Max Dickins' one-man play examines what happens to 'the left behind'

Max Dickins is performing his new show, The Man On The Moor. Picture by Martin Hodgkiss.
Max Dickins is performing his new show, The Man On The Moor. Picture by Martin Hodgkiss.

We hear all too often on the news about people going missing. Fortunately most of them soon turn up safe and well. For others the story doesn't have a happy ending.

But for some there is no ending at all as the person remains missing.

Inspired by a real-life case, Max Dickins has created a one-man play, Man On The Moor, which looks at what happens to those left behind.

On December 12, 2015, the body of an elderly-looking man was discovered beside a path on Saddleworth Moor in the Peak District. He was lying on his back, arms placed across his chest like a mummy, facing perfectly straight downhill. He was carrying no form of identification: no phone, no wallet, no cards, no driving licence, and no keys.

The police's attempts to identify him drew a blank, and it became a nationwide story.

'It was one of those little stories you see on the BBC news website halfway down one of those bars on the right,' says Max, 'and it was before it had really blown up. I remember thinking what a bizarre story, and I was looking to make a new show at the time.

'With making a show it’s not enough to just have an interesting story, it’s got to be about more than something quirky, and the thing that really did it for me was that when the police went public with their appeal trying to identify the man on the moor – 40 different people came forward thinking he was their long-term missing person. How could we all look at this same photo and all see a different person?

'It opened up this world that I had no idea about called the left behind – people left behind by the long-term missing. And as I researched this, I realised it was a story that hadn’t really been told, but the same phrase kept on coming up again and again, relating to their missing person, "It’s all so out of character". Well actually, maybe there’s no such thing as a character and you can never really know someone. This idea you can never really know someone and this person you sleep next to every night could be a total stranger. It’s a terrifying thought, but it’s a fascinating one.

'Even if we’ve not experienced  something like this, we’ve all experienced where we’ve not been properly understood. My ex-girlfriend used to say to me, I can read you like a book, and I used to think no you can’t, not really. That for me was what was interesting - the possibility of knowing someone and predicting their behaviour, but actually who someone is, is just a hypothesis we make in our heads, ready to be disproved by the evidence.

'There’s confirmation bias - we see things that confirm what we already think.'

In the course of his research Max spent the day with one of these left behind, and discovered that it's the absence of any sense of closure that is most damaging.

'I spent the day with a man in Oxford who thought the man on the moor was his missing father who had gone missing in Spain 20 years earlier. If you see a picture of this man he is the absolute spit of the man on the moor. It was a bit spooky, but hearing this guy talk you’re aware that the difference between someone missing and someone dying is massive because you don’t experience grief, it’s more - psychiatrists call it ambiguous loss  this feeling of the person being psychologically present but physically absent.

'There’s no closure, the loop doesn’t shut. Everyday it feels fresh because you don’t have answers.  And it’s the not knowing that’s the worst. This guy had been ripped apart by it, but he now had his own children and I wouldn’t say he had found peace, but he was happier than he had been. But it was still there every day, and it became apparent when he said, how does it affect you now? I think to myself, whenever I have a lovely moment with my children, is this the last time I’m ever going to see them?

'This thing, this experience of being left behind haunts people. As human beings we don’t cope well with open loops - we need answers to questions. With the missing there is no resolution, you don’t have a body, just an absence and a theory.

'My job as a storyteller is to try and resolve stories because that’s what audiences want, that’s what’s satisfying, but the unique thing about telling stories about missing people and the left behind is that there are huge amounts of unanswered questions.

'We like to see of our stories as something with a consistent arc – a beginning, middle and end, and that’s quite reductive, we put lives into a shape that they maybe don’t have just so we can cope with it and conceive it make it coherent.'

Max's own background is actually as a radio presenter and stand-up comic, having moved more recently into 'straight' theatre, but he is at pains to point out this is not a comedy show.

'It’s a not a comedy, but what I’m very clear on is that it’s not a worthy show  it’s really good story that rips along. There are funny bits in it  I think it’s important to have those in there because it makes those emotional parts punch harder and also you need to give the audience a bit of a break.'

However, his background proved a stumbling block when creating the show.

'My background is a slightly odd juxtaposition with the piece. When I was researching the show I got in touch with the Greater Manchester Police media team to ask if I could speak with the detective in charge of the case, and he said "no" on the basis that I was a comedian and I was going to take the mick. Weirdly, I’ve done two tour dates in Saddleworth, and the team from the police who investigated it came along and said afterwards that they were sorry we didn’t give you access, so I won them around in the end!'

It was as Max was working on the show that the body was finally identified as one David Lytton.

'I started writing it literally as soon as I read that first story, and then in about February of the following year, they identified him. Then Channel 4 said they were doing a documentary on him and I thought, damn it, that’s going to ruin the show, but actually it didn’t. My play isn’t just about the facts of the case, it isn’t a documentary, it’s a fictional story that interacts with the true story and looks into the bigger issues and the themes around it.

'My job as a storyteller is to try and resolve stories because that’s what audiences want, that’s what’s satisfying, but the unique thing about telling stories about missing people and the left behind is that there are huge amounts of unanswered questions.

'The biggest mysteries of that case still remain unresolved.'

THE MAN ON THE MOOR

The Spring Arts Centre, Havant

Saturday, May 19 

thespring.co.uk