The Final Day….For Now

Friday 20 September marked my final day on this leg of American season and once again saw me waking in my little room at the Comfort Inn and Suites hotel near Nashville.

It was still early when I woke, too early for breakfast, so I made a coffee, turned the TV on and watched some coverage of the golf tournament which is being played at the beautiful Wentworth course in Surrey.  This is an event that Liz and I have attended in previous years and it was lovely to remember us walking through the woods and along the fairways, marvelling at some of the best golfers in the world doing their thing.

Breakfast was the usual fare from a hotel of this sort: waffles, bacon, scrambled eggs and pastries and didn’t take up too much of my day.

As I did not have any commitments until the evening the day spread out before me and I had done a little research to see if there were any reasonably priced public golf courses nearby.  I discovered that the Pine Crest Golf Club was only 10 minutes from the hotel, and that it looked very nice, therefore I had booked a tee time in the morning.

In the pro shop I rented some clubs, and bought a couple of boxes of balls, 6 should have been more than enough, even allowing for my lack of knowledge of the course and my relative rustiness.

I put my clubs onto a buggy and drove through the trees to the tenth tee (where I had been told to begin).  Fortunately there was nobody in front and nobody waiting behind, so I could get straight on with things without any pressure.  A couple of practice swings felt good, and I stepped up to the ball.

I took my stance, focussed on the ball slowly swung back, brought the club down and: Clonk!  Horrible dull clonk, and I dragged the ball almost 90 degrees left! Whoops, I decided to count that as a mulligan (a golfing term meaning a shot that one conveniently forgets), and reset with another ball.  I went through the same routine and produced much the same result, although this time with more power and the ball flew into a patch of rough between some trees and towards a lake.

I decided to play my first ball, as at least I could still see it, and guided the buggy over a bit of course it has probably has never driven on before.  My second shot was reasonable and put the ball back on the fairway.  I then drove to look for the other ball and couldn’t find it anywhere.  One down.

Back to the ball in play and the seven iron I had played from the rough had given me some confidence.  Third shot, shanked, into thick weedy undergrowth.  Lost.  Two down.  I placed another ball and miss-hit that, straight into a pond guarding the green.  Three down!  At this rate my round would be over by the middle of the second fairway.

Despite my adventures I had caught up two players who were also struggling, and they eventually let me past (embarrassingly I lost another ball as they stood back and watched), but once I was free of them I relaxed and suddenly I could play golf again.

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The shots started going straight, high and true and my scores came down.  At my ninth hole (actually the eighteenth, as I had started at ten), I not only holed in par, but I actually found the ball I had lost on the first, laying close to the ninth green!  Things were looking up.

The second half got even better and, despite losing one more ball, due to lack of course knowledge that to a bad shot, my scores continued to be impressive, I even got two birdies and by the time I reached the final hole my score was one of my best for a long time.

What a lovely way to have spent a morning, although it hadn’t felt like that on the second fairway!

Having returned my clubs and changed my shoes I got into the Jeep and headed to find some lunch (I would have eaten in the clubhouse, but there was a major tournament scheduled for the afternoon and they were completely overrun).

The radio was still tuned to the Broadway Musicals station and as I drove they played a song from the musical Fame Becomes Me:

Another Curtain goes up
On a one man show
Another chance for an ego
To say hello

Another curtain goes up
On a one man show
Another chance for producers
To rake in the dough

Billy Crystal, Jackie Mason
Kept their overheads low
That’s the way to make a million
On a one man show

Another curtain goes up
On a one man play
Cause if your last film was a flop
Then hello Broadway!

My life’s work in 30 seconds!

I had lunch in a Panera Bread and thoroughly enjoyed one of their Baja Warm Grain Bowls with some grilled chicken on top.  Healthy and delicious.

After lunch I did a little bit of window shopping, particularly looking at small, light laptop computers, as mine is gently fading to a better place and I am keen to replace it soon. After quite a time in BestBuy I made no decisions whatever, and headed back to the hotel, where I continued my research online, which branched out to include a search for a new suitcase too, which is a rather more pressing requirement.

As afternoon turned to evening I prepared for my show and left the hotel at 6.  Once again the traffic was heavy and as I crawled along the Jeep revealed a strange quirk to its nature.  It had been fitted with an engine management setting that cuts out when the car is stationary and which bursts back into life when you are ready to go, this is quite common now in an effort to restrict emissions, but the Jeep had a mind of its own: sometimes the engine stopped, when I stopped and sometimes it didn’t.  If the engine did cut out it sometimes remained silent, or sometimes it just came to life again for no apparent reason – I didn’t take my foot of the brake, or put it on the throttle, it just decided it wanted to run again.  My appreciation for the car grew, it certainly had character.

The traffic hold up was caused by a huge, and very serious looking car crash at an intersection, the road was completely blocked by police, fire and paramedics and the accident had obviously happened at high speed, for two cars were completely smashed, one at the front, one at the back.  It was not a pleasant scene, but fortunately the police were on hand to divert the rush hour traffic.  I drove on, hoping above hope that the drivers were not too seriously hurt and that all that had been lost was a couple of cars.

Because of the delay I was a little late to The Hermitage but still in plenty of time for the show, and as I had re-set the stage the night before so there was nothing to be done other than get into costume, which I duly did.  The audience arrived gradually, some on the golf cart but many walking through the grounds as the evening was a little cooler than the night before and perfect for a twilight stroll.  Most purchased a glass of wine and then made their way into the ‘theatre’ to bag a good seat.

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At 7.30 Hannah welcomed everyone and the last show of this tour began. It was  a really fun evening and the audience laughed and joined in with great enthusiasm.  Uriah Heep got his own round of applause as did James Bond and we all had lots of fun.  It was a lovely way to bring the week to a close, which had begun with some very stressful days, especially leading up to the performance of A tale of Two Cities, and had now gently wound down to this happy moment.

When the applause had died down I opened the floor up to questions and once again their were plenty forthcoming.  One gentleman asked ‘how did you get started in acting?’  and I thought to myself ‘oh dear, you are so going to wish you hadn’t asked that!’  and out came the school nativity play cockerel story, which went down a storm.

Eventually we wrapped up, although plenty of people stood in line to chat and to pose for photographs.  The Spring House at The Hermitage is a fabulous venue to perform in, it is so friendly and cosy.   I certainly hope that I  can return soon.

As the clock ticked around towards 9.30 the last of the audience had departed, I had changed and was boarding the golf cart to be taken back to my car. I said goodbye to Hannah and drove back to my hotel.  There was a restaurant nearby which stayed open until 11pm and I celebrated the end of my trip with a delicious grilled salmon dish served on a piece of cedar wood to give it a hint of smokiness, accompanied by rice and asparagus, with a glass of wine to wash it all down.

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Fortunately my flight was not to be an early one on Saturday morning, so once I got back to the room I could go straight to bed without worrying about packing.  All of that could wait for morning.

To Nashville

At 5 o’clock on Thursday morning my alarm sounded and brought me crashing into a new day.  I got straight up, lest I should fall asleep again and immediately showered to try and wake myself up a bit.  Most of my packing had been done the night before, but I had hung my costumes up to air after the two shows on Wednesday, and it would have been a disaster to set off for Nashville with my frock coat and trousers hanging in The Fairville Inn.

At 5.45 I hauled the cases to the Audi and found Pam already there waiting for me to arrive with the car key.  The sky was dark and from the heavens Orion twinkled over us as I put my big case into the boot, and my little, albeit very heavy one, into the back seat.  Pam took the driving seat and we set off in the darkness towards Philadelphia airport following a very twisty cross-country route as directed by her phone.  ‘We need to watch out for deer.’ Pam said and sure enough soon we were treated to a mother and her fawn trotting across the road in front of us.

The journey was not long, and soon we were on the very busy I-95, where the driving of others was quite terrifying, trucks swooping from lane to lane as they saved vital seconds.  We pulled into the airport, where there was lots of cars creeping to their various terminal drop off points.  I inwardly sighed, lots of traffic equates to lots of people.  Lots of people equates to long security lines.  Long security lines equates to minimal breakfast time.  I know my priorities.

I unloaded the car and said goodbye to Pam before going to the self check-in kiosk at the American Airlines gate, and from there to the bag drop.  Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, my big case was still over the weight limit, and I had to find a place on the terminal floor where I could open both cases and try to stuff more clothing into the already bulging little one.  Eventually I managed to squeeze it shut and returned to the scales and was heartily congratulated by the agent for brining the weight from 52 lbs down to 47: ‘Now, THAT is what I am talkin’ about!  Good job!’

I was convinced that I wouldn’t be allowed to take the little roller onboard as carry on, so heavy and bulging was it now, but I would face that problem when I came to it.  For now it was security and thankfully my worst fears were not realised as the line was quite short and I got through in good time.  Having replaced my belt, shoes and watch I went in search of sustenance which I found at a Legal Seafood outlet.

Re-fuelled with orange juice, coffee eggs and bacon I dragged my bag to gate C26 where, as I arrived, an announcement was being made asking for passengers who would be willing to check their carry-on bags as it would be a full flight.  This was the solution to my little bag concerns and soon it was tagged and ready to take its place alongside its larger cousin in the hold.

