DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Park Keeper – Rowntree Park, York

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Writer: Mike Kenny

Director: Matt Aston

Park Bench Theatre is back. Last August, when all theatres’ doors were shut, Engine House Theatre staged three plays in the Friends’ Garden of Rowntree Park. This year it’s just one, The Park Keeper by Mike Kenny. Does the continued existence of Park Bench Theatre suggest a gloomy prognostication for the progress of Covid? Possibly, but optimists will prefer the equally likely theory that Park Bench Theatre is here to stay on its merits, virus or no virus.

Matt Aston of Engine House Theatre is skilled in finding subjects for plays that match up both with our time and with the surroundings, a charming garden with audiences on benches or chairs on the grass and a single actor around and about a bench beneath a maturely spreading tree. One of last year’s plays grew out of Aston’s lockdown walks in the park; The Park Keeper draws on a web of inter-connections.

It was suggested by the 1945 retirement of the Park’s first keeper, James Bell, known as “Parkie” Bell. He tries out his farewell speech for size and launches into memories and reminiscences. The park opened – and he was appointed – in 1921, so we are celebrating its centenary in the right place. The gift of the Rowntree family was a response to the suffering in the Great War and Parkie is retiring in the wake of the Second World War, so the theme of recovery from tragedy figures – nothing if not topical. Over our earphones before the play starts we hear Hannah Davies’ fine Love Song to Spring, set in lockdown and featured on York Theatre Royal’s reopening show.

Sean McKenzie wastes no time in establishing that he is the sort of park keeper who figured large in kids’ comics of a certain vintage: he was regularly called “Hitler” before he shaved his moustache off – probably wisely. Now, as he enters, his attempts to polish his brief and bland speech are constantly interrupted by yelling at juvenile miscreants and blowing loud blasts on his famous whistle.

McKenzie gets full value from this putting green martinet. In one delightful interlude he explains that, much as he sympathises with God with all His problems, He got it wrong in Eden – if it had been Rowntree Park, Parkie would have made sure Eve got nowhere near the fruit and the history of Mankind would have changed.

However, the play is essentially serious. McKenzie at times is troubled, even agonised, as he recalls the losses of the first day of the Somme or his fraught and ultimately sad relationship with his son. McKenzie switches tone expertly into such thorny topics as class distinction, social responsibilities, the emptiness of retirement and the unanswerable question, how to avoid repeating the horrors of war.

Sean McKenzie’s performance works well on more than one level: the buttoned up authority figure, the seeker after meaning confiding in the audience, the sharer of memories actively bounding about in Matt Aston’s nimble production. But a lot comes back to the glory of Rowntree Park – and why not, on a fine summer evening, with a background of trees stretching down to the river?

Runs until July 17th 2021

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