A couple of years ago there was a real buzz in Liverpool over a very brief run of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End – a new production by Liverpool artiste Mike Livesley that reproduced the famous Vivian Stanshall record as a live one-man show.
Unable to attend the performance at the Unity Theatre, we made sure we secured a place the following year to see Livesley performing the entire one-hour monologue – representing a series of grotesque characters, with support from a cobwebbed band to accompany musical performances.
It was, quite simply, one of the best things we’d seen on stage in Liverpool and we gushed appropriately over this lunatic, brilliant show – as English as tuppence – and Livesley’s ability to negotiate Stanshall’s rich, circumlocutious, fecund text.
In the meantime we’ve followed Livesley’s progress and are pleased to announce that Sir Henry will live again this October at the Epstein Theatre, fittingly as part of a night with long-time Stanshall friend and collaborator Neil Innes (see below for details).
We determined to catch up with Livesley as he prepares to return to Liverpool with his production – two years on and still unusual – gaining universal acclaim and new projects on the horizon.
We urge you to catch the show if you can – and if you want to hear more from Mike on Sir Henry, Neil, Viv and Nigel From Eastenders scroll down for the genesis of this excellent show, what Ade Edmondson thought of it and what’s coming up next.
SevenStreets: What’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson End about?
Mike Livesley: Well, that’s a question that has many different answers! The short answer is that it is a day at Rawlinson End, a crumbling, bucolic stately home, and the grotesques who inhabit it. The action begins in the morning with Old Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer, entering the house after burying the body of Doris Hazard’s Pekinese, unwittingly asphyxiated beneath her husband’s bottom.
The piece is also entirely cyclical and could accurately be described as a true piece of Dadaist art due to it’s collage of literary sources including Shakespeare, Lear and Browning amongst many, many others and also its juxtaposition of words, for example: “croci, gingering the lawns in tessellate performing rights society.”
What does it mean? That is up to the audience, which is why the piece is held so dear and feels personal to so many. However, in learning the piece I have realised that, once you cotton on to Vivian’s herculean thought processes, there really is a logic that runs throughout. It is still very haphazard, wayward, crazy and Dada but there is a thread there. It’s like leafing through an encyclopaedia.
SS: When did you first become aware of Sir Henry and Vivian Stanshall?
ML: I was always aware of Vivian and Neil Innes from my childhood. I was a huge fan of The Beatles so I suppose I got into The Bonzos through Magical Mystery Tour and was also a massive fan of The Rutles and The Innes Book of Records. However I was only vaguely aware of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End as one of those albums that the old heads used to bring up late on during booze-soaked evenings, yet no-one ever seemed to own a copy. It was very frustrating!
Then, about five or six years ago the chap who is now the show’s percussionist, Jonny Hase, bought the reissue and played it to me one sunny afternoon as we sat in his garden drinking heavily – the perfect entrée! I remember thinking how wonderful it was.
A few years later I was living in Vancouver, Canada and desperately homesick when I remembered the afternoon listening to Sir Henry and realised it was exactly the thing to completely remove me from my surroundings of concrete, glass and steel. It wasn’t difficult to find the CD on Amazon and within two weeks – Vancouver is two weeks from everywhere – I finally had my own copy of this treasure.
SS: Tell us about your production of Sir Henry At Rawlinson End…
ML: The actual germ of the idea began during one of my periodical attempts to get fit as I cycled the Liverpool waterfront every day with the assistance of an Ipod. As the weeks rolled by I began to realise I was listening to Sir Henry at Rawlinson End more than any other piece yet I was still hearing new things within it.
My first thought was that I wanted to go and see it performed, I was certain someone would be doing it but, as they weren’t I realised it was up to me to do it!
I watched the movie and my belief was that it worked better done by one man playing all the characters, in the way that Jackanory used to do, and this was the approach I took.
In the play I portray 15 characters, the main ones being Sir Henry, Aunt Florrie, Old Scrotum, Hubert and Reg Smeeton, who all have at least one song each. Due to being absolutely flat broke – we still are! – rehearsals had to be split into two. The acting rehearsals and the music rehearsals were done separately, and the two were brought together after about two months.
This approach actually worked very well and within another two months we were on stage at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre giving the world premiere. Since then we have toured across England performing the show in London, Bristol, Bath and Penzance to name but a few.
SS: How long did it take to memorise the text?
