Supporters’ Club, Playhouse Pass holders and Opera North Patrons from Monday, September 14 and on general sale from 12 noon on Tuesday at leedsplayhouse.org.uk and on 0113 213 7700.

Connecting Voices: the full programme

Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett, directed by Dominic Hill

A 69-year-old man listens to the voice of his 39-year-old self. Looking back on his loves, failures and losses, Krapp rewinds through his life with humour and heartache. A classic Beckett play, both punchy and personal.

Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 8pm; October 3, 10 and 17, 3.30pm and 8pm,
Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse.

Humour and heartache: Niall Buggy in Krapp’s Last Tape. Picture: Robert Workman

La Voix Humaine, by Francis Poulenc, directed by Sameena Hussain

A devastating short opera exploring the pain and fear of rejection in the rawest fashion. Through the lone voice of the woman, Poulenc expresses the full range of human emotion with a score of caressing warmth and intimacy. This powerful one-woman performance will be sung in English.

Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 6pm, and October 3, 10 and 17, 1.30pm and 6pm, Barber Studio, Leeds Playhouse.

Orpheus In The Record Store, by Testament, directed by Aletta Collins

Orpheus is alone, playing tunes in his record shop. When an old friend arrives, music and stories collide as the ancient and contemporary merge. Testament takes inspiration from the classical Greek myth in a show that fuses spoken word and beatboxing with classical music from the Orchestra of Opera North.

Performances: October 2, 9 and 16, 9pm, and October 3, 10 and 17, 4.30pm and 9pm, Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

Reflections: Dead And Wake, written and directed by Khadijah Ibrahiim

Experience a Jamaican “Nine Night” with literary activist and theatre maker Khadijah Ibrahiim. This thought-provoking performance explores Caribbean rituals around death through poetry, music and ghost [duppy] stories, featuring turntablist DJ NikNak and Paulette Morris. The event also includes performers from the Sunday Practise with their creative response to living through the last six months.

Performances: October 16, 7pm and October 17, 2.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

Reflections on La Voix Humaine, directed by Matthew Eberhardt

Take your seat on the stage of the Courtyard Theatre, look out into the auditorium and witness actors and musicians explore themes of isolation and connection, of resilience and reflection, through words both spoken and sung. This is a contemporary reflection on Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine and can be enjoyed either alongside the original piece or independently.

Performances: October 2 at 7pm and October 3 at 2.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

Reflections on Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Matthew Eberhardt

Relish the power and expression of the solo voice from the stage of the Courtyard Theatre in this celebration of the return of live performance. An actor and a musician collaborate, filling the auditorium with words and music that reflect upon the themes of Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape.

Performances: October 9 at 7pm and October 10 at 3.30pm and 7pm, Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse.

The running time for each Connecting Voices performance is 40 minutes.

REVIEW: First Love, Park Bench Theatre, Rowntree Park, York, until August 22 ****

One man, one monologue, one park bench: Chris Hannon in Samuel Beckett’s First Love. All pictures: Northedge Photography

REVIEW: First Love, Park Bench Theatre, Engine House Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, until August 22, 7pm nightly and 4pm matinee, August 22. Box office: parkbenchtheatre.com

DARKNESS descended on theatres in March, for rather more than 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness.

Auditoria are still gathering cobwebs, but the green shoots of a theatre resurrection are beginning to burst through in the great outdoors as live performance undergoes its own re-wilding.

Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston pounded Rowntree Park on his Government-ordained hourly stretch of lockdown exercise, sewing the seeds for Park Bench Theatre. He settled upon staging three solo shows, on a park bench, in the shade of a linden tree in the Covid-secure setting of the enclosed Friends Garden (audience capacity: 70).

Serving on the bench: Chris Hannon returns to acting after the lockdown hiatus to play a love lightning-struck Irishman in First Love

Greeted by two of those Friends at the gate, this was indeed an occasion for greeting old friends: theatre itself, let alone familiar faces from the York theatre scene, the critics’ circle too, on press night. Oh, how we have missed this: communion; communication; conversation; conviviality; common ground for uncommon thought.

