The first run of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End at the Unity came at a bad time for SevenStreets. Despite applauding the idea of what is essentially a one-man show based on Vivian Stanshall’s long-player monologue, we were unable to attend.
What made all the more galling that is that Mike Livesley’s adaptation won what could reasonably be described as rave reviews, from friends and media alike. So we were desperate to attend second time around, in what is a brief three-day reprise at the Unity; a strange and lovely theatre off Hope Street.
Stanshall’s LP described a collection of grotesques in and around Rawlinson End, a sprawling country pile ‘nestling in green nowhere’.
There’s little in the way of narrative, but a sequence of set-pieces strung together by a narrator, segueing into the voices of various oddballs and eccentrics.
All are played expertly by Mike Livesley – accents, mannerisms, tics and all – who does not miss a beat through the entire lengthy monologue, intercut with the odd song and backed up by a ramshackle, cobwebbed band.
Livesley has aspects of Brian Blessed and Dickie Attenborough, via Willie Rushton, Tim Wonnacott and, of course, Vivian Stanshall. While his performance is breathless and breakneck, he gives every impression that he understands the rhythms and the inflections of the text and, with impeccable timing, he brings it to life wonderfully.
As for the words; they’re a collision of Dylan Thomas, Lewis Carroll, the Goons… It’s all of that and more. Florid, verbose, meandering, overcooked – and quite mesmerising; all pickled-onions eyes and banjolele folderol.
Sunlight creeps through curtains like ‘impudent marmalade fingers’; walking encyclopaedia Smeeton wears ‘glasses the shape of Ford Cortinas’; there’s a sound from behind a door as if ‘a hot water bottle were stifling a yawn’; while Hubert Rawlinson is in his mid-40s ‘and still unusual’.
It’s barking, riotous, wonderful, rich, lewd, absurdist, quintessentially British stuff but it could have all gone so horribly wrong in lesser hands.
That the lengthy text could be mastered in this way at all is an impressive feat; that Mike Livesley inhabited the role so completely elevated it to greatness.