Top Hole 2

In my previous post I explained how I originally had the idea of performing Top Hole! and how I prepared the script.

Now I will try to lead you through the production and rehearsal minefield…..

In the past, when I have written a new script, I have been used to writing, rehearsing and performing it. My only worries being ‘is it any good?’ and ‘will anybody come to see it?’

When first preparing the Wodehouse script it suddenly struck me that of course there may well be an issue with performing rights this time. That is an area that I have never had to consider before and had no idea how to approach it.

I put my ‘Dickens’ hat on and tried to work out who a stranger would approach if they had an inquiry to make. They would, I guessed, make an online search and come up with the contact details for The Dickens Fellowship.

I did the same and came up with contact details for The Wodehouse Society. I sent an email to them and very quickly got a wonderfully positive response, saying how exciting the project sounded, how they would publicise it for me via their newsletters and giving me an email address that I should use to get further details about the performing rights.

The new contact led me to: The Agency. It all sounded very mysterious but soon I was in contact with the gentlemen who looked after the arrangements on behalf of The Wodehouse Estate and so there began a series of email exchanges. What was the show? Where would it be performed? How much would I be making from it? How large would the audience be? And so on and so on.

I was asked to supply a script for The Estate to review and this was my first test. If they didn’t think that I was creating a show that honoured Wodehouse, then that would be the end. The first script that I sent was the dull, uninspiring one story-after-the-other version and it was the fear of them rejecting it that led me to starting on the idea of intertwining the four stories in a more creative and complicated way.

Fortunately, as I mentioned in my previous post, that version came together relatively quickly and I was able to email it to The Agency before the estate themselves had a chance to comment on draft 1.

There was a nervous wait, although I was actually touring in America, so the time passed quickly and then, one day, the answer came through…I had been granted the rights to perform the piece! It was so exciting and again a positive confirmation that this idea really could work.

I didn’t do a great deal of work on the script when I was in the USA and almost as soon as I was home I had to work hard on learning and rehearsing Great Expectations, so Top Hole took a bit of a back seat for a while. What I did have to do, however, was make arrangements for actually performing it.

The very first idea for the show had come to me via my golf club’s weekly newsletter so I thought the best thing would be to give Top Hole its premiere performance at the club itself. I contacted the Manager at Oxford Golf Club and soon the wheels were in motion.

I decided to make Oxford a try out for the script and therefore would not charge them for my performance. Soon a small committee had been formed consisting of me, Ray Davies, an ex captain who arranges the social events, current Club Captain, Alan Davey and the Club Manager Alan Butler. Between Alans and Davey/Davies this promised to get very confusing!

Back to The Agency I went with further details of my first show. Back they came to me with the same list of questions: What, Where, How Much? I told them my plans, that I would not be making any profit from the show. How could that be, They asked, how would I finance the show? I replied that it would be a loss leader, that I would fund the show myself, that the Golf Club would donate the space and charge the guests only for the dinner they would serve. Yes, they replied, but how will you be paid? I won’t, I replied, I’m doing it for free! It was a tricky concept to grasp – for me as well as The Agency but eventually they got it and we drafted an initial agreement for the first performance of Top Hole.

At the golf club the committee meetings started, ably chaired and controlled by Ray. Here is a man who likes to know that everything is under control, that everything is minuted, that everyone knows what they have to do.

After our first planning meeting one of my jobs was to prepare a poster and this was a project already in hand. Last autumn, when Liz and I were in Scotland for my birthday celebrations, she took the most magnificent picture of me on the links at Fortrose and Rosemarkie Golf Course. The scenery was spectacular and the sky wild but clear.

Fortrose and Rosemarkie

Fortrose and Rosemarkie

I decided that the poster (and my marketing leaflet) would be based on a similar pose lifted straight from the text of ‘The Letter of the Law’:

‘He finished his stroke with a nice, workmanlike follow through, but this did him no good, for he had omitted to hit the ball.’

The first job was to get a costume together and that took me to a fantastic vintage clothes shop in Oxford, via a golfing website with pictures of 1920s golf fashion. Plus fours, tweed jacket, woolly sweater, diamond long socks and flat cap: I was ready to go.

Over the previous week or so I had been looking at various views across the golf course, trying to find a suitable backdrop. Fortunately my standard of play is such that I get to see the course from some very unconventional angles. The view had to shout GOLF!, preferably with a hill involved and a green in the distance. There could be no houses, towers, pylons or anything modern in the background. It being March the trees were not in leaf, which was a shame but that couldn’t be helped. Eventually I found a perspective taken from the seventh fairway looking towards to eleventh green, which seemed to fit the bill.

On a sunny afternoon I arrived at the club, changed into my costume (which is very hot indeed), and with the manager Alan walked out to the 7th. The day was bright and, as a bonus, a willow tree was coming into leaf giving us a burst of fresh spring green.

For twenty minutes or so we posed, clicked, ducked as errant tee shots sailed around our heads and eventually got a collection from which I could build the marketing campaign.

Oxford Golf Club

Oxford Golf Club

And before I knew it posters were up in the clubhouse, the e-newsletter had announced the show and, if I didn’t want to make myself look extremely foolish I had better get down to some serious rehearsing.

I took you through the process of line learning in my Great Expectations blog and basically the routine was the same for Top Hole! Repetition, repetition repetition, add a bit, learn that. Go back, refer to script, try again. Over and over again.

Interestingly at first I found Top Hole! much more difficult to learn than anything else. Over the years I have become so familiar with the way that Charles Dickens wrote, that the sentences almost form themselves in my mind. Wodehouse was a different matter altogether. I really had to concentrate on capturing the exact phrasing and structure if I were to do him justice and not just recite a few stories about golf. I realised, quickly, that my rate of learning was nowhere near fast enough, that I would possibly have the first act learned and no more come the first night.

I had wanted to challenge myself and now I discovered that I had really succeeded!  Every waking moment, and indeed a few sleeping ones too, I found myself muttering lines. I would wake at 5.30 with my head spinning desperately trying to remember the order of the passages, if George Mackintosh came after Wilmot Byng. Did the script go back to Oom or did it move to the dogleg fourth hole? Is this the passage in which Mitchell Holmes loses his temper in the grass? When DID Celia Tennant lead me back to the ravine where George lay…..the house had pages of script all over the place as I picked up the page I was struggling with, walked around the house muttering and then put it down again.

Little by little it began to find a shape and I was managing to run the whole first act easily and the slightly more complicated second more accurately with each rehearsal.

On the production side things were also moving along. Press releases were sent to the local newspapers, radio interviews sorted for the week of the show, invitations sent out, via The Agency, to the members of the Wodehouse Estate.

At one of our regular committee meetings Ray, Alan, Alan and I met in the clubhouse itself and I began to visualise the performing space. It would be a fairly large rectangular area which gave me plenty of room to set the show as I’d begun to visualise it during my rehearsals.

The first thing in the staging of the show was that I would be in clubhouses, not theatres, so I could not make the performance space complicated in anyway. However I did want to make it very clear to the audience when I was in each of the four stories. In a theatre I would rely on pools of light but that would not be an option for me with this script.

The large rectangular space gave me four distinct corners and I numbered them in my mind. 1 (bottom right) is where the whole thing starts, an armchair, a table a large history book and The Oldest Member can begin his telling of ‘The Coming of Gowf’. Area 2 diagonally opposite (top left), where a single golf club (a niblick if you must know) will stand. Area 3 (top right) is the setting for Mitchell Holmes, with a small book and lastly, bottom left (4) is the setting for Wilmot Byng and the great President’s Cup playoff, assisted by a driver and a book of rules.

For rehearsal purposes our living room rug became very useful, with the props set out at each corner and actually the movement between them assisted with the line learning as well.

So, here we are, just over a week until tee off time (did you see what I did there?). I am pleased with where the show is but of course there is still more work to be done: plenty more run throughs, plenty more referrals to the script just to check the EXACT phrasing, plenty more experimenting with different voices and accents.

There will be some more meetings to go over final arrangements and there will be more emails to The Agency. I need to create a programme for the evening and of course I need to play golf (all in the interests of research. )

All of this leads inexorably on to Thursday and Friday the 3rd and 4th of April and 8pm. Getting into my costume, waiting on the edge of the room. Watching the guests finishing their dinner, sipping their coffee, getting another drink from the bar. Looking again to see if the props are where they should be, in each corner of ‘the stage’. Yes. Ray checking with me to see if I am ready. Short nod, ‘yes’. And then he is there, in the middle of the room calling for quiet, making his opening remarks. At the side of the room I’m listening to him but also to the words in my head: ‘On the broad terrace, outside his palace……’. Laughter from the guests at one of Ray’s remarks. Am aware of people looking over towards me, people with whom I play golf. Concentrate now. ‘Please welcome our Oldest Member!’. Applause and I am on……..

I don’t know if you’re nervous having read that, but I am! Only one thing for it, I had better run through it one more time.

Top Hole! is to be performed on 3&4 April at Oxford Golf Club, Oxford.

Tickets, although limited in numbers, are available from: manager@oxfordgolfclub.net

 

 

 

 

Top Hole 1

Top Hole!

 

‘Isn’t that a bit disloyal?’  That was the reply I received at a recent show of mine when I answered a question about my next project.

Yes. For the first time in 20 years I am preparing a non Dickens show and it is one that I am excited about and nervous about in equal measures.

As I enter my last 2 weeks of rehearsal let me try to tell you how it has all come about.

2 years ago I received the weekly e-newsletter from my golf club in Oxford and it had details of a forthcoming social event:  a tribute act to Abba or Queen or some such, if I recall.  The Oxford Golf Club has a constant programme of social events for the membership and as well as tribute acts there are quiz evenings, after dinner speeches, celebrations for Burns Night, Valentine’s Day and so on.

As I read, a thought suddenly came to me, why don’t I offer one of my shows?  The idea rolled around for a while and I came to the conclusion that instead of suggesting one of my regular theatre scripts, why not prepare something specifically for golf clubs that I can then market across the country?

Charles Dickens was not known for his work on golf.  A little bit of cricket, yes, but no golf that I could think of, so I began to think about who HAS written about golf and the answer came to me faster than my golf ball disappears into the left rough at the first: PG Wodehouse.

In 1922 Wodehouse started to write a series of short stories set in a golf club.  He was a member in le Touquet and although not a terribly good player, he was certainly an expert observer and soon realised that every human trait was laid bare on the links.

The majority of his tales were written from the perspective of ‘The Oldest Member’, sitting quietly in the clubhouse and regaling anyone who was there with his memories of life at the club.  The fact that Wodehouse’s plots were based in a golf clubhouse and that I wanted to perform in a golf clubhouse seemed to make this the natural path to follow.

As with any new project my first action was to announce to Liz my eureka moment and get completely carried away with the idea:  generally planning world domination, long theatre tours, no doubt a  television series followed by the movie version.  As the idea took hold more firmly I began to plan where we would moor our luxury yacht, which great cities we would have apartments in and which classic cars I would buy – all purchased with the takings.  That moment past, I let the project slip away into the depths of my mind and there it lay dormant, almost forgotten.

In this case Liz gave me the necessary prod by buying a small collection of old golf clubs to use as props in the yet to be created show.  Although the clubs didn’t have an instant effect, they nagged away at my conscience for months.  There they were mocking me from their corner in the shed.

About a year after first having the idea, I came back to it.  I analysed it again and once more came to the conclusion that it was an interesting plan and that it would be a good challenge for me to adapt and learn the work of a different author.

Of course the first thing to do was to read the full collection, firstly in a small volume called ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert and Other Golfing tales’ and then in the larger ‘Golfing Omnibus’.  Wodehouse is always a delight to read, his use of language is brilliant and there are phrases at which you shake your head in disbelief and revel in their wit and conciseness.

Although each story features a different approach, they all follow a fairly similar path: a young, successful golfer, his character usually flawed in some way, inevitably in love with a young beauty, plays a round of golf which not only cures his flaw but wins him the girl.  There are many brilliant variations on this theme, but it is the recurring one.

Having read the stories a few times I narrowed them down to 6: ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’ , ‘The Long Hole’, ‘The Coming of Gowf’, ‘Ordeal by Golf’, ‘The Letter or the Law’ and ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’.  This collection I felt gave me a good spread of golfing characteristics and situations which would appeal to my target audience: golfers.

Having settled on my short list, then next thing to do was to learn more about Pelham Grenville Wodehouse himself.  I purchased a recent biography and began immersing myself into his world.  Any life story is fascinating, of course, but in this case it wasn’t the anecdotes and the factual accounts of his movements between Britain, America, France and Germany that interested me.  It was his method of writing that became important.

Wodehouse simply lived to write.  He wasn’t a gregarious outgoing party animal, enjoying lavish parties the like of which Bertie Wooster might attend;   he was a somewhat withdrawn fellow and was at his happiest in his study with his typewriter.  He took huge care with his art, which is belied by the carefree and flowing language of his novels.  He wrote quickly but revised and improved constantly.

His attention to detail, the need to craft the perfect sentence, became very important to me, and I realised that I could not ‘play’ with his work, I couldn’t make my show a pastiche, it had to be an honest, respectful performance of Wodehouse’s own words.

