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

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: 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 or via

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

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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

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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.

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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:

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

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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 or via

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

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