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.

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