The man they could not hang, the story with no end

Portland Story Theater's Lawrence Howard tells a crackling tale of a sensational unsolved crime – and the man who survived the noose

All ears open at Portland Story Theater. Photo:  Scott Bump

All ears open at Portland Story Theater. Photo: Scott Bump

What if there is no answer?

In the 2004 documentary “A Dream Within a Dream,” Australian film director Peter Weir recalled what happened when his 1975 movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” about a mysterious disappearance from a girls’-school outing in Australia, was screened for the American movie trade: “One distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen at the end of it, because he’d just wasted two hours of his life – a mystery without a goddamn solution!”

Well, Lawrence Howard’s new tale “John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee” is a mystery without a goddamn solution, and including intermission it runs about two hours. But like “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” it’s very far from a waste of time. On the contrary, it’s a beguiling reexamination of a crime-and-punishment tale more than a century old, and the fact that no one, including Howard, will ever know exactly what happened only makes the thing ripple more mysteriously.

What we do know, as Howard relates, is this. In 1884 an apparently benevolent spinster in the English Channel village of Babbacombe was murdered, her throat slit with a mighty thrust, her house set afire. A young man whom she’d befriended, John Lee, was convicted – railroaded, perhaps – of the crime. Lee was sentenced to be hanged from the neck, and hanged he was. Three times. Each time the trap door beneath his feet unaccountably failed to open up, after which, in a rare shrugging of Her Majesty’s judicial shoulders, his sentence was commuted to life in prison, which in practical terms turned out to mean 23 years. “The Man They Could Not Hang!” one newspaper trumpeted, and Howard uses that headline as a subtitle for his show.

Lawrence Howard. Photo: Scott Bump

Lawrence Howard. Photo: Scott Bump

Why did the hanging apparatus fail? What really happened on the night of the murder? Who got Lee’s half-sister, the spinster’s cook, pregnant, and did that have anything to do with the murder? Did Lee escape the punishment due him? Or did someone else commit the crime? There may be answers, and Howard leads us onto some fascinating historical byroads, among them a quick history of English capital punishment, in an attempt to find them. But the truth is, with all of the participants in the story long dead, the answers are probably lost forever. And that elusiveness only adds to the story’s intrigue.

“Babbacombe” is a new piece of theater, although it’s not part of Portland’s annual Fertile Ground festival of new works, which officially opens on Thursday, January 24. The tale is the latest chapter in Howard’s “Armchair Adventurer” series for Portland Story Theater, and although it veers from the subject matter of his previous three adventures, all of which were about men measuring themselves against the vast and bitter challenge of the Antarctic, it shares a lot with them in other ways. With an unassuming but self-assured blend of declarative statements and wry humor, Howard tells the story the old-fashioned way, alone and unamplified. He builds his story on a solid base of meticulous research. He personalizes his connection to the story: “Babbacombe,” he tells the crowd, has been a fascination for more than 40 years, since the time during his one term in college when he heard the old English folk-rock group Fairport Convention sing songs from its 1971 concept album “ ‘Babbacombe’ Lee.”  And he always remembers the magic of the storytelling circle, stripped of all accoutrements but the voice and the ear: you can almost feel the flames from the metaphorical fire.

One temptation in telling a historical tale like this is to tell too much – to unload your research on the audience, because you’ve done it, and all the little twists and turns remain fascinating to you. “Babbacombe” largely avoids the trap, making sure that whatever detail unfolds is in the service of telling the story. And particularly after intermission, once Howard’s laid all the necessary groundwork, things gallop along at an exciting, almost hectic clip. It helps immeasurably that even while he’s immersed in the mystery, Howard also conveys the sheer comedy of the thing. It’s an outlandish tale, he concedes. But it’s true!

