Interview: Chris Hannon On Panto, Beckett & Engine House Theatre’s Park Bench Theatre Season

Guest Interview: Steve Pratt chats with Chris Hannon ahead of his work with Engine House Theatre in the upcoming Park Bench Theatre season.

For actor Chris Hannon 2020 had all the makings of being an actor’s dream year – a TV series, performing in open air theatre in the summer and ending the year by writing and playing Dame, as he has done for the past decade, at Theatre Royal Wakefield.

Then a pandemic happened. The TV job didn’t happen, the summer theatre work was cancelled and the fate of pantomimes around the country is hanging in the balance.

So this summer you will find Chris sitting on a bench every evening in Rowntree Park in York. He’ll be working – performing Samuel Beckett’s monologue First Love as part of the Park Bench Theatre season from 12 August to 5 September.

The socially-distanced audience will be outdoors in the Friends’ Garden in a season presented by Engine House Theatre. That company’s York-based artistic director Matt Aston has put the outdoor season together in response to the easing of Covid-19 restrictions that allow live performances outdoors.

Chris – known to CBeebies viewers as Dad in the BAFTA award-winning Topsy and Tim – first worked with First Love director Matt Aston in pantomime in Wakefield. Matt was directing, a task undertaken in recent years by Chris’ wife Rhiannon who is head of learning and participation at the Wakefield theatre.

Chris had always wanted to play Dame but imagined he was too young. “I thought you had to be a theatrical veteran to do it. I just loved it when I did it,” he says.

He doesn’t recall seeing many pantomimes growing up. “I have a memory of going to one panto as a child – Peter Pan. All I can remember is the spectacle. Then, as an actor in my 20s, I saw some of the panto greats. I thought ‘that looks so much fun’ – and it is.”

He’d written the first draft of this year’s Beauty and the Beast when coronavirus happened. “I write the script for the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds as well as for Wakefield. I start writing the scripts in February. It’s first draft, second draft, the rehearsal process and sorting out the music. It’s the rhythm of my year.”

“I love panto and playing the Dame. It’s become a really big part of my life. Ours is a proper traditional family pantomime. We put so much care into it,” he explains.

The contrast from pantomime to his solo turn in First Love couldn’t be greater. The first time Chris encountered Beckett’s work was through a production of another, more famous monologue Krapp’s Last Tape. He has also taken part in a rehearsed reading of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

First Love, he suggests, feels like a young man’s version of Krapp’s Last Tape. That elderly character is described as slightly clownish with red nose and white cheeks. “That’s a big part of the way Beckett writes characters, people looking back on their lives and realising that the life they lived had a comical absurdity, they end up as sad clowns. It’s quite accessible for audiences,” says Chris.

He finds the prospect of holding the attention of an audience on his own both “exciting and absolutely terrifying”, adding “It’s just you on your own for an hour which is quite daunting. On a technical level there’s a lot of words to learn. I’ve never done a one-man show and am excited to do it. I found the text intimidating at first but as I started to pick it apart I quickly realised that is a universal, relatable story. The story of a young man coming of age”

Chris is excited to be acting again after an enforced six-month absence and believes audiences share that feeling. “People are ready to see something live and have a shared experience,” he says.

Doing a one-man show is one thing, working with children is another. Chris – who has a three-year-old son Ben – found playing Dad in the BAFTA-award winning CBeebies series Topsy and Tim an unusual job for an actor too.

“They wanted to get very spontaneous performances from the kids so you would never do take after take after take. The adults would work on set with crew, then the kids would come on set – and what happened, happened.

“If they dropped a line, the adults had to pick it up. You had to know their lines and your lines..Scenes were never played as written on the page. You just had to keep it going. A huge amount of improvisation was involved.”

He still gets recognised from the series with parents demanding he poses for a picture with their children. “The kids are mortified by this. They don’t want a picture taken with me so there are lots of pictures of me with unhappy-looking kids,” he says.

Chris Hannon performs First Love from 12-22 August as part of the Park Bench Theatre season in Rowntree Park, York, which runs from 12 August to 5 September. Full details and tickets here.

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