October 18 2011 - MOJO Magazine, Andrew Male (original here; click!)
Vivian Stanshall Lives Again!
Up a leafy side-street in North London, in the beer garden of the Lion & Unicorn theatre pub, a small crowd has gathered. There are a few famous faces there - Bonzos, Rutles and Python lynchpin Neil Innes, Comic Strip and Young Ones' berserker Ade Edmondson and actor and musician Paul "Nigel from Eastenders" Bradley - plus a small smattering of industry types and regular punters. One thing unites us. We all have, on our faces, a beatific smile and a dazed, middle-distance stare that seems to say "I'm not quite sure what I've just witnessed here, but I know it was miraculous."
We've just come out into the air after the London premiere of "Vivian Stanshall's Sir Henry At Rawlinson End", an astonishing one-man theatrical adaptation of Bonzo Stanshall's legendary 1978 long-player by red-whiskered Merseyside artist, Mike Livesley. Backed by a crack team of musicians, under the direction of Bill Leach, Livesley's one-hour performance gives weight and truth to that old theatrical cliché, "a comic tour-de-force".
The first person to be granted family permission to stage a production of Rawlinson End since Vivian's death in 1995, Livesley has turned this absurdly loquacious family drama, and rococo-curlicued musical play-for-voices into a hysterically joyous theatrical experience. As did Stanshall, Livesley speaks all the character voices himself, from the stentorian grotesqueries of foul Sir Henry to the sweetly sad laments of Great Aunt Florrie and the lonesome camperies of brother Hubert.
It is an astonishing feat of memory, to consume and recall one of the richest texts in the English comic language. But to witness it on stage is an absolute joy, Livesley dancing across the dilapidated drawing room set, sporting deerstalker, plus-fours, hounds-tooth overcoat, and red and green stockings, while the dinner-jacketed band stand in the corner, heads draped in stage cobwebs, replicating Stanshall's wheezing, arthritic music on double bass, violin, banjolele, Jew's harp and spoons.
Caught up in the arcane beauty of Stanshall's songs, Livesley adds peculiar dances and flourishes, perfectly tailored to each character. With hushed reverence and beaming smiles, audience members quietly mouth along to the songs and the dialogue. A vinyl headphones pleasure has finally emerged into the public arena.
"It was," says Ade Edmondson, "the point where you noticed that everyone was singing along to [the LP's first song] Wheelbarrow. Suddenly you realized that this special and private thing that you'd treasured all these years was special and private to a whole lot of other people. It was lovely, wasn't it?"
What was also lovely was how Livesley's performance gave light and life to scenes once tangled in the briar thicket of Stanshall's knotty language. Passages previously enjoyable for the musicality of words now came alive as true clear comic points in a seasonal English narrative, while characters buried under the weight of Stanshall's delicious delivery now blossom as tragic, comic, poignant figures in their own right.
"I think my favourite character was Aunt Florrie," mused Edmondson. "Mike made her so much more sad and sympathetic than Viv did." What happens next depends on funding. Livesley and the team spent all their remaining cash on this one-off London show and need support from sponsors and celebrity Stanshall fans. One celebrity fan is already behind the project, Stanshall's good friend and fellow Bonzo, Neil Innes.
On leaving the show Innes takes to Twitter, writing that the "Undisputed highlight of the weekend was the "Sir Henry Show" - a tour de force and a work of Art. We all want "MORE!" Plans are afoot..."
(original here; clicky!)
WITH most of the country partaking in that typically
English pastime of skipping work, drinking lager and watching their football
team, it seems an apt night to celebrate the eccentricities of our nation in the
company of the ultimate English eccentric, Vivian Stanshall. Stanshall, who
became best known as the leader of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, created the
fictional characters of crumbling stately home Rawlinson End for a series of
radio broadcasts thirty years ago.
And what characters they are! Head of this house of horrors is Sir Henry himself, a grotesque, gin-soaked, colonial throwback who keeps “a small but daunting prisoner of war camp” and proclaims at one point “if I had all the money I’d spent on drink...I’d spend it on drink.” Then there’s Sir Henry’s ‘unusual’ brother, Hubert, a man wont to impersonate a sun dial while lying naked on the lawn and Sir Henry’s butler, the wonderfully named ‘Old Scrotum the Wrinkled Retainer’.
Portraying this ghoulish gallery throughout proceedings
is one man tour de force, Mike Livesley, who not only dons Stanshall’s famous
ginger beard but gives every resident of Rawlinson End a unique and hilarious
voice. Backing up the brilliant Livesley are a number of be-cobwebbed musicians,
dressed in moth balled evening wear and playing a variety of unusual and
esoteric instruments including ukulele, mandolin and washboard. Their playful
and delicate accompaniment sits perfectly with Livesely’s puns, double-entendres
and clever wordplay with the leading man drifting effortlessly between the
Stanshall sadly died in 1995 but this wonderful show is a more than fitting tribute to his eccentric genius.
Jun 25 2010 Catherine Jones, Liverpool Echo – 9 out of 10 (original here clicky!)
BONZO’S happily barking Vivian Stanshall turned his attention from urban spacemen to English eccentrics and concocted the bones of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End during stand-in sojourns on the John Peel radio show. The LP of the same name has become a cult hit since its release in 1978, with a wide and varied following – if the disparate demographic of the audience at this world premiere stage tribute can be taken as an example.
Originally Stanshall, round of glass, straggly of beard and puffing of pipe, took on all roles himself in his tale, à la Alastair Sim. Here, his cast of grotesques are inhabited by singer/songwriter Mike Livesley. Surreally silly, ‘Sir Henry’ is a Bonzo/Python/Sellers/League of Gentlemen/Goon-esque cavort through an eccentric landscape described in the opening lines by narrator Livesley/Stanshall as “English as tuppence”.
The drink-loving Sir Henry lives at Rawlinson End with his wife Lady Florrie, camp brother Hubert, and a collection of long-suffering staff including housekeeper Mrs E and Old Scrotum: the Wrinkled Retainer. It’s a work of much genius, albeit on the lunatic fringe, and one which inspires devotion – not least from the bearded, deerstalker-wearing Livesley who, the programme tells us, spent a year perfecting his performance.
His plummy-toned delivery caressed the clever wordplay of Stanshall’s twisting tale and arch one-liners with obvious affection, rolling his tongue over the rhyming gin and tonic/schizophonic and pronouncing classic lines including “I don’t know what I want, but I want it NOW” as he shambled or capered around the stage. The set, from Val Doonican chair to wind-up gramophone, is coated in cobwebs, as are the band who recreate the songs which pepper proceedings in a 1920s pastiche.
game group play everything from double bass and violin to banjolele, Jew’s harp,
tube trumpet and spoons. Despite Livesley wearing a mic, there were a handful of
occasions where the script’s witticisms were lost under the musical
accompaniment. But the sheer force of its late creator’s mad yet marvellous
badinage won the day. Apparently the Unity could have sold out the show three
times over, and Livesley and co now hope to take it to
Stanshall may have gone, but Sir Henry happily lives on. - 9 Hounds of Hades!
Sept 29th 2010 Liverpool Seven Streets (original here clicky!)
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
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.