“And that’s that. A massive thank you to everyone involved in making #parkbenchtheatre 2020 possible. We’re going to have a short break and then start work on the next thing. Wherever that might be… X”
Farewell to summer Tweet from Park Bench Theatre producers Engine House Theatre.
In return, thank you artistic director and writer Matt Aston, fellow director Tom Bellerby, Samuel Beckett’s estate, actors Chris Hannon, Cassie Vallance and Lisa Howard, the Friends of Rowntree Park and City of York Council for bringing to fruition the return of live theatre in York in Covid-19 2020.
Roll on, that next thing…and keep reaching for the stars. Live theatre cannot give in to the killjoy pandemic.
REVIEW: Every Time A Bell Rings, Park Bench Theatre, Engine House Theatre, Friends Garden, Rowntree Park, York, until September 5 ****
SCARF, tick. Jumpers, tick. Hat, tick. Thick socks, tick. Rugs. Tick. Don’t you love preparing for a night’s outdoor theatre in the York summertime?
The day before, one family had stoically braved the rain to watch Cassie Vallance clowning around in Teddy Bears’ Picnic. They wanted to make a day of it, rather than a meal of it, such is the resilient nature of the British theatregoer.
Come Saturday night, all the audience for the premiere of Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston’s lockdown monologue, Every Time A Bell Rings, had kitted out in attire more suited to Bonfire Night.
Actor Lisa Howard, luminary of Slung Low and Northern Broadsides productions, had her coat hood up too, as she walked to the park bench under the linden tree in a corner of the Friends Garden in Rowntree Park, while the audience headsets, tuned into a receiver, took them back to those early innocent days of Johnson and Trump not taking Coronavirus seriously with statements that now sound hauntingly crass.
Howard is playing Cathy; the day is Easter Sunday, April 12 2020, in the grave first month of the pandemic lockdown. Cathy has been in isolation; her husband has Covid; he insists she quarantines for 14 days, not the mandatory seven at the time; an alarm bell for what is to follow. She has been outside only to join in the Thursday night clapping-and-cheering ritual for the NHS and key workers.
This is the first time Cathy has left the house, to take up her favourite park bench seat in her favourite park, Rowntree Park (she lives nearby off Bishopthorpe Road).
She is quietly spoken, contemplative, on edge, addressing the audience like one of the episodes of Alan Bennett’s newly revived Talking Heads as she seeks solace. She recalls the minutiae of the early days of lockdown: one hour’s exercise day; the heightened awareness of birdsong; the way people started saying hello to each other in the street; the striped Barnacle geese joining the Canada geese regulars in Rowntree Park.
So far, so familiar, her sentiments, her darkly humorous observations, no different from those of countless others, but it as if the tentative Cathy is gaining the confidence to reveal more, to peel back the poignant, disturbing layers, once the audience is warmed up (proverbially speaking, not in reality as the wind has started picking up).
Here the high-quality craft of writer, actor and director Tom Bellerby alike shines through: Every Time A Bell Ring’s revelations grow ever more shattering, and it would be wrong to reveal the last.
Suffice to say that death hangs heavy over Cathy’s story: the sudden loss of her beloved first husband; likewise, the passing of her treasured daughter in the past year. Howard shows mastery of text and emotion, never over-stated and all the more impactful for its realism, her grief contained but ever present.
Drip, drip, drip – Aston’s very words – we learn of Cathy’s second husband controlling her, not through physical abuse, but barbed words. Gaslighting, in other words.
The ever-darkening Every Time A Bell Rings is the third of three Park Bench Theatre storytelling productions – after Samuel Beckett’s First Love and Teddy Bears’ Picnic – to open in August, marking the return of live theatre in York, glory be.
Aston and his team, together with Friends of Rowntree Park and the City of York Council, are to be thanked for a summer season of diversity, imagination, vision and no little courage. A season that has been Covid-secure, socially distanced, but still social and intimate, the latter courtesy of the headsets.
Whatever uncertainty lies ahead for theatres still stymied in the dark over autumn, winter and beyond, let us hope that Park Bench Theatre can return next summer, the park benchmark set high from all three shows this season.
Tickets for the 7pm evening performances and 4pm Saturday matinee are on sale at tickets.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
THREE monologues on a park bench in a Rowntree Park garden herald the return of theatre to York from the Glorious Twelfth onwards.
Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston has assembled a summer season of open-air shows that will combine Samuel Beckett’s rarely-performed First Love with two premieres, Aston’s own new piece, Every Time A Bell Rings, and a new adaptation of the classic children’s song, Teddy Bears’ Picnic, co-created for all the family by Aston and Cassie Vallance.
