PARK BENCH – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – a multimedia play for our times, and it’s a real beauty

PARK BENCH

by Tori Allen-Martin

Act 1 (digital) directed by Christa Harris

Act 2 (live) directed by Sarah Henley and Timothy O’Hara

Park Theatre – until 14 August

https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/park-bench

Tori Allen-Martin is a luminous, one-in-a-million talent: an instinctive, funny, truthful actor with presence and authority but also a remarkable warmth and relatability, she is also an astute writer well alive to the idiosyncrasies of modern speech and the sheer, sometimes beguiling strangeness of apparently ordinary people. These skills reach an apotheosis of sorts with this delightful, often moving, piece of writing.

The idea of Park Bench is so simple, neat and clever that you wonder why nobody’s done it before. A play in two acts, it’s about Liv and Theo, a youngish urban ‘sort-of‘ couple who aren’t quite together (in any sense of the word) but who also care too deeply about each other to leave each other alone. They describe themselves as friends but, as Allen-Martin’s intensely engaging, vulnerable but never pathetic Liv tells Theo in a particularly bruising moment: “I don’t fuck my friends”. The play’s USP, beyond the sheer quality of the writing, acting and direction, is that the first act is only available to watch digitally, in a tense but amusing, scarcely conciliatory Zoom call between the pair. The second act, a park bench meeting set up during the filmed section, takes place live onstage, and it’s a bit of a treat.

The amount of pain and truth, as well as rollicking good laughs that Allen-Martin packs into this beguiling fifty minutes is a wonder to behold, as Liv and Theo unpack a heck of a lot of things: the realisations about themselves that isolation and lockdown have  prompted, jealousy, mental health, miscommunication, much more, but perhaps most potently a tidal wave of mutual affection …. it carries an authentic ring of truth, not least because Allen-Martin’s writing generously spreads the foibles and the (often brilliant) one liners amongst the two characters.

Tim Bowie is terrific as feckless, tentative Theo. He’s not exactly a loser but he’s not a winner and there’s something deeply touching about watching him trying to articulate feelings that are coming as a surprise even to himself. Perhaps the most appropriate thing one can say about Allen-Martin’s marvellous performance as Liv is that when Theo describes her as gold, somebody whose very presence in other people’s lives enriches those lives, is that one can see exactly what he means. Her speech describing her temporary descent into very dark mental health terrain is heartbreaking.

Sarah Henley and Timothy O’Hara’s punchy, pacy staging is so natural and exquisitely calibrated that it genuinely feels like eavesdropping on a conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed this little gem of a play as I was watching it but the more I thought about it afterwards I realised that, like Theo with Liv, I basically loved it.

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