The Bench, from David Armstrong, is a trilogy of three thirty minute plays set on a park bench, looking at issues around mental health, grief and relationships.

Using only the eponymous bench as a set, this simplicity prevents any complicated set changes distracting from the short plays, with the actors bringing the small number of props they need with them.

The first play, Love, tells the story of Phillip (Neil Summerville) and Mary (Claire Coull), a married couple who are waiting on the bench for their granddaughter, Elizabeth (Lindsey Huebner).

The play opens with an ear piercing air-raid siren and a recording of Winston Churchill’s famous We Will Never Surrender speech. Lighting is cleverly used to indicate bombing and the noise becomes overwhelming before it is abruptly interrupted by The Clash’s London Calling. Most of this song plays before Summerville and Coull begin their slow approach from the back of the theatre and the lack of pace this creates does not recover throughout the work and is in fact a theme present across all three plays.

There is some gentle comedy while Coull tells Summerville that he is too slow as they walk through the audience, but the truth is that nothing happens for far too long. When they reach the bench they almost immediately notice the audience, shattering the fourth wall and leading them into the rather artificial and unnatural performance that the rest of the play takes.

The couple talk, explaining how they met as children during the Blitz, and going through details of the war. At times it seems they are talking to each other, which feels peculiar as a couple who have been married for this long would know all these details, and at other times it feels like they are talking directly to the audience, with the assumption that we have zero prior knowledge of World War 2, the dialogue often feeling like an educational piece aimed at very young children.

The twist at the end tends towards being predictable but does create an emotional climax which is tender and poignant.

The second play, Heaven Sent, is by far the strongest of the trilogy. The opening is again quite long and static, with a young girl, Bethany (Emma Ley), sitting on the bench visibly upset, while writing and glancing over her shoulder periodically.

After a while she is approached by Stephen (Clifford Hume) whom she doesn’t notice until he loudly coughs behind her. He talks to her for a while before she demands that he leave as she feels threatened by him. However, he refuses to leave and it quickly becomes clear that there is more to Stephen than there appears.

The overall thread of the plot is again a little predictable, but the twist at the end of this piece is far more surprising and makes this a much more compelling piece of theatre.

The final play, Friendship Forever, is a lighter piece, with some comical elements. A man (Neil Summerville) and woman (Barbara Cunningham) walk up to the bench and sit and talk about their childhood friendship and how they haven’t seen each other for 45 years. They have been reunited over social media and now she is giving him an organ transplant which he is very grateful for.

The dialogue in this piece feels particularly artificial and the performances are quite flat and unnatural. Unfortunately, there appears to have been a lack of rehearsal for this piece, as several times the actors spoke over each other’s lines and corpsed on more than one occasion.

The nature of the lines quickly makes it clear that a twist in the story is going to be forced, presumably to maintain the theme of the rest of the evening. Again, this twist tends towards predictable and this story feels particularly contrived as a result.

The Bench is a gentle evening of theatre, which could become a strong collection of plays with further work on the scripts and in rehearsal. Care needs to be taking in shorter pieces to hit the ground running and maintain a level of pace to pique and keep interest. Further research into some of the issues could increase the sense of realism and strengthen these pieces even more.

Reviewer: Donna M Day

Reviewed: 22nd February 2020

North West End UK Rating: ★★