The Land of Lost Content

The end of show speech to an audience. Do you plan it? Or do you just deliver it like Henry Madd does; gentle, loveable, endearing words shaped by earnest conviction. The 28-year-old poet and performer speaks just as charmingly in a brief post-show chat. So why does his voice grate on me throughout his performance?

The words come at us like a machine gun

Madd is here to take the step from award-winning poet to playwright. He comes from the small Shropshire town of Dulowl and wants to recount his small town early life. From two actors (Madd himself and Marcos Titos), The Land of Lost Content charts these origins, focusing on a time when Madd tries to jump in the river but is dragged back at the critical moment by a friend. I come from a small town background too. I should be glued to every word, but I’m not. Why?

Part of the answer is ‘Blue Remembered Hills’. The term is used evocatively to describe the romantic Shropshire Hills lying in the Welsh Marshes and covering perhaps a quarter of southwest Shropshire. It is one of the first powerful terms we hear in the play. But these are not Madd’s words. They are from A. E. Housman’s poem ‘A Shropshire Lad’ and are used again by Denis Potter in his 1979 television play. This borrowing of terms for impact continues throughout the play; “a spoonful of sugar”, “keep calm and carry on”, “we support our local pubs”, “hey, big spenders”, “I’m king of the world”. How can we hear a new, little voice amidst this anthology of reference points?

When we do hear Madd’s voice, must it be so aggressive? The words come at us like a machine gun, rattling off people, places, and events until we drown in it all. This is chronology, not empathy. We are bedevilled by detail. When Dylan Thomas speaks of small town life in Under Milk Wood he reveals inner voices and dreams. Where are those here? The actors’ performances are very aggressive for an intimate, 60 seat theatre. They shout and leer at us as we cower in our seats. “Let’s go fucking mental”, they jeer. “Let’s go fucking mental. La la la la”. In my small town, when I saw lads like this I abandoned my pint and fled.

Madd has loyal friends and I can see why. Nic Connaughton, Head of Theatre at Pleasance, has carefully nurtured him for two years now, which Madd clearly appreciates. Connaughton directs this production deftly; building props into the set carpet is a lovely touch. Madd has also (rightly) been supported by the Marlowe Theatre. He does have an authentic voice and I would be interested to hear it, reference free and stripped back. More heart, less mouth. At times, there are lyrical rhythms and natty rhymes. But I want to hear these build stories, like when he answered the door to a herd of cows. Which river? Why did he go there? Why did he nearly jump in? Small town depression? His own sexuality? Its impact on his best-mateship? Or was he just going for a swim? There is certainly something here to be explored. Poeticise these stories and put them front and centre instead of this blustering laddishness.

Twice Madd says, “I always find it easier telling other people’s stories than my own”. To my mind, that is because telling your own story requires courage, revelation of vulnerability, and honesty. Qualities I think his true voice may have.

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Reviews by Ben Ludlow

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The Land of Lost Content

★★
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The Blurb

Henry and Jake grew up with their mates in a quiet country town called Dulowl. A town where friendships were forged in failed adventures, bad habits and damp raves as they stumbled through adolescence looking for something to do. Then Henry moved away. Now he's back, but there's no enjoying a welcome-home-pint without facing up to the memories he left. Welcome to a town where worlds are turned upside down, yet nothing seems to change. A funny and deeply moving coming-of-age story, told through a blend of spoken word and theatre.

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