With all of this information in my head it was now time to start working on the script itself.  How to present the stories?  It quickly became apparent that 6 stories were going to be too many.  Each one has a fairly detailed scenario running through it, so to do them justice I wouldn’t be able to edit too much.  I decided to use only four of the stories but which two to drop?

Rather than thinking about what not to include I decided it was better to decide what I definitely did want to include and see where that left me.  ‘The Coming of Gowf’ was a shoe-in.  It is in the form of an ancient tale told from the pages of history as to how the game of golf came to the mystical land of Oom.   How a stranger – a bearded Scotsman, captured from an inhospitable coast near to the spot known to the natives as Snandrews – shows the King how to play ‘gowf’.  King Merolchazzar sees this strange ceremony as a religious rite and adopts the new God Gowf for his land.

Because ‘The Coming of Gowf’ is presented as a story from history it sets up a good way of starting the show.  The Oldest Member has been asked by the club committee to give a lecture on the history of golf and he begins by reading the account from the land of Oom.  By taking this stance it means that Tom (as I have christened him from the initials of The Oldest Member) has a perfect excuse to talk directly to the audience and begin his recital.

From the other stories I wanted to depict the characters and situations that will be instantly recognisable to those who play the game.

All golfers know the danger of losing their temper on the course and all will have winced as a player screams obscenities and hurls his clubs about.  Every course will have a litter bin next to a tee with a bent or broken club angrily discarded in it.  ‘Ordeal by Golf’ deals exactly with this as Mitchell Holmes is to play a round of golf as a test of his character to see if he can control his passions enough to be considered as the Treasurer for his company. Holmes, however, has only one fault: he loses his temper on the golf course.  I have met Mitchell Holmes many times.  He has to be in.

Another major irritant on the golf course is someone who constantly offers unsolicited advice.  You have made a complete hash of a shot and all you hear is: ‘Ah, what you did there is…..’ and so a soliloquy on the theories of golf, not to mention your own shortcomings, follows.  In ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’ the main character discovers the art of eloquence and becomes a ‘tee talker, a green gabbler, a prattler on the links’.  He certainly needs to be part of the script.

‘Those for whom the rules are the best club in the bag.’  Ah.  We play this game (or at least I do), for fun.  So when some studious know-it-all points out that I have played out of order or from the wrong place or have said the wrong thing or have not said the right thing…….well, a story about someone who lives by the rule book is a necessity and it is here where I must make a decision.

Two of the stories that I have selected cover the rules issue: ‘The Long Hole’ and ‘The Letter of the Law’ and it will be pointless to include both of them.  ‘The Long Hole’ is a very funny story dealing with a grudge match played from the first tee of a course all the way to the front door of a hotel in the centre of town.  Much underhand play takes place as the two players hack their way towards the wining post.  The match is resolved when one player casually asks an errand boy what club he should use for his final shot, his opponent leaps on the indiscretion ‘Seeking advice from one who is not your caddy!’

The other possibility is ‘The Letter of the Law’ in which Wilmot Byng drives his ball into four geriatric golfers, known as The Wrecking Crew, hitting Joseph Poskitt (the father of the girl he wishes to marry), on the leg thereby causing him to halve The President’s Cup, rather than win it.  The bulk of the story concerns the playoff for the cup and especially the rule book shenanigans of Poskitt’s rival, Wadsworth Hemingway.

Which to chose?  Well, ‘The Long Hole’ was my first choice but on closer inspection it rambles a bit and actually there is no solid resolution to the tale, whereas ‘The Letter of the Law’ is neatly structured by the geography of the golf course and has a perfect denouement.  It also features a description of Joseph Poskitt’s swing:

‘He brought to the tee the tactics which in his youth had won him such fame as a hammer thrower.  His plan was to clench his teeth, shut his eyes, whirl the club round his head and bring it down with sickening violence in the general direction of the sphere.’  Which, as it happens, is a perfectly accurate description of one of the members’ swing at Oxford Golf Club, which is where I shall be perform for the first time.

And there were my four stories.  A bit unfair on ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’ but I can always use that in the future.

So. To write.  Blank page.  The best thing, I have found, when faced with a blank page is to do something else and it suddenly became vitally important to me to have a title, I couldn’t possibly write an untitled script.  ‘The Golfing Stories of PG Wodehouse’ was accurate if not exciting.  ‘The Oldest Member’ didn’t capture the spirit and feel of Wodehouse’s work.  ‘Right Ho, Jeeves!’ is one of the most famous and memorable book  titles, while one of Bertie Wooster’s favourite sayings is ‘Top Ho!’ could I use that?  Not really for although Wodehouseian, it says nothing about golf.  And then all of a sudden, there it was, at the forefront of my mind: ‘Top Hole!’

I had now no excuse but to write the script.

The first draft was very ordinary indeed.  The Oldest Member enters and recites the story of ‘The Coming of Gowf’.  When he has finished he starts to tell the story of ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’.  When he has finished that there is an interval.  In the second half he tells the story of ‘Ordeal by Golf’ followed by ‘The Letter or the Law’.  Very uninspiring, very ordinary, very dull.  Actually, that takes some doing: to make Wodehouse dull, but I had succeeded.  A rethink was definitely necessary.

For a while I pondered just telling one of the stories, but I felt that there would not be enough variety, nothing for the audience to do and an audience will never enjoy a script if they are not thinking about it and involved with it.

The solution came from my main character, the oldest member.  Surely this elderly man sat in the clubhouse will be a little confused, a little befuddled.  Why not, then, have him mixing up his favourite stories?  That way the audience will never have the chance to settle down into a single narrative, there will be different characters, different situations and different outcomes.

Suddenly the script began to fall into place easily.  Starting with ‘The Coming of Gowf’, I found a natural moment in the narrative to drop straight into ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’ then another natural spot for the poor old boy to remember that  he should be talking about King Merolchazzar  before drifting into ‘Ordeal by Golf’ .

Sometimes a script only works because of sheer hard work and more work, then reworking and starting again.  However, Act 1 of Top Hole! just arranged itself in front of me.  By the time I reached the point where I wanted the interval to be I discovered that, purely by a happy accident, each of the four stories had arrived at the point where their respective golf matches were just starting out at the first tee, giving me a perfect point to break and ensuring two acts of very different styles.

In Act 2 all of the action takes place on the links and, with the exception of ‘The Coming of Gowf’, Wodehouse uses the same course for each match and so, as the stories continue to intertwine with each other, the audience will get a feel for the course itself.  They will recognise the short second over a lake.  They will fear the drive across the ravine to the par 5 third.  The dogleg fourth, the ninth back over the water again, the tricky eleventh and the objectionable freak hole that is the eighteenth.

I continued to work my way through each of the  plots winding them up one by one until the only one unfinished is back where we started, in the kingdom of Oom and the end of ‘The Coming of Gowf’, which wraps up the whole affair very neatly.

And that is where I shall wrap this up too.  In my next blog I shall tell you how I am approaching this project as a performer, as opposed to as a script writer and also some of the production challenges that have arisen out of it.

In the meantime, Top Hole!

 

Top Hole! is to be performed on 3&4 April at Oxford Golf Club, Oxford.

Tickets, although limited in numbers, are available from: manager@oxfordgolfclub.net

01865 242158

 

 

Creating Great Expectations

A question that I often asked after my shows is ‘how do you remember all of those lines?’.  Having just completed 3 performances of a brand new show, I thought that you may be interested to read about the entire process from the original idea to the fall of the curtain, so here it is:

In the UK all of my theatre events are promoted by the Derek Grant Organisation.  I have been working with Derek and his partner Michael for five years now and in that time have been touring with 2 shows.  The first was ‘An Audience With Charles Dickens’ which is based on my biographical show ‘Mr Dickens is Coming’, but also featuring part of Dickens’s reading of the’ Murder of Nancy’ from Oliver Twist and my one man version of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’.

After a couple of years we decided to lengthen Nickleby and make it into its own complete evening, which gave us our second show.

A year or so ago Derek suggested to me that we should introduce a completely new show into our repertoire and wondered if I could do anything with Great Expectations, which happens to be my favourite Dickens novel.  I leapt at the chance and we agreed a deadline and so began the protracted panic of getting a new show to the stage.

The Writing

The first thing to worry about is the editing of the script and with Great Expectations that is more of a problem than with, say Nicholas Nickleby.

Charles Dickens’s early novels tend to be quite episodic, featuring a central figure travelling through the story and meeting various larger than life characters along the way.  In Nickleby, Nicholas starts in London, meets Newman Noggs and the villain of the piece, Ralph Nickleby, before travelling to Yorkshire to spend time with Mr and Mrs Wackford Squeers at Dotheboys Hall.  In Yorkshire he also meets up with Smike who runs away with him back to London, a few more wonderful characters there (the Wittiterlys and the Mantalinis), before they leave for Portsmouth where they discover the theatrical company of Mr Crummles.  After a brief adventure there, they return to London and the final part of the story is played out exactly where it started.

So to adapt the show for a 2 hour evening is not difficult, some of the good characters have to be axed, but on the whole the central plot is easy to relate.

Great Expectations is another matter altogether, it is a much later book and regarded by many as his greatest.  The huge wealth of characters are still there of course, but they all have a vital piece to play in Pip’s story, making it much more difficult to condense.

I’m sure that there are many ways of starting to write, and no doubt that people who have studied creative writing could tell me the best way of going about it, but I just like to get going.  For the moment the staging of the show doesn’t come into my mind at all, it is purely doing justice to the words that Charles Dickens wrote: they must always be the star.

I of course have some idea as to what I’m going to include and what I’m cutting out, otherwise I’d simply copy the entire novel out.

As in the novel the story will be told in the first person by Pip, so that I do not need to change any of the narrative language.  The opening is easy, why mess about with such a fabulously atmospheric passage?

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

I take the next paragraph out and go straight to the description of the marshes as well as introducing Pip’s mother and father who will be referred to later, so they need to make an appearance there.  The little brothers don’t need to be there for the sake of the story, so sadly they have to go:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!” 

So, the story has begun.  Something that I will have to think about later is how I transition from the opening narrative into the terrifying appearance of the convict, Abel Magwitch.  I really want an impressive crash of an entrance which will shock the audience in the same way that the opening sequence of David Lean’s classic 1946 adaptation does.  Hmmm, will have to think about that.

In the first scene with the convict, what do I need to get across?  That Pip is terrified, that he has no doubt that the man (of course Pip doesn’t know he is an escaped prisoner yet), will rip his heart and liver out, that it must be established that he lives in a forge and that the man needs his help to get away and that he realises that a forge will give him the tools that he wants.

Is it necessary to introduce the 2nd convict at this stage?  No. Pip will be quite terrified enough by Magwitch without the secondary threat of ‘There’s a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver. It is in wain for a boy to attempt to hide himself from that young man. A boy may lock his door, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe, but that young man will softly creep and creep his way to him and tear him open.’

The second convict does need to appear later, but descriptions of him now would prolong the opening scene, so I’ll keep him in reserve.

Back to the forge and we are introduced to kindly Joe Gargery and to his wife, Pip’s older sister, who had brought him up by hand.

I won’t go through the entire novel but you get the idea, taking each scene and breaking it down to what is strictly necessary to tell the story and move it along.

During my career I have performed various passages from Great Expectations in other shows.  Liz and I feature 2 passages from it in our Kinderszenen show (music from Robert Schuman with readings from various scenes of Childhood within Dickens’s work) and I of course have a passage in my ‘Complete Works of Dickens’ show.  When I reach the scenes that I have used before, I heave a huge sigh of relief and simply cut and paste them without too much thought.

After a couple of weeks of editing I get the script to as pared back form as I possibly can.  It is 50 pages long and I need it to be 30 pages! Ah.

At this stage in the proceedings it is traditional for me to completely abandon the project and say ‘it can’t be done.  There is no way I can tell the story of Great Expectations in 2 hours.  I will not do justice to an amazing novel and the audiences will feel cheated and short changed. So, I give up.’  This, inevitably, will happen a few times during the process.

I leave the script for a while, maybe for a few weeks.  I am probably working on something else, so I forget it completely.  When I come back to it, pull the folder out from the memory of my computer and re-read it I realise that of course I can edit it much harder and so start again.

Often the first passages to come under the knife are those which I had pasted from previous shows.  One such is the amazing boat escape at the end of the novel which I have previously used for the Complete Works show.

Cut, snip, bin.

40 pages.

‘It can’t be done.  There is no way I can tell the story of Great Expectations in 2 hours.  I will not do justice to an amazing novel and the audiences will feel cheated and short changed. So, I give up.’

And on we go.

With so many re-writes, or at least re-edits, I am becoming more and more familiar with the words and the shape of the script so this becomes the first stage of the line learning process.  Certain phrases just start to stick and the way the show moves from scene to scene becomes second nature.  I don’t realise that I am learning lines at this stage, I am not going over them, they are just wheedling their way into my brain.

As the rewrites go on I also start to think of how to stage and perform the show.  The first issue is that of the beginning and how to transition from the opening narrative to Magwitch’s first lines and the answer I come up with is a new one for me: voiceover.

