During lockdown, Tori Allen-Martin, went through a painful break-up. “It was horrible," she says. "I survived by reading everything I could about attachment theory and narcissism. But then I thought I don’t know what to do with all this information until I can live the life that lockdown is stopping me from doing. I’ve learned all this stuff, but I’ve not been able to practice it.”
Instead, she has poured everything into Park Bench, a two part play opening at Park Theatre, which she says is “the break-up story I never had.” In Park Bench Liv—played by Allen-Martin-- and Theo (Tim Bowie) are close friends with a romantic history. But lockdown has pushed them so far apart they haven’t talked for months.
Allen-Martin says that Liv is a more sensible version of herself. “She’s very good at boundaries. She’s me on a day when I’ve just had therapy.”
Part of the cleverness of the piece is that it comes in two forms. You watch the first 15-minute act for free online as Liv and Theo try to reconnect over a faulty Zoom call, and if you’re hooked you will have to go to the theatre to find out what happens to them when they meet in person. My bet is that you will be hooked. The writing in Act One is warm, witty and witheringly honest.
But the form is far more than just a marketing trick to lure you in. Act One is not just an extended trailer and the two parts work together in a way that raises interesting possibilities for hybrid forms in theatre and which mirrors all our own journeys out of lockdown from isolation to the slow opening up.
“For lots of us the pandemic has changed who and what matters to us. It has forced epiphanies as we have had to sit with ourselves. As we come out of it, we are managing new versions of ourselves and that means our lives—and our friendships—won’t and can’t be the same.”
Neither will our theatres. Park Theatres’s opening season, which not only includes Park Bench but also the ghost story, When Darkness Falls, Archie Maddocks’ A Place for We, a co-production with Talawa which explores changing London through one building and three generations of people who use it, and 39 and Counting, a new play about violence against women, suggests a theatre thinking hard about its role and identity as we emerge from the pandemic.
“I think we all want to talk about things that matter, and so does Park Theatre. It wants to be a hub and a safe space to try stuff out,” says Allen-Martin, who argues the fact that she's being trusted to reopen the theatre, as a relatively unknown writer and a woman of colour from a working-class background, demonstrates that Park Theatre is genuinely committed to supporting new, diverse voices like hers. “They made a real effort to keep the relationship going during the shutdown and it was a real beacon of light for me throughout.”
There is a line in Act One of Park Bench when Liv, an editor, talks about writers during lockdown and says, “How can you be inspired when you can’t live.”
“There was a lot of pressure on writers to produce because there was an assumption that we had lots of time and were sitting at home all day doing nothing. But we were going through a pandemic. I found some stuff difficult but the things I wanted to really get off my chest, like Park Bench, flowed easier. I allowed myself the gift of time.”
Allen-Martin is, as she says, still a relative newcomer as a writer but one who hit the headlines when Tree, the idea that she developed with Sarah Henley (director on the in-person part of Park Bench), ended up at the Young Vic but without credit or acknowledgement of its origins. In an industry where people normally keep quiet about perceived injustices, Allen-Martin and Henley’s determination to speak out against an influential and powerful theatre was immensely brave.
Good things came out of it, including Burn Bright, the company set up by Allen-Martin and Henley to support women writers, but Allen-Martin says it was a traumatic period that stopped both her and Henley making work for a while.
“We’re keen to park it because it was a crap time,” she says, but adds that the outpouring of support the women had reflected the fact that what happened to her and Henley “happens all the time.” Sadly, the idea that young unknown artists and writers are disposable persists. But Allen-Martin and Henley will be remembered as two women who challenged the gatekeepers.
Allen-Martin is not sitting down but moving on, and Park Bench is evidence of that.
“It is amazing being back in the room creating. I feel supported by Park Theatre; they genuinely want the theatre to be a platform for people like me, those who don’t always get heard.”
BY: Lyn Gardner
You can find tickets for all Park Theatre shows here.