It was daylight by the time we taxied to the runway end, and a beautiful morning was in store.  As the captain opened the throttles and pulled back on the stick we soared into the sky and almost straight away banked hard to the left.  As the pilot stood the plane on its port wingtip I had a perfect view of Philadelphia, we flew directly over the Museum of Art and I could imagine early morning wannabe Rockys  bouncing up and down with their arms aloft.  We flew along the route of the I76 and I assume somewhere over the region of Bucks County, The Ambler Inn and Byers Choice.

I read throughout the flight, only to pause for a cup of coffee.  After around 90 minutes the various announcements were made in preparation for our landing and we slowly descended through the clouds to see Tennessee laid out beneath us.  My first view was of a huge lake, or reservoir, surrounded by large homes, with boat houses,  The surface of the lake was occasionally scarred by a silver slash as someone bumped and skipped across the water.

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More big homes and golf courses gradually gave way to churches and colleges, and now the houses were in communities, albeit in great circular neighbourhoods, each home with a large yard and many with a swimming pool.  Onward our approach went and now there were shopping malls, and industrial units, and the great circular neighbourhoods with their broad streets were replaced by narrower straight ones with smaller plots of land cheek-by-jowl with each other.

In the course of a few minutes I had been given a very graphic representation of the demographic of this part of Nashville.

At baggage claim I was relieved to discover that the zip on my large case had survived the journey and that my belongings weren’t coming around on the carousel one by one, which could have been humiliating, to say the least. The car rental facility is in the terminal parking garage at Nashville airport, so I didn’t need to board a shuttle bus to take me to the far reaches of the airport, as is the case sometimes.

This year my Hertz car rental contracts have allowed me to walk to a certain aisle and just choose whichever car I want and yesterday I chose a rather impressive midnight blue Jeep Compass Trailhawk, with 4×4 transmission, and red towing hooks front and rear in case I should get stuck in the mountainous regions of Nashville and need winching out.  It was impressive inside too with body–hugging leather seats and all the electronic gizmos I could wish for.  The sad fact was that of all the cars on this part of the trip this is the one I would be driving least, but it was fun anyway.

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My off-roading adventure began when I got completely lost in the airport roads and found myself in the arrivals pick up lane, instead of speeding away to my hotel.  Eventually I freed myself and was skimming along the freeways listening to songs from Broadway on the satellite radio system.

My hotel was not far away and fortunately I was able to check in, as it was still fairly early in the morning (I had gained an extra hour in my day by flying westward).

There followed a lazy relaxing morning.  I caught up with some work and watched some TV, before walking across the parking lot to a Country Cupboard restaurant where I devoured a plate of fried chicken and corn.

In the afternoon I started to run through a few lines for my evening performance, although Mr Dickens is Coming is an old script and I am very familiar with it, however, it does not do to become complacent and it was a good session.  I was also able to do something that I haven’t done all trip: laundry!  The guest laundry at the Mount Juliet Quality Inns and Suites just happened to be on my floor, so I thought it would be churlish not to use it.

As late afternoon came around I showered to energise myself for the evening ahead, collected all of my costumes and props and went to the Jeep.  I programmed my sat nav unit to take me to The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s house, and she guided me into the midst of heavy rush hour traffic.  My Navigation unit is an English one and the directions are given in a beautiful cut glass voice, that of an English rose who would not be out of place in the new Downton Abbey film.  It was wonderful to hear her modulated tones telling to me join the ‘Old Hickory Boulevard’  One could imagine Maggie Smith saying it with her nose wrinkled in distaste.

The Hermitage was a plantation house and was the home of the seventh president of the United States.  He is burried, next to his wife Rachel, in a tomb that he designed and had built.

I have performed at the Hermitage twice before but unfortunately the pared back nature of my tours over the last two years have meant that Pam, Bob and I were not able to find a date for a performance of a Christmas Carol either last year or this but Hannah Howard, who is in charge of the various events at the house, has instigated a series of performances featuring the works of great Victorian authors.  The ‘Conversations with the Classics’ season would begin with me, and would also take in Poe and Longfellow.

I arrived to be met by the team who would be running the event, foremost Hannah, and we all piled into a little golf cart to rattle through the grounds towards the Spring House where the shows are staged.

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As we drove we could admire the deer and turkeys who call these grounds their own and who come out to play when the paying public have gone to their homes.

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The set for Mr Dickens is Coming is fairly simple and does not require either a guillotine, or a large screen to hang myself behind, although it does require a representation of Charles’ reading desk, a slender piece of furniture draped in red fabric.  Hannah had brought a small oval side table which although not really the correct dimensions would do the job admirably.  I took out my length of red cloth, which so far during the week had been a rug, a shawl, a pool of spilt wine and a wall covering, and which now would recreate the centre piece for Charles Dickens’ reading tours: that has been one versatile piece of cloth.

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I ran through a few lines just to test the acoustics, and then went to the kitchen where I changed into my costume ready to perform.  The audience arrived gradually, in that most were brought to the Spring House on the golf cart, which could only hold 6 or so people on each trip, but soon everyone had made it, and not got caught up in the ghost tours which were also happening on the property that evening.

Hannah welcomed me to the stage and I began the show with my silly ‘words of Charles Dickens’ ice-breaker.  The various characters and scenes from the books were very well received, and I once again included the Miss Havisham passage towards the end, which gives some reality and balance to a part of the script that was quite frivolous before.

When I had finished the performance itself I instigated a Q&A session (For an event entitled ‘Conversations with the Classics’ it seemed necessary), and there were plenty of interesting questions, including ones about Catherine and Ellen Ternan, Dickens in America, the Dickensian TV series, Dickens influence on the plight of the needy, and so on.  An excellent session which was eventually wrapped up by Hannah with a wave of the hand from the back of the room.

I then relocated to another room in the Spring House where I signed copies of books that people had brought along, and chatted to them at greater length (the people, not the books).  It was amazing to discover how many in this group are following the blog, and therefore I must point out how kind, friendly and generous in your praise you all are!

The evening wound up and I was soon changed and ready to leave on the golf cart.  As all of my props and costumes could remain in situ ready for the next night’s performance I felt very unburdened as I returned to the Jeep.

I stopped at a restaurant on my way home, and just managed to get an order in before the kitchens closed, so enjoyed a late supper of a ribeye steak and a baked potato.

At 10.30 I was back in my hotel and ready to sleep.

 

Winterthur in Late Summer

After my two days of leisure Wednesday marked my return to the stage and when I woke up my thoughts turned to The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which I would be performing twice at the Winterthur Museum later in the day.

The first thing to do was to pack all of the props that I would need into my small roller case, so having removed all of the Tale of Two Cities things I put in an old newspaper, some kid gloves,  a couple of handwritten letters and a hangman’s noose.  I made sure that my cufflinks and watch were still in their pocket and then put in a white shirt and a couple of pairs of socks.  I put my costume, with a black cravat and waistcoat onto a hanger, and then went to the little reception office to get a cup of coffee (there are no coffee machines in the rooms at The Ambler), but horror of horrors the machine  had disappeared.  There was no explanation from the lady at the front desk, just that it wasn’t available this morning, although I could try one of the other buildings to see if there was a machine available there.  Eventually I was successful and returned to my room to continue watching a Netflix documentary series about the Last Czars until it was time for breakfast.

When the episode finished I packed all of the rest of my clothes into my big suitcase and tried to zip it up.  The case has rather struggled on this trip, having to contain the costumes and props for four different shows and as I stood it up the zip parted and gaped open.  Fortunately, it was only one half of the zip, so I could seal the case with the other, but this may spell the beginning of the end for this particular suitcase.

I was due to meet Bob at 8 for what has become something of a tradition when I am in Chalfont.  We filled our plates from the buffet and sat down to catch up on all of our news and talk about how future tours may pan out.  Over the years these informal breakfast meetings have proved very useful, as well as being a great time to chat with a good friend.

Soon it was time to say our goodbyes  and to go our separate ways.  I went back to the room, finished the packing and then loaded up the car to drive to Winterthur, a journey of an hour or so.

Heavy traffic on the route gave me time to run through a few pieces of the Nickleby script, for although I have been performing it for many years and know it inside out, upside down and backwards too, there are a couple of new passages that I introduced earlier in the year which I was keen to run a few times.

I was still in good time as I pulled up in the car park at Winterthur and unloaded my cases and costume.  I remembered that my wash bag was in my big suitcase, so managed to open that in the boot of the car (no mean feat) and grab the little black  bag to take with me.

At the bottom of the tree-lined path that joins the car park to the visitors centre I found my friends Ellen and Barbara unloading a table and rug that looked suspiciously like they may be for my set.  We all hugged and made our way inside, where I was able to greet more old friends in the gift shop.

We couldn’t get into the theatre where I was to perform yet, as there was  a lecture going on, so we all discussed the set in the lobby.  The problem lay with the screen which is necessary for the final scene of the show, when Ralph Nickleby hangs himself. Ellen and Barabra had a couple of ideas but somehow nothing seemed to work. One solution was too large and another too small, I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks.  But it is always worth looking around a bit and eventually, in a small room off the cafeteria, we discovered a large projection screen which when covered by a red cloth (in my bag for precisely this purpose), would work very well.

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Inquiries were made as to who it belonged to, permission asked, permission granted and my set requirements were complete.

