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.

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