There was much anew about theatre-going too: a digital programme available for everyone, rather than a print edition; de rigueur hand sanitiser; social distancing in conversation; and the grass marked out in chalk circles, as if a convention of baby UFOs had just vacated the garden.

Issued with receivers on arrival, audience members sat in bubbles or on park benches to tune into to the dialogue, sound effects and music on plug-in headphones/earphones (on sale at £1 if you don’t bring any), to eliminate the surround-sound of play and chatter from elsewhere in the park.

Enter a lean, unshaven man in obligatory Samuel Beckett men’s attire: scuffed boots in need of a polish, jauntily-angled bowler hat, an over-sized coat with the sleeves too long, high-waisted charcoal trousers, braced up, and a grubby collarless shirt. A man with plenty to say, as much to himself as those watching.

“A lean, unshaven man in obligatory Samuel Beckett men’s attire”: Chris Hannon in First Love

You will know the tragicomic type from Waiting For Godot, Irish playwright Beckett’s 1953 epiphany of existential angst. First Love is an earlier work, a short story from 1945, premiered in French in 1970 and published in English in 1973. A minor piece by comparison with Godot, yet well worth 70 unbroken minutes of your summertime.

Performed by Chris Hannon, Wakefield Theatre Royal’s pantomime writer and dame for a decade and star of CBeebies’ Topsy And Tim, First Love is a monologue, a one-to-one with each audience member, delivered from where else but a park bench, The Man’s preferred bed for the night.

Billed as a tale of a man, a woman, a recollection, it begins in a graveyard. The Man’s father is dead; he has no job at 25; he is, not to put too fine a point on it, rather strange. He doesn’t like, in no particular order, furniture, children, people in general, taking off his clothes, or the aforementioned woman taking off hers, although he seems happy enough to live off her earnings as a lady of the night.

His candour, yet lack of self-awareness, makes him a thoroughly reliable witness for his recollections. He is from the Beckett school of clown with a frown. Not everything he says, in his elliptical way of talking, makes sense, definitely not to the audience and probably not to him too.

Arms and the man: Chris Hannon in First Love in Rowntree Park

As for love, or, First Love, he mulls over that four-letter word over and over, but as Prince Charles once said evasively: “Whatever ‘in love’ means”. Be warned, he is wont to using other four-letter words too, prompting the website warning: “Contains very strong language”.

Directed by Matt Aston with suitable economy, but acute detail, the verbally and physically adroit Hannon presents a shrugged shoulder of a man, both odd and at odds with the world and himself, walking the wire betwixt comedy and tragedy.

In truth, you wouldn’t want to know him in “real life”, but meeting Yer Man in a York garden on a sunny night for the three Ps – park bench, picnic and pontification – why not?

Oh, and as the Northern Irishman in the Hutch bubble was quick to praise, @runcornchris’s southern Irish accent was spot-on.

Suspicious even of a park bench: Chris Hannon as the Man in First Love

Exit the panto dame, enter Chris Hannon’s clown on a park bench in Rowntree Park

One hat, one coat, one monologue: Chris Hannon rehearsing Samuel Beckett’s First Love for the Park Bench Theatre season at Rowntree Park, York. Pictures: Northedge Photography

CHRIS Hannon’s diary for 2020 had all the makings of being a dream year for the Lunch Monkeys and Topsy And Tim actor.

It promised a TV series, a summer of open-air theatre and a winter of writing the Theatre Royal, Wakefield pantomime and playing the dame there, as he has done for the past decade.

Then the world stopped, sent into lockdown by the Coronavirus pandemic. The TV job never happened, Chris’s pencil had to cross out the summer of theatre work, and the fate of the Wakefield panto, like so many across the country, hangs in the balance.

From today, however, Chris can be found sitting on a bench every evening in the Friends Garden at Rowntree Park in York and, glory be, he will be working – performing Samuel Beckett’s monologue First Love to a socially distanced audience as part of the Park Bench Theatre triple bill  that runs until September 5.