Portland Story Theater has developed a loyal following for its modern spin on the ancient art of storytelling, and Friday’s opening-night audience at the gently bohemian Hipbone Studio was packed: about 70 people in the little makeshift space, with a bar and snacks jammed into one corner and the walls covered with drawings and paintings by the artists who use the studio by day. A crowd that size seems ideal for this sort of intimate theater, which is about as low-tech as you can get: just a story, a teller, and a gathering of people to hear the tale. You can’t hide when you’re performing a show like this, and part of what makes Howard’s stories work so well is his engaging openness in telling them. He’s no matinee idol – just a middle-aged guy with a comfortable stomach and a thicket of silvering beard and a nice jacket to make him look a little dressed up for the occasion, like a shaggy professor submitting to the demands of a dinner engagement with the college president. He speaks easily, clearly, without affectation: straight and true, with dips and rises that echo his own comfortable, invitingly genuine slouch. The truth is in the tale, the tale is in the teller, the teller holds the key. And even when the key unlocks no answers, that’s quite enough.


  •  “John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee” repeats at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 25-26; doors open at 7. Ticket information here.
  •  Marty Hughley previewed Howard’s show for The Oregonian, here.
  • I wrote about Howard’s previous Armchair Adventure, “Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare,” a year ago for ArtsWatch. Read it here.


8 Responses.

  1. james hicks says:

    I feel very fortunate to have discovered Portland Story Theatre,and exposed to the talent of Lawrence Howard. The collaborative participation of the audience and theatre is infectious. It tugs at you to be involved in something really special. Lawrence has the gift of developing and describing a story so that you feel the history, background, and nuance of the narrative. His approach in describing scenes is layered and unique. A total delight to listen to.

  2. Rick says:

    I saw this show last weekend- what a fascinating story. I love hearing what life was like in Victorian England, and the parallels to (in)justice today make it all the more relevant. Really well-told, and I’m looking forward to getting the album.

  3. Marcia says:

    Lawrence Howard has an wonderful gift of story telling. He tells a fascinating tale of John “Babbacombe” Lee – check it out. I’ve seen his Antarctic tales among others and this is also well researched and as good as it gets. You can’t make this stuff up! What a great way to spend an evening – listening to an incredible story!

  4. Betsy Henning says:

    Lawrence’s talents are extraordinary, and all mere mortals who ever try to tell a story will marvel at his skill. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening filled with an old-fashioned artform that somehow feels new and fresh in his capable hands. This may look like something out of the “Keep Portland Weird” category, but it really belongs in “Keep Portland Special.”

  5. margaret says:

    I had my fidgety boyfriend with me for last Friday’s performance of John “Babbacombe” Lee, and twenty minutes into Lawrence’s gripping tale, I glanced over at my beloved ADD-afflicted date to see that he was as mesmerized as I was.
    There is nothing worse than bad theatre. It is an embarrassment for everyone and I am a brutal critic, but this show is good. It’s very good.
    Lawrence was so connected to his story, his audience and his craft that he had us from the moment he took the stage. Er, floor.
    It’s a great story, and clearly one that has had a powerfully nostalgic grip on Lawrence. His pacing of the story and perfectly timed digressions into historical context, along with the occasional injection of humorous vernacular and gesture, pulled us into his orbit, and into a story we could see and feel as vividly as he did.
    Well done. I’ll stay tuned for more.

  6. Mary Welch says:

    I had been waiting with great anticipation for opening night of “John Babbacombe Lee” for months, and I was certainly not disappointed! Lawrence Howard’s ability to weave a complicated tale with simplicity and gentleness simply amazes me. How does he manage to do this without being boring? Boring he is NOT! – Not for one moment. He had the audience in the palm of his hand the whole time….and we loved being his pawns! Who wouldn’t love being enraptured by such a talented story-teller? Even my “give-me-action” husband was enthralled. Don’t miss this great performance!

  7. Erin says:

    Lawrence is such a talented storyteller. Every time I have the pleasure of hearing him tell a tale, I get lost in it – John “Babbacombe” Lee was no exception.

  8. Susan Sullivan says:

    As always I LOVED Lawrence Howard’s historical story and his exquisitely detailed and riviting style. Once you hear Lawrence tell a story you will never forget it.

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