Ellen and I slipped into the back of the auditorium to listen to the end of the lecture, which was being given by an English lady from the Royal School of Needlework, talking about some of the beautiful creations that the school has made for the Royal family, including the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress.  Needless to say the audience were rapt.

When the lecture was finished and the audience dutifully filed out (many of whom would be coming back to my show), Ellen and I put the set together and I placed the props where they should be.  The screen looked perfect.

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The audience were already gathering outside, so I retired to Barbara’s office, which becomes my dressing room when I am here, and began preparing to change into the all black costume which Nickleby demands.  I was about to spray a little anti perspirant when I realised that my black washbag was nowhere to be seen.  I checked everywhere.  Ellen checked everywhere.  Nowhere was my washbag to be found.  We both checked everywhere again still without luck, until I wondered if it had been handed into the front desk, and sure enough there it was.  I had left it in the car park when I was onloading my costume and a kindly visitor had handed it in.

Brief panic over and I resumed my preparations.  When I was dressed I sat quietly in the office as the audience made their way to their seats.

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1.30 was show time and as the clock ticked round I stood with Ellen and Jeff, who would be making the introductory remarks.  Bang on time we walked to the front and Jeff mounted the podium, he asked how many people had seen me perform before, and I was astounded when pretty well every hand in the room went up (well, half the hands in the room went up, as nobody raised both hands ).  It was a humbled Gerald who mounted the stage.

Nickleby was a new programme for Winterthur, and the audience enjoyed it very much, in particularly the broad comedy of the Crummles theatre troupe scene.  From my point of view I felt completely engaged with the story and it ran very smoothly.

As ever we had a signing session in the cafeteria and people told me how much they had enjoyed the show, and asked me to sign the huge paperback copies of Nickleby that were on sale in the shop:   ‘We had no idea how you would squeeze all of this into an hour!’

When the last of the audience had left I got changed and drove the few miles to The Fairville Inn, where I always stay.  I was welcomed by the owner Laura and was delighted to see the names of David and Teresa Keltz on the register, my dear old friends had made the journey to come and see Nickleby and to catch up.

I was shown to my room, where I munched on some biscuits (cookies), lay on the bed and then had a shower before setting off back to Winterthur for the second show.  The evening audience is always smaller, but once again almost everyone there put their hand up in response to Jeff’s question – I have an immensely loyal following in Delaware.

Not only were David and Teresa in the audience but also Pam Byers as well.  Pam was keen to see Nickleby so that when she is dealing with event organisers in the future she can speak with a little more knowledge of what she is selling.  This week has been useful from that respect in that she has seen Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities as well as Nicklbey.  Pam was also at Winterthur so that she could drive me to Philadelphia airport early the next morning.

If anything the second show was better than the first and it flowed swiftly through the various locales that Dickens takes Nicholas to: London, Yorkshire, London, Portsmouth, London, Devon. Once again the audience showed their appreciation generously as I took my bows.

After the signing David, Teresa, Pam and I decided to get together for supper (I was starving by this time) at Buckley’s Tavern.  I changed and packed up all of my props, taking care not to leave anything behind, and said goodbye to Ellen and Barbara for just a couple of months for I will be returning to perform A Christmas Carol in December.

In Buckley’s the four of us chatted and laughed as we tucked into our various dishes – a comforting Chicken Pot Pie in my case, but the evening is was wearing on and I would need to be waking up at 5 o’clock the next morning, so we made our farewells and all headed back to the Inn.

Once in my room I did as much packing as I could, trying to get as many of the heavy costume pieces into my little case to take the strain off my big case, and then got ready for bed.  Outside the cicadas (or crickets) sung, and I wondered if cicadas (or crickets) in Delaware have different accents to those in South Carolina and with that thought I fell asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

Down Time

Monday

Once Sidney Carton had done his far far better thing and I had said goodbye to my friends in Burlington, so began a couple of days down time during which I could remove Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities from my mind and relax.

On Monday morning I had to wait in my room until 10am for an interview with a Canadian magazine.  Dean, the journalist, called exactly on schedule and we spent around 15 minutes going through his questions about A Christmas Carol.  Naturally he asked what is my favourite film version of A Christmas Caro and then, rather unfortunately for him, he asked if there was one question that I got asked over and over again….the answer, of course, being the one he had just asked.

Having finished the interview I needed to shop – there were a couple of things I wanted to buy including a pair of shoe laces.  I have a pair of brown shoes with only 4 eyelets and the original laces had faded to almost white and were fraying to the point of breaking.  It would be simple to buy a new pair, wouldn’t it?

In England if you want shoe laces you go to a shop that sells shoes, which seems like a simple solution but one that has yet to be adopted in America!  For the next two hours or so I trailed around a whole collection of stores – Kohl’s, Marshalls, Dollar Time, Macy’s, JC Penney’s, CVC all without success. (Dollar Time and CVC did have some laces but only big thick long ones for boots).  In Kohl’s I asked an employee if they sold laces and you would have thought that I was threatening to sell her grandmother – ‘we DON’T sell laces’ she hissed as she turned her back on me and strode away.

Eventually I found myself outside a huge grocery and pharmacy store called Wegman’s.  It was with a sense of extreme nervousness that I approached a member of staff to inquire but when she cheerfully replied ‘yes sir, follow me’ I almost wanted to hug her right there in the middle of the aisle.  A simple trip to buy a pair of laces had turned into a quest that even Homer would have discounted as too improbable.  That was my morning, and the start of my afternoon taken care of.

In the afternoon I was due to meet up with George Byers to play a round of golf.  We had chatted about golf on the drive from the airport and when I mentioned that I might like to play he said that he would try and find a good local course and book a tee time.  At 2.30 we arrived at the Pine Crest Country Club ready to inflict damage on the local topography.

I wont go into great detail about the round, but we had great fun together even if we did lose a great many golf balls in various hedges and ponds.  It was a wonderfully relaxing afternoon and just what I needed after the previous couple of days.

Following the golf Bob and Pam had invited me over for supper and the laid back tone of the afternoon continued into the evening as we all chatted and laughed over a delicious meal of pork tenderloin, macaroni cheese, vegetables and salads.

 

Tuesday

For my second free day I decided to drive into Philadelphia and embark on a bit of tourism.  So on a warm and sunny morning I got into the Audi and let the SatNav unit take me towards the big city.  My first port of call was going to be the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in no time I could see the great Palladian edifice on top of its hill over to my left.  Having cautiously manoeuvred my way around a huge, busy, bustling traffic system I took the Audi down a steep ramp into a subterranean parking lot.

A lift brought me back to daylight and I found myself overlooking the Schuylkill River and the Fairmont Waterworks park.  There was a huge silver weir which curved across the river like a scimitar blade and the whole scene reminded me of the St Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.  I decided not to waste such a beautiful day and spent half an hour so walking by the river and taking in the peaceful scene.  This was once the site of the city water works, and the whole are has been superbly developed into a green park, with a serpentine boardwalk meandering through it.  The old waterworks buildings themselves have been restored to provide space for a museum, or an ‘interpretive center’ as is it billed.

When my walk was completed I climbed a steep path to the top of the cliff and made my way into the Museum of Art.  As I entered the cavernous hall that is the main reception area  a lady came straight up to me and asked me if I had already purchased a ticket and on my response to my negative answer she cheerfully said ‘Well, I have a free one!  I made a group booking and ordered too many.  Here.’  I am ashamed to say that initially I was suspicious, fearing some scam, but this was just a kindly, genuine, friendly offer which I thanked her profusely for.

I love meandering around a good art museum and the Philadelphia Art Museum is definitely a very good one.  The first galleries I went into were European impressionism and in no time I was admiring a fine collection of Manets, Monets, Cezzanes and Van Goughs (including one of the latter’s famous Sunflower creations).

One picture that particularly caught my attention, more for historical fact than for the art itself, was by Manet, entitled ‘The Folkestone Boat, Boulogne’ which was painted around 1868.

Edouard Manet (1872) Departure of the Folkestone Boat

My interest in his particular image stemmed from the famous Staplehurst train crash that Charles Dickens was involved in on June 9, 1865.  He had been riding on the tidal train from Folkestone which had met the steamer from Boulogne.  Therefore Manet’s painting depicted the same scene as Dickens and Ellen Ternan would have experienced as they prepared for their journey on that fateful day.

I wandered through the various galleries for a couple of hours and thoroughly enjoyed my time.  Some works I liked, some left me cold, but it was a superb morning.  As ever when I am in a great art museum I was struck at how important the design of the gallery itself is to the whole experience: the lighting, the shape, the colour, the space in the rooms all enhance (or if poorly executed, destroy) the experience.

After a while I felt ‘arted-out’ so found the café where I had a sandwich and a fresh lemonade for lunch, before pondering my next move.  The zoo was just across the river, but somehow that would seem a very lonely thing to do, I needed Liz with me to go there.  The Rodin Museum was only a short walk away, but I decided that I had had my fill of art and sculpture for the day.  I thought about visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary in the footsteps of Charles, but the day was too sunny and too cheerful to take myself into a dark and cold prison.

