For seven years Michael Livelsey has been gigging his way around the country with his one-man production of Vivian Stanshall’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, a surreal and very British monologue concerning the eccentric inhabitants of the titular country pile, ‘nestling in green nowhere’. But now he’s bringing the curtain down.
Livesley has racked up between 40 and 50 performances in that time, picking up a growing cast of celebrity fans, actors, musicians and comedians to form a de facto rotating variety troupe that features within its ranks various Bonzo Dogs, Rutles, the occasional Fry and odd Wakeman.
What started in The Unity Theatre seven years ago – an intimate and obviously brilliant performance, yes we were there – has travelled as far and wide as the London Palladium, Edinburgh Festival, and a Methodist Chapel in Laugharne and evolved into a rolling celebration of the world of Vivian Stanshall and all his satellites.
Amid plans for a final performance of Sir Henry… and for new ventures in the offing, we caught up with Mike and talked of endings and beginnings.
As an one-man show Sir Henry At Rawlinson End was probably thought unproduceable. What made you take it on?
Either I am incredibly over-confident and look at such complicated things, and they don’t get much more complicated than Rawlinson End, and just think “Yea, I can do that,”. Or I simply stumble into things with my eyes closed and think “Oh it’ll be alright”. I personally tend toward the latter.
When I first started working on building sites as a student an old Irish fella, with cement dust ingrained into every pore and line of his weathered face, told me that no matter what the job you were asked to do you should always say yes to it, because somebody will always help you out if you don’t know what you’re doing. Advice that from that day to this I have followed to the letter, and on Sir Henry….
I have had some incredibly talented and committed people to help me, particularly my MD Bill Leach who has been the bedrock of the show from day one. In the very early days too I was encouraged by the faith of director Paul Carmichael who, for some unfathomable reason, believed I could do it.
One of the many things I have to thank Paul for was his condition that I must learn the text off by heart, I’d originally wanted to do the thing reading from a big book. Whatever the reason he was right and the show would not have made it beyond those first two nights at the Unity without his direction or his ideas. In all honesty though everybody involved has been critical to the show’s success. The band are amazing.
Why is Sir Henry… so good?
I suppose because it is so dense, not many pieces can manage to quote Shakespeare, Kipling and Hitler and get away with it. Viv somehow mastered the art of speaking and writing in multi-layered, multi-faceted sentences which tease out fresh meaning with each new listen. I’m still finding new meanings in it after seven years.
For example, there’s a line where Aunt Florrie “smoothed the now greying hairs back from her temples, and tucked them neatly under her flying buttresses”. An allusion not only to church architecture but a beautifully illustrative simile which only revealed itself, at least to me, after years of study.
Has playing the role given you a better understanding of Vivian Stanshall?
I think it has given me a better understanding of Viv’s thought processes when writing this particular piece. I have ‘cracked the code’ if you like and can follow the logic that his incredible brain employed in its construction. It takes a lot of study but it’s in there. As for the man himself, a little. Maybe.
I think Viv was one of those people whose genius was actually an encumbrance for him at times. I certainly think he was a very sensitive and thoughtful human being, and like all us sensitive, thoughtful types, I believe he found this world too much to cope with most of the time. I believe Rawlinson End was his escape, his coping mechanism if you like.
As for how he would have viewed it, I hope he would have liked it. His son Rupert has told me that his Dad would have loved it and Neil Innes and Rodney Slater have said the same so I suppose that’s as close as I’ll ever get to knowing what he might think of it.
It’s opened up a lot of doors for you in that time – you’ve become an honorary member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, for instance. What are the highlights for you?
As I also produce the show I’m usually too busy to enjoy myself, however to receive praise is every performer’s ultimate accolade, so to receive it from the likes of Barry Cryer and Stephen Fry was amazing.
But there have been loads of non-starry moments that have been real highlights. The very reserved Bill Leach leaping onto an amp to perform a guitar solo with guest John Otway at The Bloomsbury Theatre in London, the many aftershow curries we’ve indulged in and walking out onto the stage at the London Palladium on my own with a big spotlight on me to deliver Sir Henry… to a few thousand people are all highlights. A prospect that has me weak at the knees just at the thought, but was exhilarating.
Also the first time we ran through Rawlinson End with Rick Wakeman. My first big London show and working with my boyhood hero. The video that caught the moment and the involuntary head shake of disbelief you see just sums the feeling up. Later that night Rick asked me for my autograph which was just bizarre as I’d asked him for his many years earlier.
