The stage adaptation of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, a spoken word performance with live music bringing the work of Vivian Stanshall – the late Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band member and all-round English eccentric – to life, will play its last show this week, with a farewell gig at Runcorn’s Brindley Theatre.
The show was devised and performed by Merseyside actor and musician Michael Livesley. And over a number of years, what started out as an unassuming tribute became a project that lead to many of Stanshall’s friends, family, collaborators and famous fans getting involved, on stage or behind the scenes.
MADEUP caught up with Mike back in 2014, for a revival of the Sir Henry show at the Unity. Now, he says, the Runcorn performance – a good central location for all involved – is really the end of the line. He was good enough to answer a few questions about his final thoughts on a rather unexpected journey…
It’s an obvious place to start – but how are you feeling knowing you’re about to put the lid on such a huge chapter of your career?
“I feel good about it if I’m being honest. It has been an absolute joy from that first cold evening’s rehearsal at the Myrtle Street Arts Centre to now, really.
“Along the way we have had fun and larks around the whole country, and had some unforgettable experiences. But it’s time to do something else now, and after a year which saw us record a CD of the show with Rick Wakeman [of Yes], [Stanshall’s Bonzo Dog comrades] Neil Innes and Rodney Slater, and The Mekon’s Susie Honeyman… and perform the show at Glastonbury, the London O2, the Edinburgh Festival and the Palladium, I don’t really see how much more we can do with it.
“The original idea was to breathe fresh life into the words of the late great Vivian Stanshall and I feel we’ve done that and more.”
Your background is drama [Mike taught drama at Liverpool Community College], and it looks like music is your focus for the foreseeable future – so what might be next?
“I’ve always flipped between music, drama and comedy, which is why Sir Henry was such a perfect fit. But on the Bonzos tour last year [Mike is now an honorary member of the legendary cult band], Rodney Slater, John Halsey and I decided we would put a new LP together called Parrotopia – after the fictitious republic we dreamt up in rebellion to the unreasonable and egregious management company.
“We’ve since been joined by Steely Dan’s Elliott Randall and Susie Honeyman, and ‘Rodney Slater’s Parrots’ was born.
“We are writing and recording it down here in my Shed Studio [Mike recently moved to Hampshire, and quite literally built a music studio in a shed], and it’s great fun to put the world to rights and have a laugh with music. Rodney (or Lord Rod as he calls himself), is a great writing partner, with an agile and whimsical mind which does credit to his 75 years.
“It’s a great larf so yes, music for now. Music for the rest of the year really, that and my Shedcast. Most definitely more dramatic stuff in the future though, and comedy. Even in these treacherous times there is much joy to be found in life, and if by having fun you can pass that on to others then there is never a reason to stop. Spread a Little Happiness, as the Man Sang. Or was that the name of a chippy in Widnes?”
There’s a Parrotopia crowdfunder going at the moment – how’s that going?
“Very well – we are currently at 72% so not far off, but we need to get a few more quid yet. So hopefully everybody will visit www.crowdfunder.co.uk/parrotopia and chuck in a few quid.
“I think that recording your debut LP at the age of 75 is a remarkable thing to do, so lend us your support and you shall have it back. Freshly laundered.”
You’ve previously mentioned how you have constantly studied Viv’s work. As you come to the end of the project, what are your favourite bits of Sir Henry – or bits that really mean something to you – and have they changed since the start?
“My enjoyment of it is a moveable feast. There is so much to luxuriate in in Viv’s words that you are constantly finding new stuff to enjoy. One aspect I really enjoy about it is the connection to nature that Viv has embroidered throughout it, which reflects his own obsessions with the natural world. Aside from being a wordsmith par excellence, Viv was also a very talented painter – indeed Rodney says that he could have been an even more successful artist had he decided to take that route. But he paints with his words, too.
“In Rawlinson End, the picture of this crumbling and ancient stately home and the grotesques which inhabit it, is so Viv-id that you can hear the wallpaper peeling from the walls and the insects scuttling beneath.
“The piece loosely splits into four sections, each of which are in a different season, despite the piece occurring over just one day. There are snow and snowdrops at the start, sunshine in the second quarter (infested with wasps, so not winter sun), rain and cold in the third quarter, and falling leaves by the end.
“The fact that it plays so fast and loose with nature and time has always appealed, plus the way that as it moves toward the denouement, the menace in the air increases as everybody gets more and more drunk and the overall tone becomes more sinister.
“I love that about it. Plus it’s just so bloody funny! Viv was a genius. People need to understand that.”
There’s been a lot of unexpected opportunities as a result of Sir Henry – what are some of your biggest, and what are you most proud of achieving with it?
“I suppose that performing the piece at the Bristol Old Vic and earning the praise and approval of Stephen Fry was the biggest. It was also incredibly gratifying as he is such a national treasure and somebody whom I have respected and admired since childhood. A great comedic talent, he should do more Lord Melchett – a character he himself admits was partly based on Sir Henry.
“In terms of pride, I suppose the very first big London show that I put on, as the effort was so Herculean but the end result so worth it.
“To bring together such an incredible array of talented people all in praise of Viv was wonderful.
“In this task I was assisted by Viv’s son Rupert who has become a great friend, so I suppose that his friendship, and those I have forged with my MD Bill Leach, Rodney and others whom I would never have met if it wasn’t for Sir Henry is the best thing to come out of the show. ‘Ev’rybody needs a friend’ as Bob Ross used to say. I can’t put it any better than that.”