In the end I decided simply to walk towards the city and enjoy the space.  So having finished lunch I walked out of the main entrance and found myself at the top of ‘those’ steps looking towards the impressive Philadelphia skyline.  Those steps?  yes, for it was here that Rocky Balboa ran in the first movie to bear his name, and turning to face the city raised his arms in his iconic victory salute.

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And now the steps are covered with tourists recreating that moment for their camera phones.  Men, women, old and young all raising their arms and laughing as their family, friends or complete strangers in many cases take their picture.  The museum has thoughtfully placed two foot prints into the stone to mark the exact spot where Rocky stood.  Some muscle-bound guys, usually with a suitably impressed girlfriend watching on, made the run from the bottom of the steps to the top and then skipped lightly from foot to foot,  shadow boxing to prove that it had all been easy and they could do it all over again, all day.

Having resisted the temptation to do the same I descended the steps walked towards the city.  Eventually I found myself at The Franklin Institute, which is a science museum and thought it may be fun to take a look.  Unfortunately it is very much geared to a family visits, with lots of interactive galleries aimed at children, so it didn’t really match up to my expectations, although I was like a little kid admiring the huge steam locomotive in the basement.

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One exhibit of which the Institute is very proud is their giant heart which you can actually walk through.  The heart is a huge fibreglass construction and once you are in you walk up and down little staircase, through little passageways as if you were a blood cell.  Along the way little signs tell you exactly where you are in the organ and what is happening to you.

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It is very instructive and educational But in this litigious age the museum has to cover its back, it wouldn’t want people thinking that they now know so much about the workings of a human heart that they might go home and attempt some amateur surgery, so there is a disclaimer:

‘The Franklin Institute’s  THE GIANT HEART provides educational information and demonstrations.  The information shall not be used as treatment recommendation or medical advice.  You should consult your personal physician for such treatment advice’

My visit to the Institute finished with an IMAX film about volcanoes which was impressive, as all IMAX films are.

It was now time to head back to the car and as I walked back to the Art Museum the Rocky poses were still being struck at the top of the steps.  I set my SatNav which told me how to leave the city by a particularly appropriate route: this is the city of the Liberty Bell, this is the city of Benjamin Franklin one of the founding fathers of the United States (a child’s t shirt in the institute’s gift shop depicted Franklin in sunglasses with the caption ‘Too Cool For British Rule), this is the city of Independence and this particular Britisher was being told to leave on the I-76! (the American Declaration of Independence of course having been signed in 1776)

The journey back to the Ambler Inn was slow, but on my return I packed all of bags up, as I would be moving out and on to my next shows the next day.  To be honest I was now getting restless and bored:  a  coupe of days to recharge and reset were perfect but now I was ready to get back onto the stage and get back to doing what I came here to do.

I trimmed my beard (I had allowed it to get rather bushy and unkempt for the character of Magwitch and maybe Monsieur Defarge), and showered before going to the restaurant and eating dinner under the stars, which was lovely.

From the Ambler Inn I will drive to Winterthur where I will be performing The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby twice in a day, before flying to Nashville and my final venue of this tour.

 

 

 

The Guillotine

Sunday 15 September was the day on which I was to perform A Tale of Two Cities at The Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington, New Jersey.  Rather than staying nearby I was to commute to the church from The Joseph Ambler Inn, meaning that I was able to spend a nice relaxing morning in familiar surroundings, rather than packing everything up and moving on yet again.

Having had an early morning coffee and then a nice buffet breakfast I came back to my room to do some final rehearsing on the A Tale of Two Cities script.  To be perfectly honest this day has been haunting me all Summer, I have been dreading it and have been very nervous and tense about it.  Way back when Pam was putting this schedule together I should never have agreed to do two major shows in as many days, both of which needed re-learning from scratch, neither of which I had performed in over a year:  it was a monumental task which would have been difficult at the best of times, but a difficult summer for us at home simply added extra pressure to the process and at times I was close to abandoning the whole idea and just saying no.

In life there are occasions when fate, the world, God – whatever or whoever you want to call it – comes along to help. maybe an event that is in some way impossible unexpectedly cancels, or circumstances change and they want a different show after all.  I don’t mind admitting that over the last few weeks I was almost hoping for such a quirk of fate to intervene and change yesterday’s commitment.

I was scared.

No such intervention arrived and that in itself sent a message – you have to do it.  You will do it.  You will do it well.  So I worked harder and completely committed myself to preparing properly and professionally.

One huge bonus was the venue.  I have been performing at The Broad Street Methodist church for many years and a nicer bunch of people I could not hope to meet.  Laura, Joe, Phyllis, Marcia and the rest of the team go out of their way to make everything right for me and do it with genuine kindness and affection.  Actually onto that list I will add the building itself, the old church is light, airy and welcoming. It is very much a safe place and one which I love to perform in.

The audience too are a loyal and friendly bunch so I knew that there would be no animosity or harsh judgement from that quarter.

So, back to the Joseph Ambler Inn and my rehearsals.  Rather than running the whole script I concentrated on those passages that have proved troublesome over the last months and once I was satisfied with them I out the script down.  It would have be very easy to over do it and it is important to know when to step away.  For the rest of the morning I made sure I had my costume in place and the various props that I use during the show.

When I first performed A Tale of Two Cities in Llandrindod Wells the organisers decided that they would build me a giant guillotine which dominated the stage, and which actually worked (well not to the extend of striking people’s heads off, but the plywood blade rose on a strong length of rope and then fell with a huge dramatic bang).  I had worked the beast into the script and it became essential to the success of the show’s ending.  Via Pam I had asked Laura if such a thing could be constructed for my performance in Burlington and was assured that it would be done, but I knew that it wouldn’t be like the Welsh one, partly because the dramatic bang of the blade falling was  thanks to a bare wooden stage with a void beneath the boards making the whole thing a big base drum.  The ‘stage’ at Burlington is carpeted, so even if the new guillotine were the same the effect would be lost.

In preparation for this I had sourced a sound effect of a guillotine, featuring a metal blade sliding down, a rather grisly crunching sound, followed a moment later by a little thump as the supposed head fell onto the floor.  I made sure that I had the effect on a memory stick and packed it into my case.  I was as ready as I ever would be.

The journey to Burlington was about 40 minutes and I thoroughly enjoyed driving Bob’s Audi, although I had to relearn how to drive, which was a very strange experience.  The Audi has a manual gearbox (stick shift for my American readers) which is rare over here.  Back home I have always driven manual cars, I love them, I feel more in control with them, I like being able to choose what gear I use, when.  But now the gear lever was on the wrong side, I was operating it with my right hand and not my left, and it felt completely alien to me!  It was the strangest experience and I felt like a novice driver again, having to concentrate hard on the sheer mechanical action of changing gear.  After a while I worked out what the issue was, and it was a simple one, when changing from 3rd to 2nd gear at home I bring the leaver to the neutral part of the H and then PUSH it over before slipping it down into 2nd.  Now I was having to PULL it over and it felt wrong.  Muscle memory is an extraordinary thing.

I reached the Church at 12, just as the morning service was finishing and the congregation was flocking out.  In amongst the crowds my ‘team’ were already starting to prepare the stage and get everything into place.  Laura was at the centre of things giving orders and making sure everything was in its place.  Soon I was part of the stage crew too, making decisions, asking for this or that to be moved, let’s have the screen for a slide over there, and the furniture placed just so, and a trunk for my props behind it, and so on.

‘Where do you want the guillotine?’

Oh, yes, there was a guillotine and I was about to be introduced to it.  There was great drama in the whole process as the monster was carried through the church in its component parts.

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Onto the stage and into the spot I had selected and it was constructed before my eyes and a magnificent edifice it proved to be!  8 feet tall, towering over me, strong and sturdy.  The ‘blade’ had been fashioned from card and tin foil, so wouldn’t actually work, but as you know I had prepared for that with the sound effect.

When the set was as I wanted it Laura and I started to prepare the technical side.  We needed a laptop and projector for the image of Charles Dickens reading to his daughters, which is the inspiration for the telling of the story, and we needed another computer to run the sound effect through.

After much anguish and effort we got everything set up, and Laura would be sat in the front row carefully following the script ready to give me my four guillotine falls as demanded by the script.  The thought came into my head that she could also act as a prompter, but that was a dangerous thing to think and I banished it straight away.

The audience were already arriving as we made the final preparations, and a good crowd it was too – around 160 people taking their places in a very hot sanctuary on a very hot day.

We were ready to start:  all the anguish, all the nerves, all the self-doubt had brought me to this moment.  Laura went onto stage wearing  a rather rakish red beret (purchased at Harrods, she told me, which sounded rather aristocratic – possibly a dangerous thing when there was a revolutionary guillotine close at hand).  I was welcomed onto to stage with warm applause and I knew at that moment that I was safe.

I began by reading an old blog post of mine describing the various literary influences that may have led Charles Dickens to using the French Revolution plot

(It Was the Best of Times….Losing Heads and Hearts: https://wordpress.com/post/geralddickens.wordpress.com/7558)

When that was finished I became Charles Dickens as he described to his daughters, Katie and Mamie, his ideas for a new book.  The show starts with me recreating the pose in the photograph, which would watch over me for the entire performance.