The trio of productions will be presented from August 12 to September 5 in the Covid-secure setting of the carefully laid-out and spacious Friends Garden at Rowntree Park, allowing audiences of up to 75 to maintain social distance from each other in the park’s most enclosed space.
“Who’d have thought six months ago that we would be having such a stressful, terrifying, bizarre time since March,” says Matt, more heavily bearded in lockdown than when he co-directed York Theatre Royal’s somewhat stressful 2019-2020 pantomime, Sleeping Beauty.
“I first had idea of doing something this summer, running round Rowntree Park in the middle of lockdown on one of my Government-ordained bursts of daily exercise. Sitting on a bench [too late to tell him off now!], I was thinking about doing some socially distanced indoor theatre, but then someone suggested, ‘Why not do some outdoor theatre in Rowntree Park?’.”
The seeds for Park Bench Theatre were sewn. “The name Park Bench Theatre does what it says on the tin: performing theatre on or around a park bench, which I first did 20 years ago in Nottingham,” Matt says.
“The idea was always to keep it simple, having first started thinking about in April/May, knowing that it has to feel safe and secure but also feel ‘normal’, feeling like it would pre-Covid, but keeping the production costs basic.
“Theatre is social, sharing stories, and these shows will be a collective story-telling experience.”
His Rowntree Park exertions set the plays and their subject matter in motion. “I had the idea of someone sitting on a park bench and thinking about what they’re going through,” says Matt, explaining the trigger for Every Time A Bell Rings.
“I thought of the isolation and the fact that she might actually have been isolated for many years. I then remembered First Love was also set on a park bench and the idea rolled on from that.”
The first to open, running from August 12 to August 22, will be Matt’s production of First Love, Beckett’s 45-minute monologue about a man, a woman, a recollection, awash with the Irish playwright’s signature balancing of comedy and tragedy.
First Love was the last piece of the Park Bench Theatre jigsaw to fall into place. “I think the Beckett estate had a few questions about what we were doing, as it’s not a play, but it had been done at the Arcola Theatre [in London] as a learnt reading,” says Matt.
“For me, it reads as a monologue, but we’re being respectful to it as the short story it was written as. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, really accessible, really funny, and Chris is bringing out all the humour.”
The ‘Chris’ in question is Chris Hannon, best known for his CBeebies role as Dad in Topsy And Tim and as the pantomime dame at Wakefield Theatre Royal for more than a decade. “My first panto as director at Wakefield was his first panto as the dame there,” says Matt. “There was a tradition of never inviting anyone back, but he was so brilliant that he’s been going back ever since, and he writes it now as well.”
Next up, from August 26 to September 5, will be Aston’s 50-minute premiere of Every Time A Bell Rings, performed by Northern Broadsides and Slung Low regular Lisa Howard and directed by Tom Bellerby, back in York from London.
Tom had been resident assistant director at the Donmar Warehouse, London, after making his mark at York Theatre Royal as associate artist at Pilot Theatre and as associate director at Hull Truck Theatre from 2016 to 2018, taking in Hull’s year as the 2017 UK City of Culture.
The play’s setting is Lockdown, Easter Sunday 2020, when Cathy searches for solace on her favourite park bench in her favourite park in Aston’s funny and poignant look at how the world is changing through these extraordinary times.
“I’ve written it in Lockdown, having had a vague notion some years ago of doing a piece revolving around a woman dealing with grief when I was dealing with the death of my stepfather,” says Matt.
“I started having a go at writing a piece in the spare hours between child-care and then felt it would be right for Park Bench Theatre once I felt confident that we were going to get the go-ahead.
“Then I had the idea that someone else should direct it, and though I hadn’t met Tom before, I knew he’d returned to York and it made sense for him to come on board.”
After two shows with “very strong language”, the third will be a complete contrast: Teddy Bears’ Picnic on August 19 to 22, 27 to 29 and 31 and September 1 to 5, based on an original idea by Julian Butler.
“I really hope they don’t come to the wrong show!” says Matt, who is renewing his creative partnership with Cassie Vallance after she starred in his adaptation of Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale in the Theatre Royal Studio last Christmas.
Suitable for everyone aged three and over, this 30-minute show carries the billing: “Every year, Jo’s family used to have a big family gathering – a teddy bears’ picnic – but then she got too old and too cool for that sort of thing. Now she’s grown up, she wishes she could have them all over again.”
“Julian Butler and I had the idea for this show when we were doing The Storm Whale, and Cassie and I are creating it over the next few weeks,” says Matt. “She was brilliant in The Storm Whale and has been doing fantastic work online with Crafty Tales, so I’m thrilled to be working with her again.”