When the show starts in the theatre I will have all of the lights fade to a blackout and then play my recorded voice.  At the end of the voiceover I will burst onto the stage, with sudden bright light, bellowing the first line of dialogue ‘Hold Your Noise!  Keep still you little devil or I’ll slit your throat!’

The next issue is how to distinguish the different venues in the story.  In my version they are broken down into: The Forge, Miss Havisham’s House, Mr Jaggers’s office, Herbert Pocket’s lodgings and Wemmick’s house, with a few intermediate scenes.  Keeping the scenery very simple means that I am not tied to certain scenes by the set, so I can use different moods of lighting.  A cold, blue light for Miss Havisham’s , a nice friendly warmth for the forge and so on.

I soon hit upon another idea for the set.  As Pip assumes that Miss Havisham is his benefactress, her presence looms over him for most of the novel.  I have the idea of using my good old faithful hat stand, draped with a white cloth, which will simply stand at the back of the stage, a menacing presence throughout.  The Havisham Hat Stand will have a permanent blue light of its own which creates her cold aura.  It also means that I can light it with bright reds and oranges during the scene in which she burns.

At last I have a script that I am happy with.  It is 33 pages long, it tells the basic story successfully and can be staged incredibly simply.  But now I have to learn it.

The Learning

There is no secret to line learning it is a case of repetition and repetition again.  I imagine that every actor has their own way to do it, in my case I have to move, I have to pace.  Firstly I have a script in my hand and start to read.  I don’t ‘perform’ it out loud, but mutter to myself.

Let me give you an example of how a passage from Great Expectations might work:

‘My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie.    My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie.’  Then I hide the book.  ‘My sister went to fetch…’ look at the book. ‘My sister went out to fetch….’ Wrong again, check again:  ‘My sister went out to get a pork pie’  Check it again, no, it needs the word ‘savoury’:  ‘My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie.’  Look at the next line:  ‘…I heard her steps proceed to the pantry.   I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry.’ Hide book. ‘I could hear her steps proceed to the pantry.’ Check. No: ‘I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry.’  Now, put the two together:  ‘My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry.  My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. My sister went out to get a savoury pork pie. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry’.  Add the next line: ‘I felt I could bear no more, and that I must run away…..’  You get the idea.

Fortunately I was recently on a cruise ship (as those who read my last post will know!), to perform some of my other shows, which meant I had plenty of time during which I could walk around the deck line learning.  The other passengers soon realised what I was doing and watched with amusement as I committed the whole of act one to memory over a period of 9 days.

I didn’t do any line learning on days when I was to performance as that might have become very confusing!

When I got home I had to really concentrate on Act 2, which is longer and more intense but the routine is the same.

For a long time it seems as if I am never going to get this one memorised (as I feel with every new script).  It just seems to be an impossibility but if I am not going to make myself look like a complete idiot, there is nothing for it but to pace and mutter and mutter and pace.  Little by little the lines start to stick.  Soon I am reaching the point when I find myself going back to the script convinced I’ve gone wrong only to find that the words were perfect after all.

Sometimes I will find a combination of words that just won’t stick.  For an example I site a speech by Mr Wemmick, warning Pip that Magwitch’s presence in London has been noticed and that he is being watched.  The line is:

‘I accidentally heard, yesterday morning that a certain person not altogether of uncolonial pursuits, and not unpossessed of portable property had made some little stir in a certain part of the world where a good many people go, not always in gratification of their own inclinations, and not quite irrespective of the government expense — By disappearing from such place, and being no more heard of thereabouts. From which, conjectures had been raised and theories formed. I also heard that you at your chambers in Garden Court, Temple, had been watched, and might be watched again.’

The words that I just could NOT get were: ‘…and not quite irrespective of the government expense…’  Every time I came to it, the words ‘..not quite insensible of the government expense.’ came out.  I know, I know, it doesn’t even make sense, but that was no help to my befuddled brain.  Back to the script look at it, mutter it; ‘Irrespective, irrespective, irrespective.’  Hide script: ‘and not quite insensible….NOOOOOOOO!’  Check it again and again and again.  ‘Not quite……I know it is not insensible, but I can’t think what it is’  Now there is a mental block coming as I approach that line and even though I have convinced myself that it is NOT insensible and I know that it IS Irrespective I bottle it and end up floundering pathetically.

This is when I have to find a key word, a hint, fixed into my brain to let me attack the line confidently.   To make this technique work successfully I have to look at the whole sentence and find a hint that relates to what I do know.  In this case the end of the sentence is….’government expense’.  Government…expense……finance….taxes…..  OK, what word links irrespective to taxes, more to the point what word sounds like irrespective and not insensible.  Irrr. Irrres. IRS!  The USA Internal Revenue Service.

Now, as I approach that line I know that the word has the IRS sound, which steers me away from insensible and straight toward irrespective.  More importantly it breaks the mental block that I’d found myself up against.

One other example of the same technique:

The appointment was for next day. Let me confess exactly with what feelings I looked forward to Joe’s coming.

Not with pleasure, no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money.

In this passage the problem was with ‘considerable disturbance, some mortification and a keen sense of incongruity.’

The final item of the list was fine and makes sense in the context of the story but I got confused over the first two, so I needed a key to get me into the list correctly.  Answer: CD (Charles Dickens) = Considerable Disturbance; and SM (Scrooge and Marley) = Some Mortification.  Easy!

As the first performances approached the line learning went on and on, concentrating mainly on the 2nd act, although in the days immediately preceding the shows I was doing full runs twice a day.  It was with great relief that I discovered that all of the work done on board the cruise ship meant that Act 1 was still safely in my mind.

The First Performances

And now, to perform.  As an actor in a one man show there is nowhere to hide, you are judged purely on your individual efforts. This has great rewards if everything goes well but huge opportunities for self doubt and despair if it all goes wrong.

With a brand new show the doubts are doubled as they creep in about the script itself.  Great Expectations is very dark and intense with very few moments of levity to bring a smile to the audience’s lips, and that is completely different to all of my other shows: I’ve always relied on laughter to give me a clue as to how a performance is going.

My first performance is to be in the city of Leicester in the Guildhall museum.  I performed there last year and it is an amazing hall dating back to around 1380.  Of course it is in no way a theatre so for my first 2 performances I won’t have my nice moody pools of light to create each scene, I will have to rely on the words and the action, which actually is no bad thing, it will help to focus my concentration onto what is really important.

The date is 7 February, 2014 which is Charles Dickens’s 202nd birthday, it is also the day on which the very first UK statue of Charles Dickens is to be unveiled in the city of Portsmouth.  Today, therefore will be a day to honour Charles Dickens and to celebrate his amazing life and career, all of which heaps more self-induced pressure onto my shoulders.

By 12.15 the 1 pm audience are arriving, I can do no more pacing on the stage itself, but find myself still walking round in circles in my ‘dressing room’ which is a fabulous Jury Room with a little wooden hatch looking down into the main hall.

‘Hold your noise, keep still you little devil…… not always in gratification of their own inclinations, and not quite irrespective of the government expense……. Not with pleasure, no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity…..’ and so forth, over and over.

I’m getting rather like a caged lion now and really could do with starting, I always get very impatient before a show and really want to get out onto the stage.  At 1.pm I go downstairs, into the Mayor’s Parlour, from where I will make my entrance onto the stage and almost before I know it I can hear the opening voiceover playing.  The nerves ratchet up a few more notches and the butterflies in my stomach begin to flap harder and faster.

‘……and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.’

I burst onto the stage trying to create a flurry of movement and noise:

‘HOLD YOUR NOISE!…..’ There is a little squeal of shock from the front row: that opening works, then!

And now the nerves and the butterflies have gone, I am where I want to be and can’t do anything about the show other than to give it my best and concentrate on telling the story as well as I can.

When I get to the end of the first act the nerves return…how has it gone?  Have the audience enjoyed it?  Will they even come back for Act 2.  The applause is long and loud, it seems as if Great Expectations is working as a piece of drama.

Back in the dressing room I pace some more, mutter some more, filled with adrenaline, desperate to get back to it, want to do act 2.  Trying to listen for the audience going back into the hall, why is it taking so long?

At last we are ready to go.  Act 2 begins in the same way as act 1, with a voiceover, setting the scene in London.

The second ‘half’ is much longer than the first, although much more happens in it and is faster moving, why, it even has a few laughs!

On stage I am aware of the audience’s intensity, they are following each line, each scene.  It is joy to feel that concentration coming from the auditorium because it means that I can pace the show accordingly, leaving longer pauses and ‘feeling’ the silences, rather than rushing through them in an attempt to keep people on my side.

At the end of the show the applause and the ovation is everything I wanted it to be, it really seems as if the script and the telling of it has worked well.

There is a second performance in the evening and now that there is no daylight coming in, the Guildhall takes on an even more atmospheric tone, which is helped by the mournful tolling of the cathedral bells right next door.  As with any show I relax into the performance the more I do it and the more familiar I become with it.

The evening reaction is as positive as the afternoon’s one, which is a relief (just because one audience likes a show there is absolutely no guarantee that another body of people will) and I pack up and drive to my hotel feeling very satisfied.

On the following day I have a 2 hour drive to Boston in Lincolnshire, another ancient town, this time on the east coast of England.  I will be performing one show at the Blackfriar’s Arts Centre, which is a stunning little theatre.

Performing in an actual theatre means that I can try the show out in its fullest form, with lighting etc.  Michael Jones, the technical side of the Derek Grant Organisation, travels to the shows as well, to oversee the lighting.  As there was no lighting available to him yesterday he was able to watch the show and try to get a sense of how it works and moves along.  Tonight is his debut!

We spend quite a lot of time focussing and placing the lights, with the help of the theatre’s resident tech team, and then we are ready to go.

Sadly it is a small audience, in comparison to 2 sell outs in Leicester,  but that’s not important to me as a performer, the people who are there have made an effort, they have made a commitment of time and money to watch me, so they deserve as much as the larger audiences last night. It is frustrating, of course, but the energy and the effort are the same

The show goes very well again and in a more theatrical setting it seems to become even more dramatic and intense.  I am getting used to the fact that this is a drama now and that the audiences will not respond as they do for Mr Dickens is Coming, or Nicholas Nickleby or any of my other shows.

With 3 performances behind me at 2 different venues I am very satisfied with how things have gone.  There is a little time until I perform Great Expectations again but I am now no longer terrified about the prospect but very very excited.

I hope that this has given you some idea as to how I bring a show from the depths of my mind onto the stage.  Of course this story isn’t finished yet, as Great Expectations will continue to change and develop each time that I perform it and alongside that, there are new shows to be written, learned and performed.  New lines that will not stick, new panics, new fears, new depths, new highs.

And I Love It!

 

How Not to Join a Cruise Ship

Heathrow

I am very lucky to travel the world and to do what I love doing.  I hope that those of you who followed my adventures throughout my American tour got some sense of life on the road: the highs, the lows and the mundane, all of which makes my life so exciting.

Today I am sat on a cruise ship in the port of Aqaba in Jordan, on the Red Sea.  My cabin door is wide open and the warm breeze is stirring the curtains.  Outside the sounds of the port are mixing with the wailing call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

All is good.

So, let me tell you about another aspect of my professional life.  The good and the……let me tell you about my journey here.

P&O Cruises’ smallest ship, the MV Adonia, is currently undertaking a world cruise.  10 days ago she left Southampton and has been sailing across the Mediterranean before passing through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea.

I have been booked to join Adonia for 9 days, providing entertainment during an extended period at sea.  Usually on a cruise the ship sails at night and the days are spent in port, from which the passengers can go ashore and explore the sights either by themselves or on organised tours.

Occasionally there will be a ‘sea day’ when there is a greater distance between ports and the passengers can relax on deck or enjoy entertainment laid on by the Cruise Director which is where I come in.

On this particular cruise there is a strangely long period of 6 days at sea and I will be performing on three afternoons during that time and I am sure that I will be able to tell you of wonderful audiences, friendly people and of life at sea.

But this trip hasn’t got off to the best of starts:

The whole adventure starts off with my alarm going off at 5.45 on a Friday morning in Abingdon.  I have a flight at 10.00 but need to arrive at the airport 2 hours before, and the journey to Heathrow takes an hour and Liz and I need some breakfast, so 5.45 it is.

We get on the road by 7 and as always it is very difficult when Liz is not joining me on the trip.  It seems as if I’ve only just got back from the long Christmas tour and here I am jetting away again.

We make good time and get to the airport at around our target of 8.00am.  I have slight worries about the journey as it will be made with 2 different airlines and I have only been able to check in for the first leg with BA from Heathrow to Berlin.  I am greatly relieved to discover that I can check my bag all the way to my final destination in Aqaba, Jordan, but I will still have to find the Royal Jordanian Airlines desk at Berlin airport to check in myself.

Having said a nervous farewell to my suitcase, Liz and I have a coffee and some breakfast before saying a sorrowful farewell to each other.  It is a horrible moment as I walk through security and see her waving, trying to hold back the tears.  It is always a very empty feeling once I disappear behind that screen.

Security:  Belt off, shoes off, laptop out.  Keys, phone, watch, coins in my coat pocket.  All in the bin.  Stand in the swooshy scanning booth, on the little pictures of two feet, with hands up. Swoosh Swoosh and I‘m spat out the other side and into the bustle of Heathrow terminal 5’s shopping arcade.