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It went well.  I did not dry up.  I did not freeze,  I did not run from the stage and sob in my dressing room.  Some lines got slightly tangled up,  some came out in slightly the wrong order, but not to the extent that anyone but me, and Laura with her copy of the script, would notice.  As the story progressed so I threw myself more completely into it and by the time Defarge was marshalling his comrades to arms I was in full passionate flow, screaming the ‘hated word’ BASTILLE!!! with as much volume as I could muster.

And then the end.  As Sidney Carton is carried towards the Guillotine in the tumbril he holds hands and comforts an innocent little seamstress.  He holds her hand until the moment she is taken up the steps and beheaded.  I think this is one of the most tender moments of the story and adds greater poignancy to the famous end that is to come.  I used the curve of the altar rail at floor level to represent the streets of Paris, and played the scene so that the girl always had her back to the guillotine as we approached it. There are steps up from floor level and these became the final climb towards her death.  The sound effect came in perfectly and I stooped to hold her imaginary head high for the knitting women to see.

I delivered Carton’s prophetic thoughts from beneath the guillotine and as I delivered some of the finest closing lines ever written I turned to face the blade, looked up to the heavens and as the sound effect came in I slumped my head forward.

Pause. Applause.

Long applause. Standing applause.

I was quite overwhelmed, not only at the reaction of the audience but by the knowledge and realisation that this whole process had not been easy and I had pulled it off, I had conquered my fears and faced them.  I can’t describe the relief and lightness that filled me in that moment.

Once I left the stage I went downstairs to my dressing room and stood breathing deeply for a while, before drying myself off and getting ready to do a signing session.

As at Byers’ Choice the day before there were a lot of familiar faces and old friends in the crowd.  I signed and I smiled and I laughed and I posed.  There were lots of very positive and gushing comments about the show, one of the nicest was a gentleman who said: ‘we had no idea how you were going to pull this off, we didn’t know how you would perform this book.  Oh, we knew that your performance values would be superb, that was given, so we knew we were in safe hands…..’  I am glad that in the run up to the show that he had faith in my abilities, and more perhaps than I did!

When the event was over I changed and then a group of us went over to Francesco’s Italian restaurant for an early dinner.  We usually dine there between the matinee and evening performances when I perform A Christmas Carol , but as we only had one performance yesterday there was very much an after show party feel to our celebrations.

The best part of the conversation was hearing about the creation of the guillotine.  Laura and Marcia had taken on the roll of carpenters and no one else helped them.  Were they skilled carpenters? No.  Had they ever built anything like this? No.  Had they ever used a power tool in their life?  in Marcia’s case a definite and belligerent NO!

The dynamics of this working party were spectacular, as became apparent during the meal.

Laura is for ever running about doing things, constantly organising, taking charge which means her days are packed from morn until morn, a whirlwind of energy.  For a while she tried to find a guillotine, she approached the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia to see if they happened to have one as part of their Hallowe’en  displays.  They used to have one, apparently, but no more. Laura tried various other venues, and even asked Pam to keep an eye and an ear open, but no guillotine was forthcoming.  My event was getting closer and she decided to build one.

Marcia is a planner, she likes things to be organised a long time in advance, she likes to know how and when a project will be achieved.  When Laura approached her with just a few days to go before my visit and showed her a tiny sketch on a torn scrap of paper Marcia’s reaction was ‘dear God, no!’

Friday afternoon, as I was performing Great Expectations at Byers’ Choice, saw Laura and Marcia wielding circular saws, hack saws, and power drills as they tried to convert a pile of lumber into a free standing creation.  Apparently Marcia was tentative with the drill prompting Laura to say ‘you need to put more weight behind it, then it will work.’  ‘I cant put any more weight behind it, I haven’t GOT any more weight!’

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As I listened I had a wonderful image of Marcia holding the drill and spinning round and round, whilst the screw remained stationary.  It would be perfectly illustrated by Quentin Blake in a Roald Dahl novel.

There was much laughter as the two of them regaled us with their story and I really think between us all we made a little bit of Broad Street history yesterday.

It had been a wonderful day.  But I wont lie: I am glad it is over.

 

 

Expectations Fulfilled

Yesterday was supposed to begin with a 5.15 alarm call, although that became irrelevant as I was already awake thanks to my body clock not fully being readjusted yet.  Not only is it not properly adjusted, it feels like it could do with some new batteries, or a good winding.

The early start was necessary because I had to make the 90 minute journey back to Charlotte airport to catch a flight at 9.20.  I reckoned that if I left at 6am I would be at the airport by 7.30, and by the time I gave my rental car back I could clear security and have time for breakfast before flying.  When I had driven to Greenville two days before I had noticed some roadworks which would possibly have delayed me, and I was also aware that Charlotte airport is a major hub, so the security lines might be long.  All reasons to leave early.

I had packed my cases the night before so it was just a matter of closing them up and taking them to the car.  I grabbed a coffee from the hotel lobby to accompany me on my journey, and went out into the darkness to load the car up.  The atmosphere was still humid and damp and the air was filled with the sound of crickets , or maybe cicadas I never know which (and Liz and I never know how to pronounce the name of that insect, is the middle syllable long to rhyme with car, or is it very short as in mat. Does it rhyme with aid – cic-aid-a?  What a conundrum).

The early morning drive was not too bad and there were no specific traffic hold ups, although the speed limit was restricted along certain stretches.  I passed the Peachoid again, proudly floodlit in all its glory and headed on through the gathering dawn.

I arrived at the airport in good time and left my car in the Hertz garage (there was no one there to check the paperwork, signs just told me to leave the keys and go, so I did)

At check-in I discovered that my big suitcase was slightly overweight so I had to move things around a bit between my other bags, so as not to incur any extra charges, as it was I had to pay $30 for the privilege of having a case put in the hold.  I was hungry now, and was in good time for breakfast, so off I went to the security line……long, slow, frustrating.  We inched forward, one step at a time, our world filled with the shrieking voices constantly reminding us to take off jackets, belts, remove laptops and tablets. Dante must have another circle of hell waiting for people standing in early morning security lines.

Eventually I was spat out the other side of security into the terminal building and I still had half an hour in reserve to eat.  I found a table in a NASCAR Café and ordered some eggs and bacon, as well as an orange juice and coffee and at last began to feel ever so slightly human again.

The flight was a direct flight to Newark NJ and it was very full, but the boarding process went smoothly and in no time the 737 was up into the clouds, heading north towards New York, where we landed a few minutes early.

As I disembarked I decided to stop in a rest room before getting to baggage claim, as it easier to navigate those moments without a huge suitcase in tow, and the thought of sitting in a car for an hour or so with a large glass of orange juice and a mug of coffee sloshing around was not a pleasant one.  Having successfully relieved my bladder and washed my hands I was ready to leave when I was faced with a poster – ‘How was your restroom experience today?’  Goodness!  Quite successful all in all, thank you.

At baggage claim I was met by George Byers, Bob and Pam’s youngest son who had kindly volunteered to drive me back to Chalfont in readiness for the afternoon’s show.  On the journey we picked up some sandwiches for me to eat in the car, as I wouldn’t have time for lunch when we arrived.

Byers’ Choice is my home in America (officially so as the address always goes on my immigration and customs forms as my place of residence when I am travelling), but it was strange to see the statues of children in the grounds without their Christmas hats on.  George helped me get my cases in, and I thanked him for being such a great chauffeur.

I went straight to the theatre where the Byers brothers Bob and Jeff were putting the final touches to the auditorium, and judging by the amount of chairs laid out they were expecting a goodly crowd.  David Daikeler, he who looks after all my technical needs at Byers’ Choice, was bustling about the stage, fiddling with lights, looking at the script and generally making final preparations for the afternoon.  I was to be performing Great Expectations once again and as this was a new show for the Byers team everyone wanted to get it right, there was a sense of nervous energy in the room.

One thing that I was delighted to see was a large black curtain hanging on the wall behind the stage.  Earlier in the week David had sent me a picture of the set asking me if it was ok, but with a huge expanse of white behind the few pieces of furniture, it looked very stark and sterile, not capturing the claustrophobic and intense settings of the book.  In my reply I had asked if there was any chance that a black drape could be hung?  Not really.  That would be difficult. Probably not, was the message that came back.  But I know Byers’ Choice better than that, and it should not have been a surprise that Bob and David had moved mountains to give me what I’d asked for: it looked fabulous.

I set the stage as I wanted it and David and I ran through some of the lighting cues for the show, giving me an opportunity to rehearse again, which was useful.

Miss Havisham (a brass hat stand draped with my white cloth) looked amazing in front of the black and she would certainly be a sombre presence throughout the show, which was my original idea when I first came up with this script

Time was moving on and Bob was keen to open the doors to the public, so I took myself off to my conference room changing space and got ready.    When I returned to the auditorium a very goodly sized audience was gathering, most of whom were regulars from my annual performance of A Christmas Carol.  As I watched them take their seats from David’s sound desk I had a wave of fear and self-doubt – Great Expectations is very different from the Carol and I was worried as to whether this generous and loyal crowd would embrace the long, dark and rather brooding script.

There was only one way to find out!