Roll on, August 12, for the first Park Bench Theatre performance. “The relief is being able to talk about putting on shows, rather than all the other stuff that’s going on,” says Matt. “Loads of people have been doing creative things in lockdown, and it’s good that Park Bench Theatre has come about in that time.”
Yet Matt strikes a note of caution for the winter ahead for theatre and the arts at large, however. “As I’ve said for many weeks, any organisation that relies on anyone being indoors for any length of time faces a problematic situation,” he says.
“I think the Government will let one industry take a hit and I fear that industry will be the arts, despite arts and culture bringing so much to the national and local economy.”
Full details on Park Bench Theatre, including tickets and the audience use of headphones, can be found at: parkbenchtheatre.com.
First Loveby Samuel Beckett, August 12 to 22, 7pm; August 15 and 22, 4pm matinee.
A story of a man, a woman, a recollection, awash with Beckett’s signature balancing of comedy and tragedy. Performed by Chris Hannon, directed by Matt Aston. Running time: 70 minutes. Contains very strong language.
Every Time A Bell Rings, premiere by Matt Aston, August 26 to September 5, 7pm; August 29 and September 5, 4pm matinee.
Lockdown. Easter Sunday 2020. Cathy emerges from her own isolation to search for solace on her favourite park bench in her favourite park. Touching, funny, poignant look at how the world is changing through these extraordinary times. Performed by Lisa Howard, directed by Tom Bellerby. Contains very strong language. Running time: 50 minutes.
Teddy Bears’ Picnic, premiere, August 19 to 22, 27 to 29 and 31; September 1 to 5; 11.30am and 1.30pm.Co-created by Cassie Vallance and director Matt Aston.
Every year, Jo’s family had a big, brilliant family gathering – a teddy bears’ picnic. Then she grew too old and too cool for that sort of thing, so she stopped going. But now she’s grown up, she wishes she could have them all over again. Running time: 30 minutes. Suitable for everyone aged three and over. Bring your favourite teddy and a picnic.
A word from: Helen Apsey, head of culture and well-being at Make It York
“This is a fantastic initiative to bring live theatre back to York in the beautiful surroundings of Rowntree Park. It is a great addition to the city’s summer offering – providing a safe outdoor theatre experience designed for families and people of all ages.”
A word from: Abigail Gaines, Friends of Rowntree Parktrustee
“We are thrilled to have open-air theatre in Rowntree Park. The park has been a lifeline to many during Lockdown, and hearing it inspired the writing of one of the plays makes hosting the performance even more meaningful.
“The park is a key place for families and we know they will love the family performances. The Friends of Rowntree Park always support arts in the park and are very much looking forward to the shows.”
Yes, headphones will be required to hear the dialogue, sound effects and music in performances. All audience members will be given a receiver on entry that headphones can be plugged into.
Audiences are encouraged to bring their own set, but no wireless or Bluetooth ones. Instead they must be plug-in headphones or earphones. You can buy takeaway headphones for £1 when you book your ticket online, for collection when you visit.
The Friends Garden is 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.
The capacity for First Love and Every Time A Bell Rings is 75 tickets; the maximum for Teddy Bears’ Picnic is 50 as boxes will be slightly bigger for up to four people from the same household.
Audience members are encouraged to bring blankets for the first few rows and chairs for the back few rows.
If you have any symptoms of Covid-19, have been diagnosed with the virus or have been in direct contact with a diagnosed individual in the past 14 days, you must not attend the event.
If unable to attend due to other illness, contact the box office to arrange a ticket transfer. Tickets can be refunded only if the booked performance has sold out.
HEALTH AND SAFETY MEASURES
IN conversation with City of York Council, and in line with Government guidance, Park Bench Theatre has implemented a range of measures to ensure the health and safety of audiences and staff. The measures are under constant review and apply across all performances throughout the season.
Arriving: Gates will open an hour before the show start time to allow everyone to arrive at their leisure and avoid large queues. All tickets will be digital and checked without contact at a social distance at the entrance to the performance area. There will be a one-way system to enter and exit the performance area.
Social distancing: Each household or social, bubble will be seated at a safe distance from other households or social bubbles. Volunteer stewards will direct audience members to their designated bubble.
Food and refreshments: Bring your own food and drink to all performances but no alcohol is allowed.
Departure: Stewards will manage the departure so large crowds do not all leave at the same time.
Loos. All performances take place without an interval. The Rowntree Park loos will be open before and after all performances.