ML: I would say it took 6-8 months of weekends and evenings. I had to fit it in around my life so it was sporadic and it did take a while to get it nailed on to the old bonce! It is essentially an hour-long monologue peppered with songs but it is very haphazard and meandering, but that is it’s joy, beauty and charm.
As I said earlier once I’d cottoned on to Vivian’s thought process it became easier to recall, but that was only after I’d performed it a few times. It really did terrify me; it still does, as it is a very impenetrable piece of work. I can honestly say that booking the theatre back in 2010 gave me the biggest impetus to learn it!
SS: It’s quite a florid, verbose, rich text. What’s your favourite line?
ML: I would still say after all this time it is still “I don’t know what I want! But I want it now!” as it completely sums up us as a race and encapsulates the lovely playfulness of Vivian’s character and the brevity of his writing.
SS: You’re the only person who’s had the permission from the Stanshall estate to perform Sir Henry. How come?
ML: I have been told by Vivian’s son Rupert, his daughter Silky and his widow Ki that it was the respect I showed to Vivian’s legacy and also to the family that meant I got past the first post. After that it was the recordings I sent of myself reading passages of the piece that proved that my ‘chops were up to snuff’, so to speak, and then we were off!
It took a long time to get permission as I am a great believer in karma and was determined that at no point would I cajole or pressure any of the family to allow me to go out there and do it. I also gave myself the strict brief that if they were unhappy with my doing the piece then I would not do it and I meant it and they knew that.
Thankfully time passed and everyone was happy and since then we have all become great friends. It makes me very happy to know that they love my interpretation of their father’s work so much.
SS: What’s been the reaction of those who knew Vivian Stanshall?
ML: Overwhelmingly positive. We have had nothing but love from Vivian’s famous contemporaries, his family and also those who knew the great man either as fans or drinking partners. We have spent many lovely nights after a performance being embraced and lavished with affection by all of these people in theatre bars.
It really is very life affirming, especially when it comes from someone who has come along believing that what we do cannot be done. To be told you have proved them wrong is a very positive experience!
SS: You’re putting on Sir Henry as part of a joint show with Neil Innes. How did he become involved?
ML: In the lead up to last year’s London Premiere on October 14th I had been in touch with Neil via Twitter and, to my surprise, he said he was going to come along to the show and “bring a few friends with him”.
After the performance I was just getting my breath back in the dressing room when our director Paul Carmichael popped his head around the door and said ‘Mike. Neil Innes, Adrian Edmondson and Nigel from Eastenders would like to have a word with you’ I was gob-smacked! These were the friends Neil had brought!
I walked out to say hello and Neil embraced me in a huge bear hug and told me how wonderful my performance was. I was speechless! To be hugged by the great Neil Innes, a huge hero of mine from childhood and Vivian’s writing partner was surreal!
Then Ade and Paul Nigel-From-Eastenders Bradley came over and shook my hand and the only thing I could think to say was “Blimey! You don’t often see Vyvyan and Warlock in the same room together!”.
The London Premiere was a real crazy day. We left Liverpool at 5am, drove to London, set-up, did the show, had a few swift halves with our lovely new friends, packed up and drove straight back here. I recall sitting back in my house at 6am, 25 hours after leaving it and wondering if it had all really happened!
And now here we are, 363 days after the London Premiere we will actually be performing with the great Neil Innes in the same show! A unique combination of the work of two greats – Innes and Stanshall – in an evening called ‘How Nice! To be in England…’
SS: What’s next?
ML: In the immediate future we plan to release a DVD of the ‘How Nice! To be in England…’ shows with Neil and then get back on the road for the remainder of the year. I’m also putting together something rather special with Neil for a big show in London next March for what would have been Vivian’s 70th birthday. After that we plan to do a nationwide tour to celebrate Vivian’s 70th year and take his greatest work to every corner of the country.
When this whole thing was first forming in my head back in 2009 I had two very clear mandates: To remind people of the great man’s work; and to consign the phrase ‘Vivian Who?’ to the wastepaper bin for another generation.
I also had an unerring belief in the source material. I knew that if we built it they would come. I’m happy to say that, so far, I have been proved right! Now think on’t dot, dot, dot, dot, dot
Mike Livesley stars in his production of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End as part of Neil Innes’ How Nice! To Be In England at the Epstein Theatre on October 11-12