I have enough time to buy myself a new pair of sunglasses, replacing the ones I sat on in America, and then it is off to gate A17 and the first of my waits.  I sit in the chair at the boarding are and entertain myself by trying to guess the nationality of everyone at the gate.  There is an extra level to the game today as some other entertainers are due to join the ship at the same time as me and it fun to try and spot them as well.  I have my suspicions!

We are called quite quickly and the flight is not very full, which is great.  As I’m sorting out my books and things that I want with me from my bag, one of my suspected other entertainers comes past.  He has a very smart roller bag and I comment on it.  He answers with a big grin and a laugh and makes his way to his seat.

I have 3 seats to myself and sit next to the window as we take off and bank over Wembley stadium before heading into the cloud and to the east.

The first leg of the journey is only about 90 minutes, so there is time for a coffee but nothing else and soon the engine not falls, the nose of the plane dips almost imperceptibly and we are making our approach to Berlin airport.

It maybe my imagination or the result of a long held perceived stereotype but the housing looks to be regimented and ordered.  As we get closer to the airport itself, blocks of flats abound and there is a certain feel of the old Eastern Bloc to the scene.  However, bucking that stereotype, the buildings seem bright, clean and vibrant.

Berlin

The plane touches down and taxis to the stand and I am soon off and into the terminal building.  I go through another passport check.  There is a large notice ‘DO NOT FORGET YOUR LUGGAGE’ but I have confidence in the information from the BA desk and bypass the carousel with just a nagging thought that when I am in Jordan, my bags will still be in Berlin.  Pushing such fears aside I head out into the main terminal.

I have almost 2 hours before my next flight, but am very aware that I haven’t checked in yet and don’t want to find that I’ve missed a deadline, so immediately track down the Royal Jordanian Airlines desk, at which there is a long queue.  I am amused to see that the man that I assume to be a fellow entertainer is waiting in the same line.

The queue moves forward slowly and rather worryingly a number of passengers are being sent over to the ticket counter where the staff are frowning and tapping away at their keyboards.  One of these is an Englishman, making a bit of a fuss and insisting that he be told what is going on.  I have a sneaking suspicion that he may also be joining the ship.

At last I get to the desk and it is an hour before departure.  The clerk, rather worryingly, peers at my ticket and at my luggage tags, back at my ticket again.  He asks for my complete itinerary and goes through another round of peering.  At last a thought crosses his mind and he asks me if where I’m going.  I tell him ‘from here to Amman and then to Aqaba.’

‘Tomorrow?’

‘No, today.  This flight in an hour and then on to Aqaba.’

‘Yes, but Aqaba tomorrow?’

‘No, today.  I have to join a ship.’

His face drops again and the cycle of peering and tapping resumes.

And suddenly there is a boarding card in front of me.  Hooray.  Just as suddenly he tears it up and goes back to his tapping.  Finally, finally, he resolves whatever problem there was and prints out 2 more boarding passes and a voucher for €10, as the flight is delayed.  ‘ How much by?’ I ask him.

‘An hour’

I explain I have a connection to make in Amman.  ‘How much time do you have?’ he asks.

‘An hour’

It will be fine he assures me.  ‘When will we board?’

‘An hour’

‘Will there be an announcement made?’

‘Oh, no, we operate a silent airport’

And with that I’m left to explore the delights of Berlin airport which are few and far between.

The terminal building is a huge circle, rather like I imagine the Hadron Collider to be.  The inner half of the loop is the public area and the gates themselves are behind each airline’s desks.   It is a good system, so long as there are no delays.

In the public area there are very few chairs, but in the secure gate area there are plenty.  Of course none of us can get to those for an hour.

I wander aimlessly about and see others wandering aimlessly about too and little by little we all aimlessly wander back and find ourselves  grouped around the Royal Jordanian desk hopefully waiting for the great moment.

At last a security guard arrives and we are allowed to filter in, having had our carry-on bags and ourselves scanned again and our passports checked once more.

The clock is now showing that we are an hour late and it is with an air of resignation that I see no plane is waiting at the gate.  It is quite amusing to watch everyone else coming in and watching their reaction as they realise the same thing.  One thing is for sure, I will not be getting the connecting flight to Aqaba tonight

I find an electric socket and plug my iphone  in as I think I am going to need it later and then fire up the laptop.  I send an email to the P&O Cruises port representative in Aqaba warning him that any entertainers that he is supposed to meet will not be arriving there tonight.  Then I open a blank page in Microsoft Word and stare at it.

One of the results of writing my blog at Christmas is the germ of an idea that I may try to write a book based on my experiences over the last 20 years and here, in Berlin airport with no immediate sign of going anywhere, seems to be a very good place to start:  ‘Acting has always been a part of my life. …..’   OK, it’s not on a par with ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show….’, but it IS a start.

I write for about 50 minutes before the excitement of a plane coming in interrupts the creative process.  We all watch as it is refuelled and catered and at last we are allowed on.  Once again it is not a full flight and the boarding is affected very quickly and we trundle out to the runway just over 2 hours late.

This leg of the journey is almost 4 hours and there are films to watch and meals to be eaten.  Unfortunately my video screen isn’t working but, as before, I have 3 seats to myself.  I shuffle to the middle one which does work, but only in Jordanian, then to the aisle seat, which is fully functional.  I watch Rush (the motor racing film based on the 1976 Grand Prix season).  The editing for airline viewing is quite funny.  I’m sure that when James Hunt says something along the lines of ‘That was my FLAMING race,  the movement of his mouth doesn’t seem to match the word flaming’.  Same with the expletive ‘SUGAR!’

Having finished with Rush there is only about 30 minutes left of the flight and I watch the beginning  of the truly awful ‘Diana’ movie.  30 minutes was just fine thank you.

Amman

When the plane arrives at the gate I switch on my iphone and there is an email from Mohammad, the port representative asking me to call him.  He says that the easiest thing will be to just get a taxi from Amman to Aqaba and if I can get cash at the airport he will reimburse me tomorrow.  He says that there should be 2 other entertainers onboard and can I round them up as well?  I wonder if my hunches were right back in London and Berlin?

The first thing to do is make sure I have my bag.  If it has made it this far at all, it is now checked through to Aqaba.  Whilst I’m making enquiries I hear a voice asking about getting to Aqaba as he has to join a ship.  Yes, I was right, my mark from Heathrow with the smart roller carry-on bag.  I introduce myself and shake hands with Jimmy, who is a singer, with the most delicious Jamaican accent and a laugh that follows every sentence.  You just can’t help smiling in his company.

I explain to him what Mohammad told me and he agrees that this seems like a good plan (I suppose we are both tired but neither of us consider the fact that we are about to take a taxi over a distance that was supposed to be covered by a jet plane, but more of that anon).  We successfully negotiate the safe release of our bags and then are told to clear immigration.

As we are waiting in line Jimmy says that he thinks he knows the other entertainer. ‘I just have a feeling I know who it is’.  The man in question is the guy who was making a fuss in Berlin, being very British and slightly bolshie.  We see him marching up to the front of a line waving his ticket about and demanding that things are sorted out.  He’s being very British and slightly bolshie.

Jimmy goes to introduce himself and Christopher Hamilton comes to complete the three stooges.  We explain the new plan to him.  ‘Drive?  But its 4 hours across dessert and through mountains.  We won’t be there until 2 in the morning and I have a show tomorrow .  There is a flight out of here at 7 in the morning, so I’m going to stay here and get that one.’

Chris has already got himself a voucher for a local hotel, paid for by the airline and he is in the act of buying his visa.  Jordan has a strange arrangement in that before you can clear immigration you have to stump up 20 Dinars for an entry visa.  Every desk in immigration has a crowd around it, some people are waving money, some are waving passports, none are being dealt with.  Chris had marched to the front of one of these lines and done his best ‘British Empire’ line and got his passport stamped immediately.

Realising now that 4 hours doesn’t sound good,  I call Mohammad back and ask him about the drive: ‘only 4 hours’, he says.  At which Jimmy and I decide to stay put as well.  We have to go back to the transfer desk and get ourselves booked onto the morning flight, get our hotel voucher sorted out and then back to immigration all over again.  Along the way we seem to have picked up a hotel concierge who is going to drive us.

The mayhem and disorganisation at the passport desk continues with the happy result that both Jimmy and I get our passports stamped with the visa, without having to part with any money.

Amazingly our suitcases are waiting for us and we dutifully follow our concierge to the lower level roadway, where he makes a phone call and then takes us back to the upper level roadway.  A mini bus arrives and we load ourselves in.

My phone says it is now 11.30 at night and we are all beginning to feel the strain a bit.  As the mini bus drives in to the hotel, the engine stalls and the driver can’t seem to restart it.  Even here, 25 yards short of the hotel entrance but frustratingly the wrong side of a security gate, we are delayed.

The driver eventually coaxes the engine into life just long enough to roll us to the hotel and we are in.  What is the first thing we have to do?  Put our bags through a security scanner and be screened ourselves.  No more.  Please make it stop!

We shuffle to the desk (even Jimmy’s laugh is sounding a little less robust now) but the guys tell us we can’t check in, not yet but their motives are good.  The hotel is giving us a free dinner and the restaurant will stop serving in 5 minutes so ‘go, go and eat, come back to check in after!’

The dinner is a buffet with some delicious salads, meats and fishes and it is very welcome indeed. When we finish we go back to the front desk and get our room keys before trailing to our rooms and bed.  The room is basic but who cares.

We have to leave the hotel at 5am and although the desk promised to call our rooms, I don’t quite believe it and set my iphone alarm for 4.30 am and with that I sleep.

Sure enough at 4.30 my alarm goes off but a phone call there is none.  I feel rather smug and pleased with myself for correctly assessing the likelihood of a successful alarm call.  I get out of bed, shower, dress and get to the lobby as the top of the hour approaches.  The staff behind the desk look at me enquiringly.

‘I have to leave for the airport.  2 others will be joining me.’

‘Where are you flying to, What time is your flight?’

‘Aqaba,  leaving at 7.  We were told we should leave here at 5.’

‘But you are too early, sir.  It is only 4 o’clock!’

Bugger!

There is a little coffee counter in the foyer and as the rooms didn’t have any coffee making facilities I decide to stay there and write some more.  At 4.35 a member of staff comes over and asks if I was in room 412.

‘Yes, that’s right’

‘Ah, I see.  You didn’t answer your alarm call.’

‘No.  I was sitting here.’

That will teach me for being smug.

At the genuine  5 o’clock Jimmy and Chris appear and we wait for the mini bus.  Nothing seems to be happening so Chris asks at the desk what’s going on.  The bus is there waiting for us, apparently even though nobody thought of mentioning it.

We get on the bus and wait.  Other passengers dribble on.

We wait some more.  At last we make the short drive to the airport (we could have walked and arrived sooner).

We stand in a queue at a desk that says ‘All Destinations’  above it, to check in.  We wait.

We are told to go to another desk if we are flying to Aqaba.

We wait.  No one at the desk.

We sit down and wait.

At last a clerk arrives but says the desk is not open yet, so we should wait.

We wait.

The desk opens and we all stand up again and wait some more.

Once we are checked in we are told that the gate will open soon and we should…..

We wait.

Eventually the gate opens and we are screened once more before waiting for all the passengers to get on bus which drives across the dessert surrounded expanse of the Amman airport.

Cruelly, oh so cruelly, the bus drives us past a BA plane.  The Union flag tail fin mocking us with the knowledge that there was a direct BA flight to here after all.  Ha, ha, bloody ha.

Aqaba

The plane to take us on is  only a small regional jet and we are quickly on our way.  The views in the morning sun are stunning: mountains and dunes of sand stretching as far as the eye can see.  The thought of driving through that terrain for 4 hours at 2 in the morning is not appealing and I am very glad that Chris knew his stuff and prevented Jimmy and me from taking the cab last night.

The flight is just less than an hour and it is with a ridiculous amount of joy that I see the sea for the first time.  The plane banks hard round and we seem to land in the middle of the dessert.  Aqaba airport is very small.  Of course we have to be screened again and have our passports checked again but it is fine now, we are here.  We have reached our journey’s end.  All there is to do now is to join the ship and it is still early enough to have breakfast on board.

Our driver is not overly communicative but as we drive into the town itself we get our first glimpse of Adonia at the quayside.  We turn into a side street and the driver pulls up at a curb.

‘You wait. I get papers.’

We wait.

After 15 minutes he comes back and starts to drive again, then he starts chatting on his phone at great length and with great urgency.  He pulls over until the conversation reaches its conclusion.  We have no choice but to wait.

Next we stop at a red traffic light.  I am now getting irritated at waiting at traffic lights!

At last we turn into the port gate and there is Adonia again like a white beacon shining out to us.

The driver does a u turn in the main entrance of the dock and pulls up.

‘I need your passports, you wait here’, and he disappears.

We get out of his car and lounge around swapping stories of life on cruise ships, each of us trying to outdo the others with tales of terrible journeys and missed flights.  We all know that this particular one will be added to our respective repertoires and retold many times in the future.