First Love director Matt Aston working in rehearsal with actor Chris Hannon

Written in 1946 and published in French in 1970 and in English in 1973, the rarely performed First Love is a 45-minute short story of a man, a woman, a recollection, told with Irish playwright Beckett’s trademark balancing act of comedy and tragedy

The first time Chris encountered Beckett’s work was through a production of his more famous 1958 monologue Krapp’s Last Tape and he has also taken part too in a rehearsed reading of Beckett’s magnus opus, Waiting For Godot.

First Love, he suggests, feels like a young man’s version of Krapp’s Last Tape, whose elderly character is described as “slightly clownish with red nose and white cheeks”. “That’s a big part of the way Beckett writes characters: people looking back on their lives and realising that the life they lived had a comical absurdity, where they end up as sad clowns. It’s quite accessible for audiences,” says Chris.

He finds the prospect of holding the attention of an audience on his own both “exciting and absolutely terrifying”. “It’s just you on your own for an hour, which is quite daunting. On a technical level, there’s a lot of words to learn. I’ve never done a one-man show and am excited to do it.

“It’s a universal, relatable story,” says Chris Hannon of Beckett’s First Love. “The story of a young man coming of age”

“I found the text intimidating at first but as I started to pick it apart, I quickly realised that it’s a universal, relatable story. The story of a young man coming of age.”

Chris is delighted to be acting again after an enforced six-month absence and believes audiences share that feeling. “People are ready to see something live and have a shared experience,” he says.

First Love will be one of the three solo shows presented by Engine House Theatre, whose artistic director Matt Aston responded to his daily exercise around Rowntree Park by putting together the outdoor season, once the easing of Covid-19 restrictions enabled live performances in the open air.

Chris had first worked with First Love director Matt in his debut year in the Wakefield pantomime. Matt was directing, a task undertaken in recent years by Chris’s wife, Rhiannon, the head of learning and participation at the West Yorkshire theatre.

Going bananas: Chris Hannon in discussion with director Matt Aston in rehearsal for First Love

Chris had always wanted to play panto dame but imagined he was too young. “I thought you had to be a theatrical veteran to do it. I just loved it when I did it,” he says.

Now 39, the Runcorn actor does not recall seeing many pantomimes when growing up. “I have a memory of going to one panto as a child:  Peter Pan. All I can remember is the spectacle. Then, as an actor in my 20s, I saw some of the panto greats. I thought ‘that looks so much fun’ – and it is.”

He had written the first draft for this winter’s Beauty And The Beast when the pandemic took up its unremitting residence. “I write the script for the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds as well as for Wakefield. I start writing the scripts in February. It’s first draft, second draft, the rehearsal process and sorting out the music. It’s the rhythm of my year,” says Chris.

“I love panto and playing the dame. It’s become a really big part of my life. Ours is a proper traditional family pantomime. We put so much care into it.”

Dame for a laugh: Chris Hannon as Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington at the Theatre Royal, Wakefield

If making his one-man show debut is a challenge, so too is working with children, as he did when playing Dad in the BAFTA-winning CBeebies series Topsy And Tim for 34 episodes from 2013 to 2015.  

“They wanted to get very spontaneous performances from the kids, so you would never do take after take after take. The adults would work on set with crew, then the kids would come on set – and what happened, happened,” recalls Chris, who has a three-year-old son, Ben, by the way.

“If they dropped a line, the adults had to pick it up. You had to know their lines and your lines. Scenes were never played as written on the page. You just had to keep it going. A huge amount of improvisation was involved.”

That series still brings him recognition, with parents demanding he poses for a picture with their children. “The kids are mortified by this. They don’t want a picture taken with me, so there are lots of pictures of me with unhappy-looking kids,” says Chris.

No children will be present at First Love, however. Beckett’s monologue comes with a Very Strong Language warning!

Chris Hannon performs Samuel Beckett’s First Love, August 12 to 22, at 7pm, and August 15, 4pm, as part of Engine House Theatre’s Covid-secure Park Bench Theatre season in the Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York. Tickets must be bought in advance at parkbenchtheatre.com.