Bob made his welcome announcement and then David faded the lights to black,  In the darkness the recording of my voice began and the opening lines of Great Expectations filled the room.  I took my place on the stage waiting for my cue, when suddenly the narrative stopped.  Silence.  Nothing.  I knew that David would be searching for a quick solution, but what to do?  Should I just start with Magwitch’s attack on Pip, and hope that David would follow me and bring the lights up?  Would he take the initiative and flood the stage in light thereby encouraging me to start?  The silence seemed to last for an age, and then suddenly the sound came back, the narrative reached its conclusion and we were back on track.

The first act certainly seemed to go well and I was very comfortable with the show now, getting fully involved in the characters and the scenes.  David was doing a great job matching the lighting effects to the scenes as I moved around the stage.

I got to the interval and left the stage to a nice round of applause.  Yes, everything was going OK.

I hurried back to the conference room, got changed and was soon ready to continue the story.  As soon as I returned Bob encouraged the audience back to their seats by employing the old technique of flashing lights on and off, and off we went again.  The second act although longer, is faster moving as the plot ramps up and again I got very involved in the story, so much so that when I dragged Miss Havisham’s flaming body to the floor I felt the hat stand break beneath me.  Bob, I am so sorry!

The applause at the end was loud and people were standing to clap.  All of that hard work over the last few weeks was worth it.  Having left the stage I went to my signing table where a constant queue of people kept me busy for quite a while, although of course it wasn’t as manic as Christmas.  Most people in line were long time supporters and as we posed for pictures they would tell me how many times they’d seen me, and that they would be coming back at Christmas.  Everyone in line told me how much they had enjoyed the show.

As ever Pam was looking after the signing session, marshalling the line and one surprising feature was the amount of people who complained (too strong a word), that I wouldn’t be visiting their particular venue at Christmas this year – we had folks from Pigeon Forge, Hershey, Burlington and Bethlehem all of whom were disappointed.  Although hard to listen to it is rather a compliment too.

Eventually the last people left and I gathered up all of my things before going to thank Bob, Pam and David for everything they had done for me during the day.   I said my goodbyes and walked with Bob to the parking lot were I was entrusted with his rather nice Audi which will be my car for the next few days.

I drove back to the Joseph Ambler Inn where my cousin Rowland and his wife Andi were waiting with their sons.  I quickly checked in, dumped my bags and then joined them for a very relaxing alfresco dinner.

It was a perfect way to end a long and stressful day and we shared lots of laughter and stories into the evening until they had to drive back to New Jersey.  As I returned to my room I found myself muttering under my breath ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ in readiness for Sunday’s performance of A Tale of two Cities, another show about which I am rather nervous, but that is another story and one which will be told tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

Friday 13th

Friday 13th.  Unlucky for some.  First show of the tour – a show I haven’t performed for over a year.  A venue I have never seen.  Friday 13th.

There is not much to say about the bulk of yesterday, in that I spent most of it in my hotel room.  I decided to spend the morning working on A Tale of Two Cities, which I am performing on Sunday and then the afternoon tweaking Great Expectations for the evening’s performance.

The morning’s work went well although there are still some niggly little scenes which simply refuse to stay stuck, but there is definitely a show there which will entertain the audience in Burlington, NJ.

In the afternoon I  concentrated on Great Expectations but rather than doing complete runs I preserved some energy and just went over the lines of a few little sections.   Of the two scripts Great Expectations has settled itself back in my memory more successfully

Other than the line work I napped a little, played some patience, watched a documentary about the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and generally relaxed.

As the afternoon wore on I collected all the  costumes and props that I was going to need for the show and carefully packed them and at 5pm I carried it all down stairs to load into the car.  I think the man behind the desk was surprised to see me pulling an obviously heavy suitcase and carrying two hanger-fulls of clothing without checking out.

It was still a very hot and sultry afternoon but the clouds were gathering and a heavy wind was wipping litter, leaves and dust high into the air.  The venue, The Spinning Jenny, was only fifteen minutes away but my journey was lengthened when I discovered a road blocked due to a fallen tree over one of the roads.  There was already a team of people working hard to clear the branches so I left them to it and went on my way,

I arrive at The Spinning Jenny bang on the dot of 5.30.  I went in the main entrance and found an impressive, low-ceilinged hall which was obviously more of a concert venue than a theatre.  At the far end the small stage was bathed in blue, which would make a good Miss Havisham light, and chairs had been arranged in front of it.  Sharon, who runs the venue , welcomed me with a great big South Carolinian hug and showed me to my dressing room/green room which was very comfortable.

I needed to create my set, for the stage was bare, so I started scouring the venue for a suitable chair, table and stool, which I soon found.  The only thing missing was Miss Havisham who maintains a ghostly presence on the stage overseeing everything.  To create her I normally use my good old standby, a hatstand, but there wasn’t anything like that to be found, until Sharon suggested that we use the circular costume hanging rack from the dressing room.  I carefully draped my white cloth over her to create a sagging human form, even letting a length of it fall onto the chair, as if the old woman was leaning on it.  I was rather proud with my efforts.

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Judging by the number of chairs laid out Sharon was not expecting a huge crowd, and she said she wasnt sure what sort of response they would get, as this sort of performance was a new experiment for them, touring rock bands are more their thing.  As I prepared the stage we chatted and Sharon mentioned that she had seen me perform A Christmas Carol somewhere in South Carolina about 20 years ago, although neither of us could remember quite where that would be.  She said that the show had been very busy and she thought it may have been in a Church as she remembered sitting in pews.  If only I had written a blog in those days, I could have found out where and when that gig was.

Set built we started running through some of the lighting effects and the sound cues, which sort of led me into rehearsing most of act 2.  Although the stage was very wide, the lighting concentrated my action to the centre and I wanted to get a feel for where I could safely move to whilst remaining illuminated.  The acoustics of the hall, with its low tin ceiling, were good and we decided that I didn’t need a microphone.

With an hour to go I retired to my green room, drank water and rested.  I could hear the audience coming in, and although not a large group, they sounded like an enthusiastic one which is all one can ask for.

At 8pm Sharon made the obligatory cell phone speech and brought the whole venue into blackout before playing the first sound cue cut into the darkness: ‘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 crept onto the stage in the dark, so I was ready to burst out as Magwitch ‘Hold your noise!  tell us yer name!’ Sharon brought the lights up bang on cue and I was off and running.

The audience, although small, very much enjoyed the opening exchanges between Pip and Mrs Joe and laughed freely, which was good.  The lines flowed easily, the various characters’ voices worked well and each scene flowed easily into the next.  All of the hard work and pacing had paid off and I began to thoroughly enjoy myself.

In no time I reached the end of act one and I was whooped off the stage by one particularly enthusiastic lady who was really enjoying the performance.

Having changed costume and cleared the stage ready for act two I had a little time to rest before Sharon came to give me the nod. The second act is darker and more intense, except for the brilliant scene with Wemmick and the Aged P, which got plenty of laughs last night.

My only concern was my voice, and I hoped I hadn’t taken too much out of it in the early Magwitch scenes.  I was beginning to sound a little raspy.

Soon Miss Havisham had gone up in flames, Pip and Herbert were spiriting Magwitch away up the river, only to be caught, Joe Gargery nursed Pip to full health and the latter named paid off his various debts, sloughed off his pretentious delusions of grandeur and returned to the old forge to bring the whole story to its final scene.  In the ruins of Satis House Pip and Estella met once more (I use the second ending, as suggested to Dickens by Edward Bulwer-Lytton), and they walked away from the ruins hand in hand.

As I left the stage there was a pause and then a hugely enthusiastic round of applause, featuring my whooping uber-fan!  A job well done and I was very satisfied with how the show had gone.

I did a brief Q&A session from the stage, which is always fun, and there were some interesting questions about the editing of the script and how I approach building a character for a show (Sharon told me later that a large group of the audience were theatre majors).  We had a discussion about how old we felt Miss Havisham actually is, which was interesting, we settled on late 40s although she appears much older due to her hermit-like existence.  The final question was ‘Do you have a favourite story about Charles himself?’ and after floundering for a little I told them about A Childs Journey with Dickens, when Dickens chatted to the ten year old Kate Douglas Wiggin on the train to Boston.  That was a good place to finish and I took some more bows before leaving the stage for the final time.

I packed up all my things quickly and emerged into the auditorium where I chatted for a while, before getting into my car and driving back to the hotel.

Sharon and her team had looked after me so well all evening and I really hope that this might be the start of a regular booking, it would be great to come back with some of my other shows, and hopefully a little word of mouth will bring in a larger audience next time.

Back in Greenville I parked my car and went into the hotel.  MainStays Suites is one of those hotels that has a microwave in the room, and that sells frozen ready meals in a little pantry in the lobby.  I purchased a beef and pepper concoction which I carefully prepared and devoured quickly whilst watching Modern Family

The rigours of the evening were beginning to make themselves felt and soon I was ready for sleep.

Under the covers I could reflect on a very successful first night of my tour.

Oh, Friday 13th?  That was Charles Dickens’ lucky day!

 

Observations on Travel, and a Giant Peach

Yesterday I returned to America, and so begun the traditionally manic final third of my year.

You will recall that last week I expressed some concerns as to whether my passport, containing this year’s visa, would be returned by the US Embassy in time, but on Tuesday afternoon a courier rang at our door and held out the little package to me.  There followed a slightly awkward stand-off in that he asked for identification before he could release the parcel into my care, and that a passport would be best, I pointed out that I couldn’t show him my passport because he was clutching it in his hands and wouldn’t release it to me.  Eventually a driving licence sufficed.