It is Chris we all feel sorry for as he has 2 shows tonight after 4 hours sleep and a journey from hell.  Chris is a cabaret pianist and will have to rehearse with the resident band during the afternoon before performances at 8.45 and 10.45.  Poor guy.

Eventually our driver returns clutching our passports and some paperwork.  He gets into the car and we pile back into our seats and away he drives.  Yes, away, not towards Adonia but out of the port, onto a coastal road and away.  Nooooooooooooooooo!

We ask where we are going.  ‘Immigration’

But, but, but…we cleared immigration yesterday when we arrived in Amman and again just now arriving in Aqaba, why more?

A mile along the coast we pull up outside a municipal building and are shepherded in and told to sit in a long grey hallway.  Plastic chairs line the wall and there is a line of black grease and dirt on the wall at head level all the way along.

We wait.

Eventually someone who seems to be in his pyjamas comes to see our driver, and they talk earnestly.  Mr Pyjama than goes into an office with a window hatch and the earnest conversation continues until some stamping of passports happens.  This process is conducted purely by our driver, we have no part in it, and the three of us just sit and wait.

Mr Pyjama comes back out from his booth and says ‘Good morning’ to us and disappears into another office.

Driver now walks to another set of windows and waits for someone to appear, which they do not.  He goes into another door and after a while comes out again and returns to the line of windows.

He waits.  We wait.

We are sat in those dirty slimy chairs with the dirty slimy scum line along the wall for about 30 minutes whilst various people do various things with our passports until suddenly it is over and we can go back to the car.  The three of us, who are being admitted to the country, have played no part in the events at all.  Very strange, the whole thing.

And now we drive back to the port and drive into the gate once more and drive towards the security gate and…..as we near them the driver’s phone goes off again.  He pulls over while he talks.  He starts to do a u-turn again, back to the spot we were at an hour ago, but something is said that changes his mind and we make our way into the secure area of the port.

At last we are on the quayside, the wind blowing off the sea.  We pull our bags to the bottom of the gangplank where we are greeted by a crisp, smart P&O Officer.  At last, there will be some semblance of order and method now.

‘Good morning gentlemen.  Are you joining us today?  Do you have a boarding letter or the like?’  I fish mine out from the bag.

‘Good, good.  Yes.  Well, someone will be here to see to you shortly.  The thing is, that we weren’t expecting anyone to be joining today!’

We’ve gone beyond caring now.  We just stand on the dock like zombies.

Eventually a member of the admin team comes down clutching our cruise cards and we can board.

Chris shows his and walks up the gang plank.  Jimmy shows his and walks up the gang plank.  I am about to show mine until I notice that is has the name Graham Gould on it.  You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?

The error is corrected and I get my own cruise card.  We are all checked into the ship and go to our cabins.

Even with our delays the breakfast buffet is still being served (there is always some food being served on a cruise ship), and we sit in the warm sun on the rear deck.  All of the cares and woes of the past 2 days slide away.  Even Chris is calmer now as he has managed to convince the Cruise Director to reschedule his show and doesn’t have to perform today after all.

Deep breaths all round and relax.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the glamour of life on the road.

Reflections from a Vinyl Chair

I am now sat at Logan International airport in Boston, waiting to board BA flight 212 to Heathrow.  I have had a lazy and touristy day in Portsmouth, including a visit to the spectacularly bonkers Pickwicks Mercantile store that stocks an eclectic range of gifts and apparel.  I posed for photographs with the staff and with a bust of the great man himself.

With the staff at Pickwick's Mercantile

With the staff at Pickwick’s Mercantile

Behind the Counter with CD looking on

Behind the Counter with CD looking on

The success of yesterday’s shows was backed up by a wonderful article in the local paper as well as second hand reports from the girls behind the desk at the Hilton Garden Inn, from guests who had been in the audience.  All very gratifying indeed.

A Successful Outcome

A Successful Outcome

Although my flight doesn’t leave until almost 6pm, I made up my mind to leave Portsmouth early and drift down Route 1 rather than taking the Interstate.  It was a lovely drive, through small New England towns.  I was particularly looking forward to Hamptons Falls, which sounded as if it would give me some exciting photo opportunities.  Hamptons Falls must sit in the flattest piece of land in New England, so any falls that exist must be very small.

The route is lined with small antique stores, often it seems in private back yards, and car repair shops, similarly located.  There is a splendid lack of corporate food outlets and instead there are plenty of diners, looking as if they’ve been lifted straight from an episode of Happy Days.  As I drove I could imagine the queues and tailbacks on the Interstate and was very glad that I took this route.

As I approached Boston I reset the SatNav and let it take me through the suburbs to Logan.  I’d expected the airport to be very busy but actually I checked in and cleared security in good time which brings me to this metal and vinyl chair.

It is time to reflect:  It has been a marvellous tour.  If you have followed me all the way through you may think that I have painted a rosy picture of my time here and edited the bad stuff out but that is not true.  On the whole I have written what I have seen and felt.  It has been fun, it has been successful and it has been very satisfying.

The biggest change this year has been the blog.  I have never written one before and, I’m ashamed to admit, I have never read one either so I don’t know if there is a right or wrong way to do it.  I have just sat down first thing in the morning and recorded my thoughts from the day before.  Of course there has been a degree of repetition within it and that has been intentional.  I wanted to capture the spirit of life on the road and a part of that is doing the same things over and over, such as the shows themselves and the signing sessions, not to mention the ironing and laundry.

The blog has had one huge benefit for me personally: it has made me look at things much more closely than I have done in the past.  For instance I am sure that I would never normally have noticed that I was driving on the Sergeant Robert Kimberling Freeway on my way to Omaha.  However with open eyes and an enquiring mind I remembered his name and later learned of his tragic story.

I am so grateful to everyone who has read the blog and for your very kind comments about it.  I will certainly repeat the exercise next year.

What other memories?  Of course meeting the Wagners from Newtown Connecticut.  The boy in the signing line telling me that my head was REALLY shiny, the girl in Wilton admitting that she thought I was saying ‘spinach’ rather than ‘spirit’.

There was the luxury of my hotels in Chicago, Atlantic City and Williamsburg.  There were hotel rooms with nowhere to plug an iron in. There was my sparrow at the Borgata.  There was my Jeep. Oh, there are so many memories.

There were hundreds of kind, generous and hospitable people, some who gave me gifts, some who checked me into hotels, some who told me how much the show had meant to them.  There were a whole range of technical experts who made me look and sound good as well as the individuals who actually organised, promoted and staged my events.  To all of these people I offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks.

But the biggest thanks are reserved for a very special group:  Bob Byers and Lisa Porter at Byers Choice spend the entire year making the arrangements that make the trip so problem free.  The sheer logistics of taking all of the requests and finding dates to suit everyone, whilst maintaining a sensible and not too exhausting travel schedule, is a major feat.

During the tour Lisa is bombarded with requests for interviews and has to find packets of time when I am in a hotel or can get to a telephone. She checks in on me, makes sure all is well and follows up on all of the requests that I make of her. As Don Tirabassi in Portsmouth told me, she ‘is a real diamond’.

Bob took on the role of managing my trips 5 years ago and is as supportive and enthusiastic an agent as I could ever wish for.  He puts up with my demands (hopefully not too many), cheerfully and patiently.  The entire Byers Family are a good bunch of people and I feel fortunate to count them among my closest friends.

I have saved my biggest thank you until last.  To Liz.  Thank you so much for supporting me in my career and putting up with my weeks of absence every year.  You are a very special person indeed and I love you so much.

And that is where the 2013 tour finishes.  My flight is boarding and tomorrow morning I will be back in England to celebrate Christmas at home.

I shall leave you with this line from A Christmas Carol:

‘I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.’

A Very Merry Christmas to you all.

Gerald Dickens 2013

The Final Bow

Goodbye to Nashua

So, here we are.  48 Days, 54 shows, 11 States and 2 countries bring me to today, the last day of my 2013 tour.

I wake at my usual annoyingly early time but that gives me plenty of opportunity to read my notes and write yesterday’s blog.  It has become a good morning discipline to get the latest post written before I get into the meat of the day.

Notes for the blog

Notes for the blog

This morning I have plenty of time, as I don’t need to be in Portsmouth until 1.30 and the drive is only an hour or so.  The weather looks clear, so there is no obvious potential for delay.  Despite not needing to get going too early, I will probably leave at about 10.  There is an empty feeling about being in a hotel after an event has finished, everyone has gone and the hotel itself is moving on to the next event. ‘My’ ballroom will be used for a party or a seminar and different people will be bustling about.

It’s not that I like to be the centre of attention or anything; it’s just that…..Oh, OK, I like to be the centre of attention.

I have a brief breakfast in the lounge before going back to my room to make preparations for the day ahead.

Today will be a day of ‘lasts’ and I unfold an hotel ironing board for the last time, fill the iron for the last time, spill water all over the cover for the last time and press my final 2 costume shirts.  I assemble 2 hangers with striped trousers, gold waistcoats and black frock coats, complete with burgundy cravats and put them into my suit carrier, making sure that my cufflinks and watch are safely in their little compartment as well.

I watch a bit of TV, get online to reserve a window seat for my flight home and generally potter until I decide that it is time to leave.

The lobby of the hotel is deserted this morning and having checked out I pull my bags to the car and load up.  I get in and start the engine and immediately there is a message on the dash saying that the tailgate is open.  I get out and check it:  definitely shut.  Back into the driver’s seat and the message is still showing.  How ironic would it be to now have a rental car whose tailgate I can’t shut having lived with one that I couldn’t open for most of the tour.

I Check again and I realise what the problem is, the window part can open independently from the main door and I must have activated the release when I first unlocked it with the remote key fob.  2013 has indeed been the year of the tailgate.

To Portsmouth

On the road and the route takes me up towards Manchester and then East to the coast.  I could almost be home already as I pass signs for Newbury, Chester, Nottingham, Rochester, Epping, Kingston, Stafford, Exeter, Durham and of course Portsmouth itself.

I have never visited Portsmouth before and it looks lovely as I drive through the downtown area looking for my hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn.  As I pull up a young man opens the car door and immediately greets me.  ‘Good morning, Mr Dickens, we are delighted that you are staying with us.  Your room is all ready for you, just see the girls at the desk’ and with that he gets into my car and takes it to a nearby lot.  I am astounded.

The welcome is continued at the front desk and before I know it I am in the lift rising to the fourth floor.  I had noticed that in the lobby fliers for my show are on the desk, hence the instant recognition but it is still amazing customer care.

In the room there is a basket containing cheeses, crackers and water, which I will save for this evening after the show.  Dairy products have a constricting effect on the throat making it difficult to project properly, so I always avoid them on show days.  I have a little time, so I watch a bit of television and buy a microwavable vegetable soup which is a perfect lunch.

At 1.15 I leave the hotel to walk just a couple of blocks to my venue for the day, the North Church which is a hugely impressive building, overlooking the old market square.  Outside is a trio of students playing carols on brass instruments and I am immediately taken back to my childhood when a local Salvation Army brass ensemble would stop at the corner outside our house on Christmas Eve and play.  I would always request ‘Away in a Manger’.

As I approach, the Church door opens and a face peers out scrutinising the passersby, she sees me carrying my top hat and cane and welcomes me in.  This is Nina Custer who is one half of the production team which is promoting this event.  Nina introduces herself and helps with my bag and coat, takes my hat and cane and generally makes a rather lovely fuss of me.

I catch sight of Don Tirabassi and we greet each other like old friends.  Many many years ago, in my very early years of touring, Don and his associates staged three events for me in Boston.  2 were in the Tremont Temple, where Dickens himself had performed and the third in The Shubert Theatre in the heart of the city’s theatre district.  He is a true theatre man and knows how to stage a great event.  Don and his wife now live in Portsmouth and he has formed a new company, Open Stage Events, with his business partner Nina.

Throughout this year’s tour it has been obvious that they are doing a good job, there have been plenty of interview requests and they have been promoting well.  Don says that the matinee is a complete sell out but we will probably be starting late as parking in Portsmouth is a real issue and this is the last Saturday before Christmas.

The hall itself is beautiful, actually very similar in size and design to the Church in Burlington New Jersey.  Don and his team have erected a stage in front of the main pulpit and altar area.  It is nice and high and will give everyone in the Church a good view.

The North Church, with temporary stage

The North Church, with temporary stage

The tech crew, Clark and Dean are hovering, waiting to do a sound check.  Dean has one of the little over the ear microphones but, remembering the one I tried at Fairleigh Dickinson University earlier in the trip, that fell off after about 10 minutes, I opt for a traditional clip on lapel mic instead.

I stand on the stage and start performing as Dean tweaks levels on his board, on the microphone pack itself and on the amplifier, until it is perfect.  Ushers and volunteers appear from various doors to listen and there is a little round of applause…for a sound check!

Door opening time is approaching so I go to my dressing room (a little office ‘off stage’ where the Pastor prepares for her services), and start to change.  I drink as much water as I can and take the opportunity to do some deep breathing exercises, as well as going through a few tongue twisters, to get my voice working properly.  More water, get hydrated.

