Writer: Matt Aston
Director: Tim Bellerby
Every Time a Bell Rings shows perfect synchronicity of time and place. Written by Matt Aston of Engine House Theatre as a response to his exercise in Rowntree Park during the pandemic lockdown, it is staged for a socially distanced audience on and around a bench in that park just as the arts are tentatively moving out of lockdown.
All but immediately topical, Every Time a Bell Rings is set rather earlier in a time of more complete lockdown: Easter. Cathy, a woman aged 60-ish, one gathers from the script, is taking her first walk in the park after isolating for 14 days because of the infection of her rather older husband. Early in the monologue the appeal of the familiar works well, for locals the identification of specific streets and recent floods, for all of us that strange and rather sweet semi-greeting with strangers and hardly known neighbours that occurred in the early weeks of social distancing.
Gradually Cathy’s monologue stretches to correlate the individual with the collective. What is grief? Well, of course, it’s what we feel when a loved one dies, whether of Covid-19 or something else, but what about grief for a way of life, for things undone that we may now be unable ever to do? Even before the coronavirus, Cathy, it turns out, has two great losses to mourn: her first love and her daughter, both of whom died young, one an appallingly quick death, the other desperately lingering.
More shockingly, it becomes slowly apparent that she is also mourning not only what she lost, but what she gained, a controlling, unfeeling husband, now ill at home a few streets away.
The interweaving of her story and the nation’s story of the pandemic is skilfully done, but the social comment feels a little second-hand: of course, we have learned to love the NHS and, of course, the Government’s actions have been border-line despicable. The references to creating a kinder world seem obvious, if possibly unattainable. If the comments in the script lack bite, however, the opening montage of politicians over our headphones has plenty of impact: Boris boasting of shaking hands, the Donald promising that the disease would just disappear, etc. The Queen recalling Vera Lynn is more ambiguous: the final play-out of HM’s speech followed by “Buffalo Girls” from It’s a Wonderful Life might be ironic, or might be looking to a happier tomorrow.
Where does the play’s title fit into all this? It’s at the heart of a revelation some five or so minutes before the end of a 50-minute monologue: it’s fairer to leave it to Lisa Howard, with the aid of a spectacular outburst from the effectively realistic sound effects.
Under Tim Bellerby’s direction Lisa Howard seldom strays far from the bench or from predictable speech patterns. She is convincingly one with the audience sitting around the Friends Garden; it’s just that hers is the voice we can hear. She is expert in subtle variations of tone and mood and in avoiding the over-dramatic. Above all she deserves our plaudits for remaining unfazed by a desperately cold Saturday afternoon; it was not easy for the audience, but what about the actor putting over 50 minutes of shifting narrative focus, with another, possibly colder performance to follow in the evening?
Runs until September 5th 2020