A slender blonde boy stumbles on to the stage, hunched in a leopard print coat, looking bewildered, lost. The stage is littered with detritus – crushed beer cans, sodden paint brushes – seemingly at random: as his story unfolds much of the junk is utilised to become the other characters in his tale, all given their own voices, mannerisms, body language, quirks. It’s a corps de ballet with a dozen different dancers, each intriguing and distinct.
I’ve seen Henry a few times before. I’ve even seen Henry try a dry run of this show before. But none of that prepared me for this particular, polished occasion – this gentle, accomplished enveloping of his audience into his world. Land of Lost Content (the title appears towards the close of the piece, where Henry references A E Houseman) is, in summation, a sink estate equivalent of Under Milkwood. Rather than being set in an imaginary Welsh town, however, it takes place in “Dulowl” (Ludlow), Henry’s birthplace, a town where “intellect is frowned upon”. In a manner reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ masterpiece, the narrative hones in on the various characters who make up the fabric of Henry’s childhood. There’s the publican:
The brown bear with grizzled chops
moans as he opens the door.
How he wishes he could have stayed at home
in his cave by the river eating kippers for dinner
in his slippers with a joint and his dog by his side.
But that’s wishful thinking
for a bear who profits off drinking.
As the narrative unfolds we meet his various friends, and are led through the quotidian rituals of their often desperate lives. The early experiments with alcohol and drugs, the laughs, the waste, the details that shape lives and glue eternal friendships.
There are plenty of laughs in this hour, but they are invariably followed neatly by a gut punch which catches you off guard and leaves you breathless in consequence. The story of Grace will linger with me a while
“There’s a shriek and a cackle from the bar
the sound of a drink falling to the floor.
Grace always makes an entrance.
Grace by name Grace fell from her nature….
and now she’s barely twenty-two she’s already drinking lonely, receiving petty remarks like, “Look at her, she’s trying too hard.”
that make up on her wrists only hides the visible scars,
can’t see her face its hidden by foundation,
which coincidentally hides her foundations of natural beauty…”
We’re not told exactly what happened to Grace. She can’t bring herself to say the words. But whatever happened, it changed everything permanently. We mourn her as she fades from the tale.
“After that night we stopped seeing her around,
as if we knew too much
or not enough.”
Loss litters this litany. Surely Henry is too baby-faced for so much loss. We hear Jake’s tale too: Jake, long gone, who “takes up so much room he is sprawled across the rest of us”. We discover exactly what happened to charismatic Jake, and it’s bad enough to break you while you listen.
On to the centrepiece – the adventure of the rave. Henry is of the drum and bass generation, and it’s interesting to note that already, a handful of years after the millennium, kids are recreating highlights of the past, in this case the 1980s rave. Dan leads the crew, first on a bus, then through a series of misguided short cuts, out into “some random forest”, in search of an adventure that promises music, drink, drugs, a coming of age moment, and beyond all this, girls. It’s expertly told and acted out, and frankly hilarious. But so beautiful is the web of language he weaves that you try not to laugh for fear of missing something. Sure-footed and lyrical, the descriptions are given additional lustre by Henry’s performance. He runs, ducks and twizzles over the stage, using every inch available, with a look, move or tic for every character. His timing is unerringly accurate and quickly we surrender to his skill, content to be led, wide-eyed sightseers, through the various sites of Henry’s fumbles, stumbles and messed-up jumbles.
I was so enraptured by the performance that when two liggers oozed through the door, minutes from the end, I resented the seconds I spent looking away from the stage. It’s some accomplishment for one man and his words to captivate you so utterly for an hour. Despite the sorrowful tone of much of his tale, I felt no desire to leave his world and return to mine. Watch this show and remember that name – Henry Maddicott is set to make a colossal impact in performance poetry.