In the dressing room

In the dressing room

I can tell when Don has opened the door, suddenly the noise in the Church is huge.  I’m not sure if we will need to start late, as it sounds as if 350 people have all arrived at once.  There is obviously a huge sense of anticipation in the hall and that lifts my energy levels and spirits.

More water, and now the first problem of the day presents itself.  The only restroom is out in the front of the Church, in the lobby, where the audience is flooding in and to which I cannot get.  This may be the fastest performance of A Christmas Carol that I have ever done.

At a little after 3.00pm the Pastor of the Church, Dawn Shippee, gets up onto the stage and makes an introduction to the Church and then to me.  The applause that greets me is astounding, what a welcome.

I start with a few introductory remarks before diving into the show head first.  The opening gambits go well, the audience are definitely responsive and this is going to be a fun afternoon, I can tell.

The Issue of the Hat Stand

As Bob Cratchit I grab my scarf from the hat stand and fling it around my neck.  Odd, there is only one end.  I give it a flick to pull the other end round but unfortunately, out of my eyeline, it is still caught on the hat rack which topples onto the stage, spilling my top hat and cane, which is a vital prop later in the show, onto the floor.  Fortunately, they do not fall down the narrow gap between the back of the stage and the pulpit behind.  If they had I would not have been able to retrieve them until after the show.

As the scene continues my mind is furiously working at the issue of the fallen hat stand.  I consider introducing a new scene, with Scrooge berating Cratchit for his untidiness and telling him to clear up before he leaves, thereby giving Bob the chance to set things up again, but in the end I simply stand the rack up in the character of Scrooge as he prepares to leave the office on Christmas Eve.

The rest of the show passes with no problems and it is a gem.  I am so pleased with it and the thunderous applause suggests that the audience love it too.

I get back into the dressing room, change and then back out to my signing table.  Don and Nina have decided not to sell any product but lots of people want their programmes signed or just to shake hands.  A reporter and photographer from The Portsmouth Herald are there getting audience member’s reactions as well as chatting to me.

When the audience has left Don is beside himself, he says that he has never known an audience like that, so enthusiastic and excited.  He heaps lavish praises onto me, which is very nice indeed.  However, I must not forget that we still have one more show to go.  So often on this tour the matinee audience has been enthusiastic and the evening one quiet, so there is still work to be done.

Don gets a roll of gaffer tape (USA Translation: Duct tape) and secures the hat stand, so that my earlier adventures are not repeated and as he carries out the operation he says that if this had been a union theatre in Boston, he would not be allowed to tear the three strips off the roll, bend them back on themselves and stick them beneath the legs of the stand.  No, a union stage hand would have to be located and if there wasn’t one on site, he would come in especially to do the job and be paid $360!

We have a couple of hours to relax.  Nina fetches a grilled chicken salad for me to eat, and we sit together, chatting in the pews of the Church.

The clock ticks inexorably on and Don is soon quietly mentioning that it may be nice to open the house doors a little earlier for this performance, which translated means: ‘I am about to open the doors, make yourselves scarce!’  I make sure I pay a visit to the rest room this time.

Back in the little dressing room I listen to the audience coming in again and try to gauge how they are going to be.  If anything they sound even louder and more excitable than the afternoon crowd.

I sit in my chair and actually doze off for a while.  Come on, don’t let it go now.  One more.  Energy.  Tongue twisters. Deep breaths.  Shake limbs. Hydrate.

The Final Show

Once again Dawn gets onto the stage and makes her introduction and once again the ovation that welcomes me to the stage is outstanding.

The show and the audience exceed even this afternoon’s.  It is an amazing 90 minutes and encapsulates everything I love about my job.  The laughter rings through the Church as do the sobs.  The responses are enthusiastic and from my point of view the timing and the performance are right back on the mark.

God Bless Us. Every One!

An explosion of applause.  Cries of ‘Bravo’.  Whistles and whoops.  Maybe I’m living in a rose tinted spectacled world, but right now I think that this is the best reception that I have had all through the tour.  Here, in Portsmouth at 9.30.  My last show. The sweat has rolled into my eyes, making them water a little bit.  I’m not sobbing with the emotion of it all.  Of course not.

The Final Bow

The Final Bow

I go through the same routine of changing costume before signing.  One gentleman presents me with a lovely framed engraving that he made of Charles Dickens.  More generosity.

Even as I sign, Clark, Dean and their crew are dismantling the set and stage behind me.  Things must move on and the Church, entering a rather busy week, needs to be returned to its natural state.

The last guests leave and I change and pack up all of my things, making sure that nothing gets left in the Pastor’s room at the North Church in Portsmouth.  I thank Clark, Dean and Don (Nina had to leave during the signing session).  They have been a great team to work with and I sincerely hope that we will do more together in the future.

I trudge through the crowded Saturday night streets of Portsmouth, in my thick coat, tweed cap and scarf, pulling my costume bag behind me.  Crowds are spilling out of bars, and everywhere there is music, raucous conversation and laughter.  I feel a bit like Scrooge ‘edging his way along the crowded paths of life’  The spirit of Christmas Present is definitely in the air tonight.

Back at the Hilton Garden Inn there is a little bar, and I have a couple of drinks, toasting myself and the season before going back to my room and making a start on the selection of cheeses.  It really doesn’t matter if my throat closes up and I can’t project now!

So, that is the end.  I get into bed and the accumulated waves of tiredness wash over me and send me to sleep. A deep sleep.

I will post one more blog later today, but for now thank you so much for reading and for all of your comments along the way.  It has been so much fun.

It’s a Wonderful Life

WSMN

After a late, and difficult night last night it is up and at it first thing this morning, as Jill has arranged for me to be interviewed by one of the local Nashua radio stations at 7.30am.

At 7.10 I am in the foyer and Jill pulls up in her car.  She looks like I feel.  The journey to downtown Nashua only takes about 10 minutes and we are soon pulling into park at the side of Main Street among the banks of shovelled snow.

We enter the anonymous door and make our way upstairs to the offices and studios of WSMN 1590 am.  It would be fair to say it is sparse.  No reception desk, no walls showing pictures of the various presenters, no lavish green room. Nobody bustling about with sheaves of scripts and running orders.  In fact, nobody at all, except for one voice.

Jill and I make pour way through the deserted offices until we find one rather drab room at the far end of the building.  The ‘On Air’ light is glowing but the door is open nonetheless.  In this small room George Russell is broadcasting his daily morning show.  He speaks to his listeners at a billion miles an hour, loud, brash, crazy.  Off the wall, is a good term.

When he sees Jill and me he calls us into the studio and immediately the banter starts.  He is definitely in his zone.  He offers me coffee and fetches a cup of strong dark roast that he has ground especially.  He calls it his Fog Lifter.  Here, then, is what fuels the WSMN 1590 Breakfast show.

We all settle into our seats and our segment begins.  For all of the bluster and mania, George is a very good interviewer.  He is well researched and allows the conversation to roll.  Of course we talk about Dickens and the shows but also about the British Parliamentary system and how the Americans have destroyed the English language (his phrase not mine, I hasten to add).  It is a great fun 30 minutes and I think that I give as good as I get.

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With George

With George

When we are finished and today’s shows have been duly promoted, we shake hands, pose for pictures and then head back through the deserted building and to Jill’s car.  The radio is tuned to WSMN and George is still at it ‘broadcasting live, overlooking Main Street here in Nashua, from our penthouse studios.’  I think of the little drab room and love the magic of radio.

Jill drops me back to the hotel and I am in my room by 8.10.  Today the Executive level concierge is Maureen who has been with the hotel since it opened and is their treasure.  Every year Maureen bustles and fusses over me and today she brings me breakfast and talks about the show tonight.  In 5 years she has never been able to get to one of my performances but she is determined to tonight.  She has already talked another guest into buying tickets and attending.

The morning is spent writing up yesterday’s blog and starting to make arrangements for my journey home on Sunday.  I really am feeling exhausted and I’m sure that is because my body knows that this abuse of it is soon to end.  However, I cannot let things go, I still have four more shows to do.

 

A Child’s Journey With Dickens

At 11.30 I get into costume and go to my car for the short drive back into Nashua to the Senior Center, where I am to perform ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’.  Jill is waiting for me outside and takes me into the room where I am to perform.  It is a light, bright day room with chairs laid out and a little lectern on a table at the front.

The audience are already arriving and many of them have seen me perform A Christmas Carol and are intrigued by a different programme.  Jill sets out a table of books and straight away people are buying and I am signing.  At a big show it doesn’t do to start signing beforehand because it tends to start a rush but for a smaller venue like this it is an opportunity to meet the majority of the audience first, make a connection and guarantee that they are on side before proceedings start.  As 12.30 gets closer so the seats fill up and by the time Jill gets up to make the introductions there must be about 70 there.

A Child’s Journey With Dickens is a very sweet show.  The events detailed in it took place during Charles Dickens’s second trip to America in 1867/8. In March 1868 he had performed in Portland, Maine and was making his weary way by railroad back into Boston.  On the same train was a 10 year old girl who completely idolised him and devoured everything he wrote.  Her pets all bore names of Dickens characters and even her sled was named The Artful Dodger.  During the train journey she discovered that Dickens was onboard and eventually actually ended up sitting next to him and engaging him in conversation, telling him that she loved all of his books but ‘skipped the very dull parts’.

Years later, as an old lady, she published her memories in a book entitled ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens.’.  I have a first edition of the book, signed by the author Kate Douglas Wiggin, who wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  In a neat script she has written ‘I was the child’.  It is very precious and I love holding the slim volume, as it seems to reunite her with the Dickens family.

The show is gentle, reflective and charming.  It is completely different to the histrionics of A Christmas Carol and actually does me a great deal of good to do it.  The audience absolutely love it.

There is a short and very informal signing session afterwards during which Jill runs out of books, leading to a slight delay during which a fresh stock is fetched from the store, which is only 5 minutes away and then the signing resumes.

At the Senior Center

At the Senior Center

When the last book has been signed and the last picture posed for I shake hands with everyone and leave the building.  As I am getting into my car I realise that I have left my copy of the script in the room.  I don’t need it, I can print another easily at home but I haven’t left anything anywhere yet on this trip and I’ll be damned if I’m going to start now.  I go back and fetch the script.

Driving back through Nashua there is an amazing cemetery, with the old crooked headstones looking bleak and mournful in the thick snow.  It would be a fabulous setting for a moody monochrome publicity picture for A Christmas Carol.

I have time for a room service lunch and a brief rest before getting ready for the evening’s show.  We have an early sound check today, as there is a dinner reception at 5, but when I get to the ballroom a previous event has overrun, so things are not ready.

The sound and lighting guy that Jill uses is busy setting up his stuff.  In previous years the lighting in this larger ballroom setting has been an issue but this year he has brought much more equipment along and it looks as if it’s going to be impressive.  However, until the stage can be put in place we can’t do a proper sound check.  Half of the seating has been put out so I lay one of my blog business cards on each seat and when I’ve finished that go back to my room and change into costume.

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MaMa

The dinner reception is not something that Jill has laid on but is hosted by an audience member who invites many of her friends and family to the show each year and treats them to dinner.  She is an English Lady, MaMa (I have no idea as to the correct spelling or if it is her real name or a nickname but that is how everyone knows her).  She is an active lady, also inviting all of her American friends to celebrate Guy Fawkes night on November 5th.

MaMa’s Party

The party is in a private room behind the main hotel restaurant and soon I am chatting to lots of people.  As usual just before a show I am not really able to eat much but I do have a little soup and turkey.  The party is in full swing but I have to leave early to get back to the main hall and the final sound check.

Outside the ballroom there is a lobby which is already filled with audience members waiting to get the best seats and even as I walk up there is a round of applause.  This could be a good night.

And, the apostrophe should be where....?

And, the apostrophe should be where….?

The hall has been transformed, 350 seats are ready, the stage set, the lighting looking superb.  We do the sound check quickly, so that the doors can be opened. It is a good crowd, a big crowd, near capacity and the room fills up from the centre out to the far extremities at each side.

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A Christmas Carol

As start time gets closer a couple arrive who have come to each of my shows here. Last year they told me one of the most moving things and it is something that lives with me during every performance that I give.  After the signing session had finished  they said that they wanted me to know that they had lost a son and the way I portrayed Bob Cratchit’s grief was exactly how they had felt.  The pain, the emptiness, the desolation.  It was probably the most intensely moving moment of my 20 years of performing the Carol.  I feel a very strong connection to them and am delighted to see them back.

You know who you are and thank you.

The show starts slightly late but it is a good one.  Not perfect, but much better than last night and I’m certainly getting back to where I should be.  It is strange, but performing ‘A Childs Journey’ today created a break in the treadmill of the tour and had the effect of hitting a reset button.  I am much happier with the show tonight and the audience reaction is fantastic.

I leave the ballroom, dive into a little closet behind my signing table and effect a quick change of costume before emerging to a loud, busy, excitable signing line.  Lots of lovely comments, lots of photographs, lots of scrawls.  All of the usual questions and remarks: ‘How do you remember all those words?’, ‘How do you do it without a drink?’ ‘I LOVE your signature, how long have you been working on that?’ ‘Which is your favourite movie version (the absolute most commonly asked question throughout the tour!)?’, ‘do you have writer’s cramp yet?’ and on it goes for a good hour or so after the show’s conclusion.  I am delighted to see that Maureen, ‘my’ concierge, is there with her husband.

