View: Sir Henry At Rawlinson's End

To the tune of: Vivian Stanshall – Sir Henry At Rawlinson End

The story so far.

The hapless and unusual Hubert, having unhappily chanced upon Sir Henry reliving the bombing of Dresden, has received a terrific thrashing and a crippling kick in the fork. He is now in disgrace condemned to his room.

The body of Doris Hazard’s pekinese, unwittingly asphyxiated under her husband’s bottom, after a ritual two weeks in the Rawlinson refrigerator, has been given over to Old Scrotum for indecent burial under a giant marrow. This marrow is Sir Henry’s pride and on his instructions the vegetable is daily drip fed with a powerful laxative so that “if some rascal runs off with it and eats the blessed thing it’ll give ‘em the runs for weeks”.

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.

Long before his death in a flaming house-boat, Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band founder Vivian Stanshell’s errant star was waning, as the spirit of the era that sustained him also waned; he was both product and producer of that re-renaissance that accompanied the hedonistic liberation of the sixties and seventies, but he also drew on a traditional aristocratic demeanour that lovingly informed his work. He had the variety of aberrant behaviours that we tend to call quintessentially English and that made him stand aside from his era, in the way that Noel Coward stood away from his; by ‘quintessentially English’ we mean posh, strange, post-colonial men who spoke in long rambling light sentences where one has to hack away the lush verbiage to stand a chance of finding often-absent meaning.

Viv and some mice.
Viv and some mice.

‘Sir Henry At Rawlinson End’ is the masterpiece of this , a louche cocktail of Ripping Yarns, The Archers and some monstrous bastard of Brideshead Revanant. It could be portrayed as a one man show, with Stanshall’s character at the heart of it, playing every part, singing every song, and linking the narrative. Except Stanshall is dead, so a brave Mike Livesley stepped into that void. Where stanshall was Elfin, he is Dwarfish; where Stanshall was pale, he is ruddy; where Stanshall was effete, he is boorish.

Despite all these deficiencies in his appearance, he carries the piece (performed here at The Unity theatre in Liverpool and worth the journey) forward single-handedly, glorying in the filth and rancour that undermine the colonial warrior unreflectively drinking himself, his family and retainers out of existence. In some senses, it is a companion piece to Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm; where that satire impinged modernity on the bucolic stereotype of Thomas Hardy and his timeworn kin, this looks at the opposite end of society, the Wodehouse world of maiden aunts, wrinkled retainers (in this case called “Old Scrotum”) and idiot kith, and escorts them down through the po-faced forelock-tugging of pre-WWI Britain before depositing them in his own brand of ingenious post-’60s squalidity that rejected all the majors and their decrepit societal structure that was dying with the empire.

Alone again Florrie’s eyes focused on the copper gleam of the coal scuttle, clouded, and in seconds had surrendered to Erewhon. Peacefully on tip-toe through the grey spheres where shade had substance, whispers walked, and Maya reigned. Wistful and lovely are walls with wisteria, clematis clambers on time pocked walls white. Stranger than larkspur or lupin, hydrangea many headed bright nosegay tongue-tied, fancy flight.

There was a face jumping competition at the Fool and Bladder. This ancient amusement involved leaping on to volunteer’s heads, lightly touching, and then springing off. To draw blood or squash a nose meant instant disqualification, and this was the skill of it. The normally phlegmatic Seth Onetooth was unquestioned champion of this unusual sport and he stood huge dark and work stained outside the old pub explaining the rules and recalling past triumphs to Reg Smeeton, the village newsagent and self-styled human encyclopaedia.

A large red faced farm worker, stripped to the waist, paced out an enormous run-up before turning to thunder down on his grinning partner lying on the grass. “Eeh, he’s got no chance” said Seth smugly, “silly buggers wearing spiked running shoes”.

Sir Henry is a beast of man, the classic abusive familial head, raves monstrously and constantly. We start In Media Res, with the narrator (who also plays all roles, almost as reportage) bringing us up to speed with the world of Rawlinson and book-ending it. There is little story; a dinner party is in there, but it’s difficult to ascertain what, if anything, actually happens. It is best characterised as a poisonous vignette into the long-passed world of our parents’ generation, where everyone is damaged to the point of total alienation, moral collapse and physical failure, and perfectly capable of expressing this by occasional bursts of song.

“Aar, waste of good drinkin’ time. I had to go up again and see if the old girl had finished her bloomin’ breakfast” huffed Scrotum crossly.

The old girl was Sir Henry’s mother, once a great beauty but now, unknown to Florrie, bedridden in a remote chamber at Rawlinson End.

“Well er, ‘ad she then, finished it like?” asked Seth.

“Course not. Nice bit of smoked haddock been there by the side of the bed getting cold for the last three years” said Scrotum taking a large slurp.

“By heck, three years. Does she do owt?” said Seth.

“Course not, she’m just lying there never saying nothing wi’ er gob wide open, catching flies and playing with the rats. Sir Henry says she’m not getting no more grub ‘til she’s eaten the last lot”.

Reg Smeeton, smelling strongly of newsprint, patted down the back of his wig.

“Did you know there is no proper name for the back of the knees”.

So there you have it; a single actor stood in a set with minimal cobweb-clad adornments (in which I include the band) satirising stereotypes beyond living human memory with the crudeness of Viz and the eloquence of Noel Coward. My dad, who was a devo of the Bonzos in their heyday, complained that Livesley was not Viv; even with his eyes closed, the man was sub-Stanshall. I, with less preconceptions and no nostalgia for the hero of lost youth, found his rotundity a perfect raconteur, dancing like a dainty-toed blimp, providing character portraits that roved the octaves, and conjuring up a world I’ve only known through out-of-copyright books.

Next time Mrs E the housekeeper has one of her nasty turns and believes herself to be a chicken, but Henry refuses to have her treated saying

“Well, it’s always good to have a supply of fresh eggs”.

Listen to the album; the play is off the stage and may not return. If it does, and Sir Henry establishes himself near you… pay the old chap a visit.

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