We have a running joke in the flat about the phrase “now more than ever”. Over the past six months, this wonderfully vague euphemism for the pandemic has been gradually losing all meaning, used to highlight the importance of mortgage advice, chips, on demand TV… The truly important “now more than ever” stuff seems lost en route, like family, outdoor spaces, time to breathe. Matt Aston’s pandemic-based premiere Every Time a Bell Rings nobly attempts to steer us back to the things that matter most. But although its references to Durham trips and hand-drawn rainbows are recognisable, but they’re also a symptom of how tired and repetitive these symbols of coronavirus living have become.
Cathy (Lisa Howard) loiters around a park bench –not sitting on it, mind, as the play is set during the walking-only era of April 2020. Easter Sunday, to be precise. Her monologue is a stream of consciousness from a woman who’s not been allowed to think so freely for years, a fierce and tender cry of love and loss as she grapples what it means to be isolated.
The performance starts with a series of audio clips from Johnson, Trump, et al downplaying the seriousness of coronavirus in early 2020 – all played through headphones issued to each audience member. The outdoor set-up is carefully configured, a real show of the love put into this endeavour by Park Bench Theatre. It’s inevitable that the surroundings remind the viewer that we’re not yet back to the theatrical norm of packed tiered seating or overpriced sweets, but the play itself isn’t aiming for escapism by any stretch. It’s steeped in contemporary discussions: quarantine timescales, the daily walks, the weekly clap.
These everyday elements of coronavirus feel natural, and Howard’s performance imbues Cathy with a matter-of-fact attitude that matches the world-weary, used-to-it-ness of lockdown. However, the play can feel bogged down by its setting, as it does when Cathy outright declares that the NHS is wonderful after a segment about her daughter’s stint in hospice care. We know Cathy’s affection for the carers, and yet saying it so obviously turns her from a nuanced character into an author mouthpiece.
On a similar note, it’s interesting that despite Cathy’s protestations that she’s never been religious, there’s plenty of Christian allegory to be milked from the significance of her life starting over on Easter Sunday. It’s almost as if Aston’s words loom large over her character, making Cathy’s atheistic outlook appear naive. Indeed, it feels like a conversation the play skirts around as Cathy imagines (or actually hears aloud) the ringing of bells for the departures of loved ones.
As a result, Cathy’s character feels uncertain: we know she’s well-read, but downtrodden, but outspoken, but caring, and yet capable of an act at the play’s conclusion which feels a theatrical leap away from the realism we’ve been shown up until then.
Still, the technical elements of the piece are inspired, creating a soundscape which complements the action without distracting. Even the open-air nature of the performance feels respectful: during an arresting moment from Howard about grief, a nearby squirrel stops their scurrying to stand on two hind legs and watch, almost respectfully, before running away again. The bench has been carefully picked: its inscription, a quote from It’s a Wonderful Life, is used to ground Cathy and her first love Peter’s romance in a greater romance yet. Aston’s references to the film aren’t unpacked, so if you don’t know who guardian angel Clarence Odbody is, you’ll have trouble resonating with the emotional heft of Cathy’s story. Nonetheless, it’s undeniably brilliant to be watching live performance again without the fear of wifi dropping.
There’s a biting chill in the air to remind us that open air theatre is short-lived for the 2020 season, but Park Bench Theatre shows promise and delivers on the joy of connection – even if this is felt most keenly when looking around at the pods of fellow theatregoers, rather than the stage.
Every Time a Bell Rings was on at Park Bench Theatre in Rowntree Park, from 26th August to 5th September. More info here.