Signing line, with Maureen in the background

Signing line, with Maureen in the background

Eventually the room clears and I gather my things, go back up to my room to change and then join Jill, Jody, Darcy and some other audience members for a drink and some dessert.  It has been a long long day.

With Jody and Jill

With Jody and Jill

Everyone is shattered and soon the others leave for their respective homes.  I sit at the bar to finish my dessert and wine.  As in any bar in America there are TV screens all around but they are not showing sports, as is the norm: no, they are showing what is probably my favourite Christmas film and as I sit at the bar and think of the last few weeks and of all of the people that I’ve met, all of the things that I’ve seen and all of the venues that I have appeared in, I reflect that the title of the film sums up my experiences perfectly.

It IS a Wonderful Life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hunt Room

Today’s missive may be remarkably short, as for most of the day I did nothing, saw nothing and spoke to no one.  That is another kind of luxury.

I wake around 6 and write for a while before having a shower and then going to breakfast.  When one is on the Executive Level on the 8th floor at The Crowne Plaza you do nothing as sordid as actually join other guests for breakfast.  Oh, no, no, no: the lounge is laid out for a lovely private continental affair and you are fussed over by the concierge on duty.

I have a glass of grapefruit juice, some cereal with sliced banana and other fruits piled up onto it, followed by a plate of pastries and a specially warmed croissant.  It is all very relaxing.

After I’ve finished I return to my room and start to do a little work.  Emails are starting to come in from the UK about 2014 of which a few need answers.  Also I need to do a little line revision as tomorrow I will be performing one of my other shows.  A Christmas Carol is now so ingrained in my mind that I need to create some space in there for ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’. I work away for an hour or so and then go back to the computer and while I am working various friends pop up on social network sites.

One such friend is Sandy, who for the past 4 years has worked on the marketing side of my events here in Nashua.  This year sadly she is not involved but is getting in touch to see if I would like to have a bite of lunch.  It sounds like a great idea and we agree to meet up at around midday.

The rest of the morning is spent in my room, watching TV, playing online backgammon, reading and generally resting.  As I have only been in the room for one night, I turn down the offer to have it refettled by housekeeping and just ask that the supply of coffee be replenished.

Noon approaches and I go the main hotel foyer and wait for Sandy to arrive.  I step outside.  Although the air feels warm, the scene before me suggests otherwise. The sky is clear and the light crisp.  Huge banks of snow create beautiful shapes and blue shadows fall across them.  4 ducks swim in a pond surrounded on all side by white cliffs and I think back to the little white and green rubber duck from Sandyhook Elementary School, which I was photographed with.  Since I met the Wagners from Newtown the first anniversary of the shooting has passed.  It must be an awful time of the year for everyone there and my thoughts go out to them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sandy arrives and we swish onto the freeway and towards Manchester for lunch.  Sandy has become a good friend over the years and it is always nice to meet up.  We talk about the tour and the blog as we drive.  In no time we are arriving in Manchester, which is a stunning mill town, the sort of which Dickens would have loved to inspect.

Manchester

Manchester

Now, all of the old mills have been taken over by businesses or by the University here but the fact that they are still standing means that the imposing look of the City has been preserved and it is not just another strip-malled, sprawling example of retail America.

Sandy has booked a table at Cottons, which is a really nice restaurant and obviously doing well.  There is a happy buzz of conversation inside.  We order and continue to chat about this and that.  Sandy has made a major career decision during the last year partly inspired by my brother’s book, ‘Sea Change’ and is very excited by the prospect of the future.

Lunch finished we have coffees before leaving Cottons.  Sandy offers to take my picture in front of the restaurant and we spot some amazing ice formations on bushes and ivy around the door.  I spend a little time increasing my stock of winter wonderland photographs from this tour until it is time to get back to the car.

Back to Nashua, exchange goodbye hugs and it is back to my room.  I decide to try and nap this afternoon. I get beneath the covers and very soon am dozing.

As evening approaches I realise that I am going to have to do some work and get up and start bustling about.  I spend a little more time on ‘A Child’s Journey’ before getting things together for tonight’s show.  Hat, scarf, cane, business cards, etc: all of the paraphernalia of my trip.

At 5.00pm I go to the Hunt Room restaurant where I will be performing later. Jill Gage is there making final arrangements.  Jill and her husband Jody own Fortin Gage Florist and gift shop.  I have been performing in Nashua for five years and it is always a fun place to be.  Jill and Jody work hard and play hard!

Jill tells me that a gentleman in the store had been asking about the shows and, quite seriously, had enquired if any investigations had been made as to my genuine familial connections to Charles Dickens.  Maybe in future years a DNA test will be required before contracts are signed.

What with the gentleman in Williamsburg bemoaning my lack of Britishness and now this, I am beginning to doubt my own identity.

The show is to be performed with a dinner and as yet the decision has not been made as to whether it should be between courses, or straight through.

The Hunt Room

The Hunt Room

Despite my feelings about breaking the show up into little chunks, actually here it is the correct thing to do.  The Hunt Room is curiously dead acoustically and doesn’t have theatre lighting, so to watch the show for an hour’s stretch is difficult.  I run through the menu with Steve from the hotel and we settle on our evening’s schedule.  When everything is sorted I go back to my room for a little more down time during which I read the terrible news from London about the collapse of a ceiling in the Apollo Theatre during a packed evening show.  I hope that the injuries are minor and that there isn’t anybody I know involved.

Back in the Hunt Room am 6.30 and the guests are arriving and settling themselves at their tables.  I am sharing with Jill and Jody and one of their loyal employees Darcy.  We are joined by other friends and business people from Nashua.

At 7.00pm Jill welcomes everyone and the show begins.  The Hunt Room is unique among my venues in that there is a hotel swimming pool right beneath it and for the first part of the show I am accompanied by shouts and laughter from below, which makes it a little awkward to capture the atmosphere of Victorian London.  The gentle aroma of chlorine doesn’t help.

At the end of each section the food is served speedily and efficiently.  We eat delicious duck confit and a salad with sweet peppers and apple.  We are making good time and the evening is running smoothly, although there is a slight hiatus during the main course when two plates are accidentally dropped in the kitchen and the guests have to wait for replacements to be brought.

During the gap in the proceedings the table next to us are entertained as one of their number leads a class in making hand puppets out of their napkins.

Puppetry

Puppetry

Main course complete and into the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, which is dramatic and intense, although there is much laughter as Old Joe wipes his running nose on his hand and looks for a suitable audience member to clean it on.

Once dessert is down I get up to finish the story and, despite the room’s shortcomings, get a very nice ovation.  I finish the evening with a toast to Christmas and we can all relax now.  There is a signing table and lots of books etc for sale, but very few people avail themselves of the opportunity, so almost before I know it, I am off duty.

It is strange that in such a small room the effort needed to project the piece is so much higher than in a larger, acoustically sound, auditorium.  I can certainly feel that I have worked hard tonight and suddenly all of the down time that I have enjoyed during the day is very, very welcome.

Jill, Jody, Darcy and I move to the bar, along with our fellow table companions Mark and Paula, where we have a nice wind down session.

Tomorrow will be a busy day and, as I have a 7.00am start for a live radio interview, I need to get back to my room.  We all say goodnight and I make way back to 828 where once again I fall asleep instantly.

British Goodbyes

Moving Out

After what seems to be a horribly short night I wake up in the Queen’s Bed, (if you are reading this blog for the first time, I suggest you refer to yesterday’s post before running to the tabloids).

I pack my bags but have to be more thorough this morning, as I am going to be flying for the first time since I arrived in Boston on the 26th November. No more throwing the cane and top hat into the back of the car, everything has to be in my case today.

With all of the gifts that I have been given along the way as well as the large box containing the microphone system, my case feels worryingly heavy and I hope that I am not going to incur penalty charges.  The bag does look very neat and ordered though, which pleases me no end.

Not British Enough

I take all of my luggage to the reception area so that I can load the car before I have my breakfast.  Leslie at the front desk calls me over and says she has to tell me what happened when I checked in yesterday.  While I was at the desk, a group of people were waiting close by.  After I had left Leslie engaged them in conversation and it came out that they were here for the Dickens Tea.  ‘Oh,’ says Leslie, ‘That was Mr Dickens right there’.  The two ladies in the group fluttered and twittered and cooed.  The gentleman with them looked unimpressed and said: ‘Him?  He didn’t look very British’.  Leslie pointed out that I am, indeed, British and still live there.  ‘Hmmmm, maybe, but he doesn’t seem very….British.’.  Oh, dear, I have become assimilated into the American way of life obviously. I’d better put some extra work in.  I hope, after all that, that he enjoyed the show.

Now, for breakfast.  Here at the Williamsburg Inn they serve an amazing breakfast buffet, laid out on my ‘stage’ in the Regency Room.  Sadly this morning I only have a very brief time to enjoy it and am the first guest to be seated.  Almost before I am in my chair the wonderful Delphine is by my side.  Delphine helps run the restaurant, working with Leroy.  She has an indomitable spirit and is not to be messed with.  It was Delphine who threw the hell raising actor Colin Farrell out of the restaurant because he wasn’t wearing socks.  ‘I don’t let ANYONE in my restaurant that is not properly dressed!  I don’t care who they are.’

We chat for a while, and she says that a member of last year’s audience had been talking to her and told her all about Smoking Bishop, a hot punch mentioned in the book.  Delphine demanded that he send her the recipe and then she had it made to be sent to my tale during the show last night.  That explains the mystery of the Smoking Bishop.

I sit for 30 minutes or so looking out onto the golf course here and wishing I had a free day to go and play, but reality comes back and it is time to leave The Williamsburg Inn for another year.

Farewells

I say goodbye to all of the waiters, to Delphine and to Leslie and go out to Manx, my Jeep, who is sitting rather forlornly outside the hotel.

Manx's Farewell

Manx’s Farewell

The drive to Richmond airport takes a little under an hour and the roads, although busy, are running well.  Even my SatNav behaves and takes me right to the airport with no hiccoughs.

As I get my first sight of the control tower, the fuel warning light blinks on and the gauge falls to E.  Job well done.

Zero

Zero

I pull into the parking garage and it is time to wish a fond farewell to dear Manx.  Despite his foibles, despite the fact that I could never open the tailgate to load my bags, despite the fact that when the lights were on, the dash display was in darkness, despite the fact that the first time his 4 wheel drive system saw any ice he slithered around like a greased up eel.  Despite all of these things he has been a companion to me for over 2,000 miles of driving and I will miss him greatly.

One last look round to check that I haven’t left anything important.  There is a scrap of paper with the Vaillancourts address written on it, telling me where to go on my first evening here.  There is a leaflet for The Hershey Sweet Lights drive, there are some parking lot stubs from Worcester, there is the remains of the hamper that Missy put together at the Country Cupboard store.

Very, very sad.

I say my private goodbye and then walk into the airport terminal.  The airport is full of military all of whom look impossibly young.  I would guess that they have just finished training and are now being deployed for the first time.  Good luck, my friends.

Flying

I check in at the United Airlines counter, where a laid back guy is behind the desk.  He sees my top hat: ‘Cool hat, man!’  The suitcase is checked in with no overweight charges, which is a relief and he says that I’m all set.  ‘Don’t you need to see my ID?’ I ask, giving him my passport. ‘Oh, yeah, man, yeah.’  He looks at it.  ‘You’re cool man, SO cool.’ I have no idea why I elicited such a response but it raises my melancholy spirits as I walk to and through security.

When I arrive at the gate there is a panic going on as a flight has had to be cancelled due to mechanical failure.  Fortunately it is not mine but passengers are everywhere trying to make alternative arrangements and the United Airlines clerks are tapping furiously away at their computers.

It reminds me of last year’s trip when Liz and I were flying from Bethlehem PA to Williamsburg and were faced with the same scenario.  I ended up being late for the tea performance and almost had to run from the car into the Regency Room.  There was no room for Liz on the flight and she was abandoned in PA before coming in later in the day.  It was a very stressful time and makes me doubly glad that I was driving myself everywhere this year, rather than relying on the airlines.

The flight itself is only an hour but as we make our way North the terrain below changes from brown to white.  We begin our descent to Newark as we pass over Philly and if my geography and memory serves me well, I can clearly see Clark Park where the statue of Charles Dickens sits with Little Nell gazing up at him.

Newark, as with any International airport is packed and busy.  The Christmas rush is already starting and everyone is dashing hither and thither.  Again I am grateful to have been driving, rather than going through this madness every morning.  I grab a McDonalds for lunch and when I’ve finished, I call Bob Byers for a brief chat about this year’s tour.

We talk for about 30 minutes about what has worked and what needs looking at.  We chat about some possible future projects and ideas for some merchandise, until my flight is called and I have to get on my way again.

The plane is very full but amazingly I have an empty seat next to me, which is a minor luxury.  I read for a little bit but drop off to sleep very quickly and stay that way for most of the flight back to Boston.