Alongside continued rehearsing of Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities I packed throughout Wednesday, making sure that I had all of the required costumes not only for those two shows, but also for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and Mr Dickens is Coming.  Various different waistcoats, trousers, shirts and cravats were folded around a stone bottle, a leather cane, a riding crop, an embroidered cloak, a collection of handwritten letters and an old book (Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution for A Tale of Two Cities, but which will also double as a volume for Pip’s studies, the text of Nickleby and Uriah Heep’s legal tome in Mr Dickens).  Amazingly everything fitted into my large suitcase and carry-on case as well as  coming in under weight which surprised me no end.

The goodbyes on Thursday were as tearful as ever as a taxi drove me away from Liz and the girls. When I had finished waving through the rear window I took out from my bag a tiny book that Liz gave me in 2007 called simply ‘Travel’ and which contains various quotes from writers on that subject.  The book stays in my leather shoulder bag (also a gift from Liz many years ago) and comes everywhere with me.  It is lovely to read and I always find something new, this time John Steinbeck provided it: ‘A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike’

In my planning of the morning I had booked the taxi early enough to allow me some breakfast at the airport before boarding, but the traffic had other ideas.  My driver told me that he was receiving reports of very heavy congestion on the M25 and M4, due to an earlier accident, so he would instead continue on the M40 towards Uxbridge and then cut across using local roads which of course were also busy.  Time moved on while my car did not, and images of scrambled eggs on toast faded into fantasy.  The roads were clogged and above us jet engines poured their hot gasses into the atmosphere, another quote sprung off the pages of my little book, in 1862 Henry David Thoreau wrote ‘Thank God men cannot as yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the Earth.’

Eventually the taxi made it through the traffic and delivered me to the airport.  Although I was not rushed (thank Heavens that the check in and security systems are so much more efficient these days), there was no time for breakfast as I had to begin the walk to gate 29 where my American Airlines Airbus A-300 awaited me. I sat in the lounge looking at my fellow passengers hoping, beyond hope, that the family with the screaming child would not be in the seats next to me or behind me.

Soon boarding commenced: Group 1, 2, 3, 4 (child included) and 5 were called before a few of us stragglers in groups 6 and 7 were reluctantly summoned to take their seats.  Actually I prefer boarding late on a transatlantic flight, I am going to be in my little seat for nine hours, I don’t think I crave an extra forty minutes!  The only reason to board early is to find room for carry-on bags, but that is never an issue in the big intercontinental jets.

I settled in next to a likeable gent and as the final preparations for the flight were completed I began my video marathon.  I have been fascinated over the past year with the various Apollo mission anniversaries and the first film I watched was the brilliant Apollo 11, a documentary made purely from archive video and audio clips, with no modern additions or narration.  Fabulous.

The clouds hung low over Southern England as we took off so sadly there was no great view to be had as we made our way up to 40,000 feet, although bursting from the grey and into the blue, looking down on the fluffy mountain ranges was as exciting as it always is.  There is always the childlike feeling that one could simply step out onto the tops of the clouds and explore.

Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, was next on my list before lunch was served which was a rather tasty Shepherd’s Pie rather than the usual ‘chickenorfish’.

After lunch I attempted to catch up on a little sleep before giving up the struggle and returning to the video screen for another biopic, albeit a rather less salacious one, about the early life of JRR Tolkien.

By this time we were over the east coast of America and making our way towards Charlotte.  My final film was Robert Redford in The Natural, although we landed just 5 minutes before the end, so I never got to see him in a cornfield pitching the baseball to his son with that famous gleaming white smile.

Back on terra firma the immigration formalities were swiftly dispensed with and  I was soon tugging my cases towards the parking garage where I was to pick up my transport for the next couple of days.  I was very pleased that I’d thought to pack woollen jumpers and a thick fleece bearing the legend ‘You wouldn’t understand, it’s a Dickens thing’, seeing that the temperature was in the high 90s, nudging 100.

In no time I was in a Chevrolet Malibu and driving in the afternoon sun towards Greenville South Carolina.  As my Sat Nav unit guided me from one freeway to another, my mind wandered back to my book of travel quotes: ‘Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything’  But Charles Kuralt was about to proved wrong.

This is a part of the country I don’t know well, so all of the city names were new to me (although I was a little surprised to find myself driving past Lowell, which has always been in Massachusetts up to now).  Suddenly however there was a name I knew: Gaffney SC.  A few years ago whilst touring I binge watched House of Cards, and Gaffney is the home town of Frank Underwood.  One early episode featured a fatal car crash caused by a girl texting as she drove past the town’s water tower, which is in the shape of a giant peach.  Would I actually get to see ‘The Peachoid’?  yes, there it was!  a towering great orange peach (or, as some have suggested, a giant pair of buttocks) right by the roadside.  I briefly considered trying to photograph it, but remembered the fate of the girl in House of Cards, and thought better of it, so here is a library shot:

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After 90 minutes of driving I arrived at my hotel in Greenville and gratefully slumped onto the bed and rested.  My body suggested that it was 9pm, but my watch told me it was only 4.

At 6.30 I went to a neighbouring hotel for some supper and was back by 8.  As I rode up in the lift to my room I noticed that the official safety certificate had been issued by Mr Duane Scott who is the Senior Administrator in the office of ‘Elevators and Amusement Rides’.  What a lovely job, and for a moment I wondered if this lift would turn into some bizarre ride, such as the Great Glass Elevator that belongs to Willy Wonka in two of Roald Dahl’s novels.  If it was a ride it was a disappointing one, because it simply sighed to a stop on the 2nd floor and let me out.

And so the day came to an end.  I lay in a bed in a hotel in a town that I do not know and a final quote from Liz’s book summed up my feelings perfectly:

‘A motel represents a peculiar form of nowhere.  You don’t know quite where you are, and for a brief time, perhaps, not quite who you are.’

 

Learning Lines

Hopefully on Thursday morning I will board an American Airlines flight and be fired into the air pointing in the vague direction South Carolina.  I say hopefully because my interview for a new visa only took place at the American Embassy  last Wednesday and I am still waiting for my passport to be returned…I am sure that it will be alright….gulp….

In the meantime preparations for my trip are in full swing.  I will be away for just over a week and in that time I will be performing four different shows:  I will be taking on three major novels, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, as well as my old stalwart Mr Dickens is Coming.  Mr Dickens and Nickleby are fine, they are deeply ingrained, hard-wired one may say, so they do not need too much work and besides both of those performances come at the end of my trip after a couple of free days, so there will be plenty of time to perfect them.

Great Expectations and particularly A Tale of Two Cities however are different matters, for I haven’t performed either for a long time and the words have all fallen out of order and are lying in a  stagnant puddle somewhere in the bottom of my brain.  For the last few weeks I have been trying to fish them out them and form them back into their respective shows.

Learning lines is an activity that for me is driven by fear.  When I was a schoolboy I was in a play and at some point alone on stage I forgot my line.  I hadn’t learned the play properly and I couldn’t get myself out of trouble, I simply froze.  I was playing a Lordly King, so I kept acting, I strutted and swished around the stage waiting for my line to be given to me by the prompter, who ineffectually whispered from her seat in the wings.  Angry at her ineptitude I made my way over to her side of the stage so that she could repeat the line, which she did equally quietly.  By this time it was obvious to the audience that I had forgotten my lines, and there was a muttering and giggling from the hall.  Once more the prompter delivered the line, but this time she shouted it at the top of her voice so that everyone in the audience heard it:

‘I AM LOST FOR WORDS!’

The humiliation of the laughter that filled the hall has never left me and the memory is what drives me still.

Great Expectations is the longer of the two major offerings, as it runs to two acts over a time of about two hours.  The script is intense and dark and follows Pip’s journey from childhood to adulthood as he encounters the characters of Magwitch, Joe and Mrs Gargery, Biddy, Miss Havisham, Estella, Orlick, Herbert Pocket, Wemmick and his Aged Parent.

There is a lot of material in the script and it has been a major effort to form it into a recognisable shape.  The one big positive for me is that I performed Great Ex quite a lot in the years after I wrote it, so the shape and form of the play is familiar at some level, even though I have to clamber down to that level!

My line learning technique relies on being alone and having space to pace around, either in our garden, a park, or in the house in the case of inclement weather. I start with a line, which I read from my script, for example:

‘All done.  All gone.  So much was done and gone, that when I went out at the gate, the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in.  For a while I hid myself in the lanes and by-paths, and then struck off to walk all the way to London.  It was passed midnight when I crossed London Bridge.’

Once I have read it a couple of times I start with the first words again, this time not looking at the script:  ‘All done.  All Gone.  So much was done and gone’ I go back repeat it over and over again, and when it flows I check the script and recite the next bit: ‘that when I was out at the gate the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in.’

Repeat, repeat, something doesn’t sound right, and maybe I am saying ‘when I went outdoors’, instead of ‘when I was out at the gate’  Repeat.  Repeat, then add it to the first line: ‘All done. All gone. So much was done and gone, that when I went out out at the gate, the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in.’  Repeat.  Repeat, before adding the next section.

