Chronic Illness-Friendly: 5/5
[AD – Press Invite. Many thanks to York Theatre Royal and Engine House Theatre for the complimentary tickets. It’s so important to support local theatres at this time so I’d also like to make clear that I will be making an online donation following the performance. You can do the same here!]
To say it’s been a theatre-less few months would be an understatement. Like many people, I’ve been sorely missing live theatre and watching on with despair as the industry we adore struggles to survive these challenging times. However, if stagey people are anything, they’re creative. They do what they can to find innovative solutions to seemingly impossible barriers, and Engine House Theatre’s Park Bench Theatre initiative is a prime example of this.
From August through to September, Park Bench Theatre will be sharing three unique productions: a play based on Samuel Beckett’s First Love (under Under Matt Aston’s direction), the premiere of the original Every Time A Bell Rings, and a further premiere of Teddy Bears’ Picnic. The small team of creatives will be staging each of these productions outdoors, within the gorgeous scenery of York’s Rowntree Park, inviting audiences to once more indulge in the arts in a safer, socially distanced way.
As such, I jumped at the chance to attend the press night of First Love. Although I knew absolutely nothing about the play in advance, simply the prospect of getting theatre back into my life was enough to make me do a little happy dance. And sitting here writing this now, the day after the performance, I can confirm it was an experience like no other.
Socially Distanced, Outdoor Theatre
So, how did it work? Park Bench Theatre’s performance area is set in the secluded ‘Friends Garden’ of Rowntree Park; a beautiful green area sectioned off from other communal areas by towering greenery. The garden and surrounding area were staffed by volunteers, directing audience members and encouraging them to maintain a safe distance from others right from when they initially joined the queue to enter.
As we approached, tickets were shown and/or attendees’ names were checked off the list. All tickets and programmes were digital and allocated through email, further reducing the potential for cross-contamination. Audience members were required to bring headphones with them to the performance, to plug into the small, sound-transmitting device each individual was also given at this stage. These devices manually allow the user to adjust the volume according to their preferences and are to be wiped down and disinfected between performances. You can read Park Bench Theatre’s audience guide for Covid-19 safety policies and FAQs here.
Audience members were also advised in advance to bring something to sit on: either a blanket for the grass or a folding chair. There were no allocated ‘seats’ prior to the performance, so each party was next directed to one of the pre-defined ‘bubbles’ of space on the grass (you can see this in my vlog from the evening!). Staff and volunteers were proactive in ensuring those sitting on the grass aimed for the bubbles towards the front and those with chairs were directed to the back, ensuring everybody had the best view possible. From sitting on the floor in our own bubble around the middle of the area, I couldn’t fault our view of the performance.
Additionally, audience members were encouraged to bring their own food and (non-alcoholic) drinks. Looking around before the performance commenced, there was just something so lovely about seeing each group establish their little set-up and settle down for an evening of entertainment. My friend Katie and I (being from separate households) each had our own blanket, drinks and necessary sweeties, and I honestly think that the novelty of enjoying theatre in such a unique way made this production extra special even before it got under way.
And now, after a volunteer parades around holding up a sign instructing the audience to put their headphones in now, the performance begins. Actor Chris Hannon enters the performance area as if singlehandedly bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders and sits himself down at the bench from which the entire story is contextualised.
First Love tells the narrator’s tale of losing his father and becoming homeless, taking up residence on a solitary park bench. It’s on this same bench that he meets a lady who occupies his mind and offers him a room to live in, and only after moving in does he realise that she’s a prostitute. She eventually ends up giving birth to his child, at which point the narrator turns his back on them both and treads off on his way. It’s essentially a stream of consciousness punctuated by sporadic moments of comedy and tragedy, all told from the same park bench that played such a pivotal role in the protagonist’s life.
Now, I’m definitely not a monologue kinda gal. This style of performance is far outside of my comfort zone, and as somebody with the concentration capacity of a mashed potato, I was initially worried about zoning out and losing track of what was going on. The fact that this didn’t happen is a testament to Chris Hannon’s outstanding portrayal of the narrator. He utilised every little moment of Samuel Beckett’s playful ping pong use of comedy-to-tragedy language to its fullest potential, and single-handedly managed to captivate and keep the audience invested in this one man’s solitary tale. Heck, I was even slightly emotional at the end.
I think it was the combination of Chris Hannon’s skills as an actor, the unique environment of the performance, and the efforts of the creative team that made this production feel so immersive. Seeing the actor with my own eyes, hearing the spoken word and audio effects directly in my ears (impressively, with only very minor technical hiccups!), and being in such an authentic setting that rings so true to the original story made the performance, in my opinion, an undeniable success.
Engine House Theatre’s First Love completely exceeded my personal expectations and reignited my tentative optimism for this industry. It singlehandedly demonstrates why smaller, regional theatres and companies have such a vital part to play in local communities and culture, and I think there’s a heck of a lot we can all learn from taking such an oppressive situation and making something awesome out of it. If you’re in York or the surrounding area and craving your theatre fix, I highly recommend that you experience this initiative for yourself. You can find all information about upcoming performances on this page.
Chronic Illness-Friendly Review
The greatest irony of the theatre industry facing so many barriers in present times is that in many ways, it’s inadvertently removed many of the barriers disabled theatregoers have faced for years. Being set in the remarkably wheelchair-accessible grounds of Rowntree Park, there were no additional or hidden accessibility issues that would prevent somebody who uses mobility aids from accessing the space. No alternate pathways or additional arrangements. Disabled patrons entered and made their way to their seats in the same way as non-disabled patrons, and such a seemingly small thing represents more than I can currently articulate.
For those who don’t use mobility aids but struggle with walking, it’s worth acknowledging that there’s only so close you can get to the performance space in a car, and accessing the Friends Garden requires a short walk through the grounds. There is, however, an excellent opportunity for bench-hopping. I didn’t use my wheelchair on this occasion, and getting dropped off at the bottom end of the park (near the skate park facilities) and walking towards the area with short intermittent stops on the multiple benches lining the pathways was no problem at all.
I will say that if you have a chronic illness or disability that causes pain, I’d probably recommend taking yourself a chair over sitting on the floor. This is something I would opt for if I were to do it again: though I was fairly comfortable at the time, my body isn’t thanking me for it today, the day after. Because of the excellent accessibility, I’d actually be tempted to attend and stay sitting in my power-chair next time, provided it didn’t obstruct the view of others. My friend Katie who came with me did bring her wheelchair and was able to leave it safely towards the back of the gardens whilst sitting on the floor, but perhaps it would have made more sense for us both to stay sitting in the mobility aids. Definitely food for thought.
Finally, the nature of this production meant there were no extreme technical effects to contend with: no flashing lights or unexpected noises that would have battered my poorly brain – especially with it likely being deconditioned from these effects after so long without live theatre.
This production was theatre stripped back to its very core: no lavish set or effects, no reams of cast members and ensemble continuously entering and exiting, no live orchestra scoring throughout. Instead, as the sun went down, audience members sat peacefully and immersed themselves in the story that Samuel Beckett’s words crafted so skilfully, and Engine House Theatre brought new life to so masterfully. For an artistic experience like no other in these increasingly challenging times, Park Bench Theatre is ready for you.
Thanks for reading, and many thanks again to York Theatre Royal and Engine House Theatre for the press tickets. You can find out more about Park Bench Theatre here, watch my vlog from the evening here, and find other stagey posts and chronic illness-friendly reviews among my theatre posts here!