And here I am, back at Logan.  Back on the courtesy bus to take me to the car rental centre, back at the Dollar car rental desk.  Back on the exact spot where I was standing 3 weeks ago.  It all feels rather difficult, as if I should be going home now but there are still 5 shows to be done and each of those are just as important as the first one was.

I go through all of the formalities and go into the garage to pick my new car up.  Presumably due to the heavy snow here Dollar have run out of mid sized SUVs so I am upgraded to a Chevy Tahoe: a monster of a thing.  It has lots of switches and things to play with and, guess what, the tailgate opens.  I still miss my little doe-eyed Jeep though.

The Drive to Nashua

I set the SatNav unit (which is a new type, a tablet which also has its own wifi hotspot capability), and drive out into the Boston streets.  Which are gridlocked.

Everybody is trying to go everywhere tonight and nobody is going anywhere. At least I have plenty of time to play with all of the switches and soon my rear is heated by the seat and even my hands are warmed by the heated steering wheel.  Satellite radio fills the car (except when I’m in one of the many tunnels beneath Boston).  Little lights flash up in the door mirrors when another car is in close proximity, which is, of course, all of the time tonight.  On the few occasions that I do pick up speed I discover that the Tahoe is like super tanker to stop: the sheer bulk of the thing pushing it onward towards the rear of the car in front.  I adapt my driving accordingly.

I am heading towards Nashua, New Hampshire, a drive of about an hour.  After Two and a half hours I have edged forward just fourteen miles and so the path of red tail lights stretches way out ahead of me.

Eventually I get to the intersection and leave i93 to join i95 and the traffic lessens slightly and then to route 3 and I’m at last on my way.

The snow in NH has been heavy over the past few days and the banks on either side of the road are piled high.  I finally arrive in the car park at The Crowne Plaza Hotel which is beautifully lit up.

The Crowne Plaza, Nashua

The Crowne Plaza, Nashua

I drag my bags into the lobby to check in and then take the lift to the 8th floor.  The 8th floor is the executive floor and I have to put my key into a special slot in the lift.  No riff raff allowed on the 8th, you know.  Having dumped the bags in my room I go straight back down to the restaurant for dinner.

Originally I had been supposed to meet my friends, and event sponsors, Jill and Jody Gage, for dinner but I decided I just wanted a quiet evening on my own with no talking.  My voice has taken a bit of a battering over the last few days and a day of complete rest will do it good.

I have a Pork Chop and a Crème Brule to finish and then go back to my room where I think I may watch a film.  I lay on the bed.  At 11.30 I wake.  The TV remote is in my hand, I hadn’t even got as far as turning it on.  I undress, brush my teeth and get under the covers rather than on them, and instantly am back to sleep.

Luxury

I wake up later than usual, at about 7 and try to get out of bed.  I can hardly move, I am SO stiff.  Those two little shows yesterday were more energetic than I thought.  I cajole my limbs into doing what they are supposed to do and get myself to the shower.

I have a little time this morning, so check my iphone notes and start to write my latest blog.  After finishing, checking, correcting, adding pictures and checking again, I post it and then go to breakfast which, being a Hampton Inn, is the usual fare but it is very welcome nonetheless.

The Motel Breakfast

The Motel Breakfast

In my room I pack up ready for another drive and then wait until 9.00 for a telephone interview to promote my final event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Saturday.  I spend about 20 minutes chatting to the journalist and it is fun.  She asks good questions and responds to my answers, letting the conversation take its own course, which is not always the case with interviewers.

When we are finished I take my bags to the Jeep, load up and get on the road heading further South.  I’m glad that I’m heading away from DC, as the traffic on the opposite carriageway is very heavy indeed.  I am alerted by a little ‘ping’ that my fuel is getting low and I pull of the highway at Fredericksburg to fill up.  I find the slowest fuel pump in the World and after standing in the cold for about 10 minutes, only 3 gallons have dribbled in.  I give up at that and move on.

Dribbling

Dribbling

Back on the road, heading towards Richmond and it is noticeable that all traces of snow and Ice have disappeared and that the sky is blue.  I make a mental note of where the airport is as I will be coming back here tomorrow morning for my first flight since I arrived on November 26.

Skirting the city of Richmond I think of Charles Dickens and his visit here in 1842, when he came to specifically to see the issue of slavery at first hand.  The relevant passages in American Notes are harrowing and disturbing which is exactly as he meant them to be.

The fuel gauge has worked its way round to empty again and I find another gas station, this time one which dispenses fuel at a respectable rate.  I only put in a further 4 gallons as I want to return the car empty tomorrow.

Now I am reaching the outskirts of Williamsburg and there are signs for lodging: Quality Inns and Suites, Hampton Inn, Comfort Inn, all of which I have stayed at during my trip in other cities but not here.  Oh, no.  My accommodation in Williamsburg is the gracious, splendid, stately and elegant Williamsburg Inn, where the Queen stayed during her visits to the town.

The Williamsburg Inn

The Williamsburg Inn

I pull up in the parking lot and look admiringly at the wonderful building but don’t go straight in.  Sadly I have very little time here and want to catch a little bit of the Williamsburg atmosphere so walk across the street into the 18th Century.

Colonial Williamsburg is an amazing reconstruction of the capitol of the Colony of Virginia in the years before the Revolutionary War.  This is no Disneyfied theme park, this is a faithful reconstruction.  The buildings are original and were brought back to life by Rockefeller in the early years of the 20th century.  On the main street costumed characters go about their everyday life.  Oxon are driven along the street as are horse drawn carriages.  Everything happens at a slow and sedate pace.  It is the modern tourists who look out of place, not the residents of Duke of Gloucester Street.

On Duke of Gloucester Street

On Duke of Gloucester Street

For the past 2 years Liz has joined me at the end of my trip and Williamsburg has been one of our favourite places to be together.  I make my way to her favourite site on the street, a little garden stall, where vegetables are grown in a well ordered plot.  I take a few pictures and then make my way back to the Inn.

Liz's Favourite Spot

Liz’s Favourite Spot

I am greeted warmly by the staff, most of whom have been here ever since I’ve been touring, which is always the hallmark of a good hotel. Lesley behind desk busies herself with the check in and asks if Liz is with me this year and is genuinely disappointed that she is not. Lesley finishes the check in and gives the key card to room 3269.  This sounds innocuous enough but it is the suite in which the Queen stayed during her last visit here in 2007.  I cannot believe it!

The suite is stunning.  Entering from the corridor you find yourself in a little private hallway from where you continue into a lavishly appointed drawing room, where one can receive ones guests.  The bedroom is huge, as is the bathroom.  As with all of the rooms here it is filled with antique furniture and prints.

I still can’t believe it.  There is the desk where the Queen sat to do her correspondence, here is a sofa on which she took tea and chatted.  There is the bed in which she slept, the bath where she bathed, the basin where she brushed her teeth, the lavatory where……no, I think it may be treasonable to have such thoughts.

Drawing Room

Drawing Room

Bedroom

Bedroom

I don’t have much time to enjoy the surroundings as I have a sound check and meeting in the Regency Room.  Waiting for me there is Michelle DeRosa who is looking after my events today.  We chat for a while until my very dear and great friend, Ryan Fletcher, arrives.

Ryan is an opera singer who teaches at the nearby William and Mary College.  He has also portrayed one of the characters on the Duke of Gloucester Street and has been engaged by Williamsburg to introduce my shows since 1998.  We have a big hug (I mean a big hug, as Ryan towers above me) and catch up a little on the year past.

There is still a little time before the show, so I go back to the room and immerse myself in the deep bath and have a cold blast in the shower to energise myself a little.

Something is in the back of my mind and I get online to check my theory.  Yes, I am right, today, 17th December, is the exact anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol.  I should be able to use that in my opening remarks at tea.

I go back to the Regency Room which is now filling up.  It looks as if the room is going to be packed.  I perform on the floor here, there is no stage, but I have the whole dance floor to use.  In previous years I have also been able to work the room, but there are so many tables laid that it is going to be difficult to find a route among them today.

The Regency Room

The Regency Room

The seating process is overseen by Leroy, the master of the dining room.  Short, but with a military ramrod straight back, he welcomes every guest with true southern hospitality and then hands them over to one of the waiters who lead them to the relevant table.  It is a well drilled and effective system.

Once everyone is seated the waiters make their efficient way around the room serving plates filled with sandwiches and cakes, all looking delicious.  Tea is poured from silver pots and the room is full of chatter and laughter.

Ryan and I get ‘the nod’ from the banquet Captain and we begin.  Ryan makes a generous and warm introduction and I take my place in the centre of the room.

I mention that today is the 170th anniversary of the first publication and A Christmas Carol gets a warm round of applause, which it fully deserves.  That puts an idea in my mind, and I continue:

‘It is a tradition, in literary circles, that whenever a book celebrates its 170th anniversary, any performance or rendition of that book be greeted with a standing ovation.’  Shameless!

The show goes well, although the sweat is streaming off me and stinging my eyes very early on in the piece.  I do manage to make my way through the tables and find suitable candidates to be my stooges: The Ghost of Christmas Past, Fezziwig, Young Scrooge with his fiancée Belle, and Topper’s victim who gets flirted with at the nephew’s Christmas party.  All play their parts well.  Over half of the audience have been to the event before and many are mouthing along with the words.

At the conclusion the audience respect the 170th anniversary tradition and after taking my bows we all move out into the hotel lobby for the signing session.  As my room is at the top of a short flight of stairs I am able to run up, towel down, change into my dry costume and be back at the desk again in short order.

The signing runs for quite a long time and one party of guests give me a bag filled with gifts. People have been so generous to me this year.

When the last books are signed and the last pictures posed for, I go back to my room and relax for an hour or so before the dinner show.  I have another bath and another shower and lay on the bed in a Williamsburg bathrobe, watching television until the phone rings at 6.15.  It is another good friend from my times here in Williamsburg: Christine and her husband Erich.  Christine used to work at the Inn and looked after my events for many years during which time we became good friends.

I get into costume and meet them in the bar, where they sip cocktails and I don’t.  Not having had any lunch today, a glass of anything now would be very bad news indeed.  We all catch up with each other’s news.  Our conversation is punctuated by lots of waves, handshakes and ‘hellos’ from other arriving audience members.

As the clock approaches 7, I make my way into the dining room and get fitted up with my microphone again.  Ryan arrives, with his wife Jean and our other table guests join us, a family with whom we dined last year.  Greetings are exchanged and hands shaken.  I am sitting next to Bill, who is an actor in Williamsburg.  Actually he is quite a celebrity hereabouts as he portrays Thomas Jefferson in many different settings.  It is nice to chat with a fellow ‘one man’ actor.

In the past I have performed A Christmas Carol between the courses of a dinner but I am trying to get away from that format as far as possible.  It is much easier for me to do the whole show straight through and it is better for the Chefs to be able to produce a dinner without the service being interrupted by gaps for the performance.

Ryan makes a brief announcement to explain how the evening will work and there is a sense of disappointment in the room that the familiar format will not be followed.  I will have to do a good job to convince the guests that this is a better way to run the evening.

I repeat the 170th anniversary tradition line, which gets a laugh and on then ask the room to bow their heads and join me in the Dickens Family Grace, which is a nod to the old traditions of this event.

‘In fellowship assembled here

We thank thee Lord for food and cheer

And through our saviour, they dear son,

We pray ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’

Our food arrives, as does the wine: white with the soup, red with the beef.  The waiter even brings me my own glass of Smoking Bishop; I have no idea why, as I do not feature it in the show, but it looks lovely.  I have a sip and the taste matches the look.

However, with a performance to do I can’t drink any of the wine and the three glasses remain untouched which is most frustrating.  I don’t really eat much either.  Bill says that he is amazed I can sit at the table at all, he would be backstage pacing and fretting.

Desserts are served and coffee poured and when the last of the waiters slips out of the room it is time to go.  Ryan makes another introductory speech and I take to the floor.

The evening show is a repeat of this afternoon’s.  Many audience members have been before and are joining in with the words: one table very audibly.  Everyone joins in again where necessary and I’m able to give a more complete performance than the very fragmented and shortened version that I do when it is split.  Even with the longer show we are all finished by 9.40.  On one occasion in the past we were still in the dining room at 11.00pm.

I know that not everyone will have liked the changes, after all Williamsburg is all about tradition, but it is a much more effective way to perform.

The signing line is once again busy and fun.  The reaction seems positive and there is lots of merriment.  A glass of wine appears on my table but I don’t get to touch it until I have finished with the signatures and the photographs.

After the last of the guests have gone I go into the bar where I meet a husband and wife who had been at our table (I am so bad at names, and apologise to you if you are reading this: it is very rude of me).  They are excellent company and we chat about the show, about wine, about cruise ships and about Harry Potter World at Universal Studios.

Christine and Erich are also in the bar and I move to sit with them to have a brief chat before they go home.  Leroy joins us and the brief chat becomes a long reminiscence of years gone by.  He is a wise and sensitive man and his words about the current state of the hospitality industry are fascinating to listen to.

It is after midnight by the time we leave.  I say goodbye to Leroy, Erich and Christine and make my regal way up the stairs, through my little hallway, across my spacious drawing room, into my commodious bedroom, via the extensive bathroom, and to sleep.

Luxury!

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