A home-grown show created on a shoestring that went on to have success in London and attract the attention of some of music and comedy’s national treasures is returning to the theatre where it all began.
Sir Henry at Rawlinson End – an acclaimed verbatim performance of the 1978 spoken word LP by Vivian Stanshall – comes back to the Unity later this month for a last hurrah, in its current guise at least.
Stanshall was a prolific British singer-songwriter, poet, artist and all-round wit, perhaps best known as a member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in the 1960s.
Bringing Sir Henry at Rawlinson End – a vivid and comic collection of tales told by a fictional aristocrat – to the stage was the idea of city-based performer Mike Livesley. Taken by the style and possibilities of the album, which had its origins in sketches Stanshall did for the John Peel show, he initially thought it must have been done before.
“I couldn’t find any evidence it had been performed nationally or internationally. I thought, ‘you’re going to have to do this yourself’! Then I realised why – it’s a really complex piece of work,” laughs Livesley, who formerly trained in and went on to teach drama at the former Liverpool Community College.
“But I’d always thought I’d really like to see it on stage. There had been a movie, done with a cast of actors, but it was really a piece for one actor doing many voices – that was what really worked for me.
“The potential was always obvious to me, but it’s bloody difficult to perform. I’ve never done anything like Sir Henry in my life – I can’t tell you how frightening it was at first. You have just got to plunge into his thought processes. You can’t attempt to make any sense of it, there’s no hidden meaning in there. Stephen Fry was a huge fan, and he put it that he’s just using words for the joy of it, and that’s what Viv’s all about.”
First, Livesley got in touch with Stanshall’s family, who gave the project their blessing; his son, Rupert, has become more involved with the show over the years and will appear at the Unity on June 18.
Then, he found the ideal band, including musical director Bill Leach, all on the doorstep in Liverpool – like himself, all experienced and talented performers on the city’s pub scene. Six months later, in 2010, the show premiered at the Unity. Following positive reviews and a sold out show, they took Sir Henry at Rawlinson End down to London – and the chain of fortuitous events continued.
“We took the show to a pub theatre in Camden called the Lion and Unicorn. It only sat 40 people – but that night [Bonzo member and founder of The Rutles] Neil Innes and Ade Edmondson turned up. I was lost for words.” The show was reviewed nationally, and got the attention of more of Stanshall’s famous friends and fans.
Last year, Livesley and the band threw a concert for what would have been Stanshall’s 70th birthday. Bursting in one hour to showtime to join him and the band on keyboards was none other than prog legend Rick Wakeman (you can see them rehearsing here).
Livesley says: “It’s amazing how it has taken on a life of its own and it’s gone beyond anything I expected – Viv left an impression on everyone he knew, and to become friends with these people and to have their respect as peers, professionally, is still unbelievable.”
Livesley and the band decided to bring the show back to Liverpool to mark its four year anniversary and the retirement of the Unity’s outgoing artistic director Graeme Phillips. After that there are no plans to continue performing it – at least as it is now. The evening will feature violinist Susie Honeyman from the Mekons, a favourite of Stanshall’s, Martin Smith of the Wizards of Twiddly, and an after show Q&A session with Livesley and Rupert Stanshall.
In the last four years, Haydock-born Livesley, 41, has made Radio 4 documentary about Stanshall, English as Tuppence, and opened for Neil Innes’s band The Rutles (Innes also took part in two nights of Sir Henry performances at the Epstein theatre). More radio comedy and writing a book with Rupert Stanshall, based on his dad’s letters to him, are on the cards.
“To win over the people who thought it couldn’t be done is the best bit,” grins Livesley.
“And aside from that, people were forgetting who Viv was, and the show has done a lot to redress that. It’s great to see younger people coming along to see it – if we can make his work live on to another generation, hopefully there’ll be someone out there to take it on again. There’s been a lot to do all the time with this show, it really doesn’t stop and that’s the joy of it really. Long may it continue.”
Photo credit: Lee Wilkinson