You’ve toured all over the the country with Sir Henry… what are the weirdest places?
Probably the ancient and crumbling English Congregational Church in Laugharne – a very fitting place to deliver Sir Henry…. No toilets in there and very hard seats, Methodists in the 19th century were encouraged to suffer long sermons with full bladders and sore arses so as to better focus their minds on divinity.
I spotted Robin Ince, Graeme Garden and Kevin Eldon looking quite uncomfortable during the show. Hopefully that was the seats. We had to keep nipping outside to relieve ourselves up an ancient stone wall accessed through a door which hadn’t been opened in about 100 years. It had almost healed up. The door that is.
Why The Brindley for the final performance of Sir Henry…?
We decided that after last year we probably only had one more show in us and we all decided we wanted to do it as close to our home towns as possible. I’ve lived in over 20 places since I was 14 so I feel quite rootless, but I spent a long period of that time living in Widnes, our clarinet player John ‘no jokes please’ Lewis is from Widnes and Bill, Ged Fox and John Hase are from Runcorn. Chris Hough, aside from being an incredible performer in his own Ukulele Uff Trio, is a proper northside scouser keeping his head down in Woolton.
I’m looking forward to The Brindley already. It will be a celebration. Rodney Slater will be joining us at The Brindley on May 3rd which is a treat for us and Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band fans.
You’ve been working on other projects with Rod. What are they and how have they come about?
I first worked with Rod when he guested with us at the first big London show four years ago, since then we’ve worked together a few times a year and then last year, after guest spots with them in 2015, I was asked to become the singer and a fully fledged Bonzo for their tour.
Despite the adversity we all had a ball, the audiences loved the shows and whilst on the road Rod, myself and drummer John ‘Barry Wom’ Halsey decided we would get together to do something musically afterwards, a project John christened Rodney Slater’s Parrots in reference to the famous Bonzos tune.
I immediately chimed in with “Yes, we’ll do an album” and we decided to call it Parrotopia!. So last December, out here in deepest darkest Hampshire where I currently reside under the Widnes Protection Program, I built a studio shed and we set about it.
We decided to involve others we’ve enjoyed working with over the years and so Steely Dan’s Elliott Randall will provide lead guitar and The Mekons’ Susie Honeyman will play violin. We are currently crowdfunding the LP and readers can pledge to support it. As Lord Rodney is fond of saying “together we SHALL make Parrotopia grate again!”.
What’s does life hold after Sir Henry…?
Parrotopia! really, until August, though I’m also putting out my Shedcast now which I have titled My Own Private I-Dunno. After that we’ll do a few performances of it in London.
One idea I am very keen to pursue is a Bonzos/Parrots/Wizards of Twiddly crossover gig in Liverpool at Christmas. Andy Frizell of the Twidds produced the Sir Henry CD last year and I’ve been a huge fan since I saw them at the Sefton Park May Day Festival in the early 90s. I must have seen them more than any band, I saw them only recently and they are still the best live band out there.
Nowadays they are also surrounded by other bands such as The Long Finger Bandits and The Common Ears who are also brilliant and share common DNA. Liverpool is still by far the city that throws up the most interesting things musically.
With Vivian Stanshall’s masterwork reintroduced to the world afresh is it a case of ‘mission accomplished’?
The original mission was to consign the phrase “Vivian Who?” to history, as I regard him as a great artist and think his work deserves much wider public recognition. The man was a genius and I am very proud and privileged to have breathed fresh life into his words this past seven years.
I recall when I was teaching drama in Liverpool that I nearly had to sit down when a student asked me who John Lennon was, so I think that recognition is much more transient in this instant internet age. But time moves on. There were blokes who once ruled the entire known world and who had pyramids constructed in their honour, and they’ve been forgotten too.
But back to your original question. Well, after performing the show at The Bristol Old Vic to a standing ovation and Stephen Fry taking to the stage to heap praise upon it, playing it at Glastonbury, the Millennium Dome, the Edinburgh Festival, the London Palladium and recording a CD version with Rick Wakeman, Neil Innes and Susie Honeyman I don’t really think there is much left for us to accomplish, bar repetition.
Aside from that though it has been my life for so long that it has physically and mentally drained me. It is such a terrifying prospect to remember the words. I doubt I shall ever forget them, in fact I’ll probably end up old and dotty in some care home somewhere convinced every word of it is reality and living within it. A sobering thought… best have a pint.
Sir Henry at Rawlinson End
3 May 2017