First Love: Benchmark Beckett

Chris Hannon in Samuel Beckett’s First Love, photo by Northedge Photography

Golden hour settles on Rowntree Park, York as a tentative crowd arrive in pairs and small groups, for the first live theatre the city has seen in months.

The pressure is on for performer Chris Hannon to entertain what now constitutes ‘the masses’ in this bleak new circumstance, but there is an unspoken agreement; an excitement at the end of a period of hibernation, among the orderly crowd of familiar local theatre-goers and the well-oiled machine that is the Front of House staff and crew of Park Bench Theatre and York Theatre Royal.

First Love forms the first of Park Bench Theatre’s new outdoor season of monologues for all ages in the park from 12 August to 5 September. Presented in the carefully laid out and spacious Friends Garden opposite the café, the socially-distanced audience maintain their own position in bubbles across the green, bringing their own headphones to plug into sanitised devices made available for enhanced audio during the performance.

Directed by Matt Aston, the production is simple, resourceful and poignant. A complex portrait poem for a single actor, the text follows the stream of consciousness of a widely-read, philosophical man pondering big, existential questions and forming links in his mind akin to the opening montage of Amélie. Parsnips meet violets, and their existence becomes utterly interdependent.

Gifted in character quirks and slapstick physical storytelling, Hannon perfectly conveys the lighthearted humour (“darkly, because of the dark”), astute observation and interest in the mundane (“that charming business with the dust”) and poignant expressions of human need (“Leave me my graveyards,”…”I can’t stretch out because you’re there.”)

His generous, sincere performance highlights the acute timeliness of this rarely-performed play being seen in the present. Making no fixed judgement on the character, we follow his tragic backstory surrounding his father’s death and the loss of his home, through a discomforting relationship that seems to happen at him in the park before taking him indoors and eventually driving him back out again in the bitterest winter.

“I need silence to live my life.”

Traversing joy, humour, confusion and guilt, among myriad other countenances, there is a hint of dissociative madness present too, driven home by the odd punctuation of piano interludes, and the thinly rotated repertoire of Dirty Old Town playing on repeat before the play begins. It is fond, perturbed, stimulated and engaged, ever-discovering, much like our world at this moment in time. Lamenting the loss of home comforts turns to longing for more space, illuminating the ways we adapt to our strange, changing environment.

First Love is running nightly at 7pm until Saturday 22nd August, with a 2pm matinee on the 22nd, at the Friends Garden in Rowntree Park, York. Tickets and further information are available here. Please note: the play contains very strong language.

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