‘For a while I hid myself in the lanes and by-paths, and then struck off to walk all the way to London’  Repeat. repeat.  Correct.  Repeat.  Repeat.  add to previous section:

‘All done. All gone. So much was done and gone, that when I went out out at the gate, the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in. For a while I hid myself in the lanes and by-paths, and then struck off to walk all the way to London.’

This way I just piece little sections together and the pages drift by until I get to the end of a scene or an act, each of which then becomes part of the larger whole, or if things are not going well, the larger hole.

Although there are not specific ‘scenes’ the script has naturally fallen into little self-contained chunks and in the first act they work like this: Magwitch and Pip on the marshes, Pip with Joe and Mrs Joe in the forge, back on the marshes with Magwitch, the Christmas party in the forge leading to the discovery of the two convicts, and so on.  A number of little scenes create a larger one (the 4 sections above take me to the end of a major section), so as I learn lines I have a whole series of little targets or achievements to aim for: little scenes, larger scenes and an entire act.  I don’t know if this is a recognised technique or if any other actors use the same system, but it works for me.

When I had worked my way through Great Expectations it was time to get on with A Tale of Two Cities and the whole process started again.  This time I did not have such a depth of knowledge as I have only performed the show twice, the last time being over a year ago.  But once again I started working in sections, going back doing it again, checking the script and persevering until  things were settled.

Sometimes when I go back to a script I find that passages that I originally found really difficult to commit to memory suddenly become easy, but this time that didn’t happen and the difficult bits in A Tale of Two Cities were still difficult!

Eventually I got to the end and then I thought that I would try Great Expectations again and guess what?  I really struggled with it, and passages that had been flowing a couple of days before now were completely alien to me again.  There was nothing for it but to go back to referring to the script to correct errors.  Once again I started to work through to the end of each mini section, each major section and each act and when that is done it will be back to A Tale of two Cities and no doubt those words will have scrambled themselves up as well.

The funny thing is by this time next week all of the work will be over, for I am performing Great Expectations on Friday and Saturday and A Tale of Two Cities on Sunday.

As I close up with ‘It is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done.  It is a far far better rest I go to than I have ever known’ and, hopefully, the audience applauds, the question will be ‘was all that time, effort and heartache be worth it?  Will the morose demeanour that the family have to put up with be worth it?  Will the fear and the spectre of humiliation have been worth it?’

Of course the answer will be ‘yes’  Theatre and performance is a highly addictive drug and I just keep coming back for more however painful the process may be.

 

 

I will be performing Great Expectations at The Spinning Jenny in Greer, South Carolina on Friday at 8pm

I will be performing the same show at Byers’ Choice in Chalfont PA on Saturday at 3.30 pm

I will be performing A Tale of Two Cities at the Broad Street United Methodist Church on Sunday at 2pm.

 

https://www.thespinningjennygreer.com/events

https://www.byerschoice.com/dickens-great-expectations.html

Welcome!

 

 

 

Gamp

Although it seems ridiculous to say it at the end of August/beginning of September, but this week my winter season began in earnest, and with an amazing event that I will never forget.

My audience was one of the smallest I shall ever perform for, maybe 30 people at most, and the majority of them didn’t know who I was and hadn’t come to hear me anyway.  Some were bored and spent the whole performance looking at their mobile phones, which they hadn’t even bothered to silence meaning that little tones rang out over my words as they scrolled and flicked through their important updates.  Others obediently sat through the performance, whilst others laughed loudly and hung on to every word.

So why was this rather unmemorable sounding evening so memorable?

For the last 55 years (for my entire lifetime!) a gentleman by the name of Lawrence Drizen has been amassing an extraordinary collection of Charles Dickens related items, letters, documents and more first editions than you could ever imagine.  Collectors such as Mr Drizen like to buy a piece and then look for a better, rarer, version of the same thing and then go after that.  The result of 55 years of such upgrading is a collection of astounding value and rarity with almost everything having been dedicated or annotated by Charles himself.

But, as Lawrence himself says ‘Having reached the age of 84 years…I have decided to sell my Charles Dickens collection through Sotheby’s London.

‘I have enjoyed the last 55 years immensely.  The dealers, auctioneers and fellow collectors have all become great friends of mine and I wish to thank them for their scholarship, help and devotion of the years.’

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In order to promote the sale Sotheby’s decided that it would be fun to hold an exclusive event for other collectors and interested parties, and approached the Charles Dickens Museum in London to see if they would host it.  Cindy Sughrue, the director of the museum, was delighted to help out and also offered to display part of the collection for a week or so.

Now, one lot in the auction is a bound copy of one of Charles’ reading scripts, as used by him on his 1867-8 USA tour.  The script for ‘Mrs Gamp’ has Dickens’ handwriting all over it, where he edited and perfected the script.  Some passages are crossed out and others underlined for emphasis.  Charles had the script bound and dedicated it to his American publisher Charles Ticknor, of Ticknor and Fields in Boston.

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The good gentlemen at Sotheby’s thought it would be a lovely idea to find someone who could read Mrs Gamp as Dickens had read it, using the original script and asked Cindy if she knew of anyone who could help.  Cindy duly approached me, I lept at the idea, and the details were settled.

On Tuesday afternoon I travelled to London and at 5.30 took a taxi to the museum.  On the route I passed the site of The St Martin’s Hall where Charles Dickens began his professional reading career, and that seemed to be a good omen for the connection that was to follow.

At the museum, after catching up with Cindy, I was introduced to Philip Errington from Sotheby’s who was bustling around excitedly making preparations.  The pieces from the collection were in well lit display cases around the room and as he and I chatted I looked at the scrawling handwriting of my great great grandfather and felt a real closeness to Charles.

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At one end of the room stood a replica of the old red reading desk and in the cabinet next to it was the copy of Mrs Gamp from which I would read.  In the weeks leading up to the event I had been rehearsing from my own script, edited to exactly match the one in the sale, but Philip was keen that I should actually hold the original at some stage during my performance.  I had looked up the catalogue online and was horrified to discover that the estimate for the tiny volume was £50,000 – £70,000!  What if I turned a page rather too enthusiastically and ripped it, what if I coughed or sneezed over it?  I’m not sure that genuine Dickens DNA would add to the value!

Philip and I agreed that I would begin the reading from the volume and then at a suitable point in the action I would hand it back to him and continue from my own copy. We decided at which point the switch would be made and practised, giving me the opportunity to stand in a brightly lit board room holding a tiny piece of my family history: a piece that links Charles and myself over 152 years – the link being performance.

The volume was locked back in the case, ready to be theatrically removed at the perfect moment, and I decided to have one final run through of Mrs Gamp, before the guests arrived.  As I rehearsed my cousin Mark poked his head into the room and having exchanged greetings we both laughed in amazement at the quality – and expense – of Mr Drizen’s collection.  I am sure we were both thinking ‘is there anything in an attic that we may have forgotten about?’  A spare £50,000 – £70,000 wouldn’t go amiss!

At 6.30 the guests started to arrive and Mark and I went downstairs to the café and garden to schmooze (he is much better at that than I am).  We met other collectors and I was introduced to Mr Drizen himself for whom this must have been a bitter sweet evening.  In the introduction to the auction catalogue he says ‘The sale will be a very sad occasion for me’ and the party with champagne and exquisite canapes must have been a wrench to his emotions.

At around 7 Cindy brought the room to silence, welcomed everyone to the museum and suggested that we all troop upstairs to the board room for the entertainment.  Amongst the crowd was one of Britain’s finest stand up comedians, a man I admire very greatly, and his presence set my nerves tingling and my heart racing a little faster.

People were rather slow in mounting the stairs so I took myself into the exquisitely presented drawing room (furnished as it was when the Dickens family were in residence) to collect my thoughts,  On entering the room I triggered an audio device which plays a loop of readings featuring famous characters and passages, and naturally what should begin but Miriam Margolyes reading Mrs Gamp!  That I could have done without.

I quickly left the drawing room and went back to see how things were going in the board room.  When all were gathered Philip welcomed everyone and talked about the collection, the sale and the reason for the evening, before welcoming me to the reading desk, and carefully handing me the precious book.

The connection with Charles this time was even greater than it had been an hour before, and I had to take a very deep breath and detach myself from my emotions so that I could actually do the job I was there to do.  I began ‘Mr Pecksniff was in a handsome cabriolet…..’

Mrs Gamp is one of the shorter readings and was used to lighten the atmosphere after one of the major performances (such as The Carol, Little Paul Dombey, Sikes and Nancy etc).  It runs at about 20 minutes and features not only the splendid titular character but also Mr Mould the undertaker who so admires Mrs Gamp that he is moved to say that she was the sort of woman that he would ‘really almost feel disposed to bury for nothing, and do it neatly too’!

The other lovely creation is Betsy Prig: ‘That interesting lady had a gruff voice and a beard’,  who dares to confront Sairey Gamp over the existence of the mysterious Mrs Harris.

It is a fun reading, and as I said at the beginning some enjoyed it, some ignored it, but for me it was a never to be forgotten evening as I stood holding such a valuable book and being overwhelmed with such a positive energy and sense of connection with my great great grandfather.

The sale of the Lawrence Drizen Collection is at Sotheby’s London on 24th September and I urge you to go online to look at the catalogue, the link is:

https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2019/charles-dickens-the-lawrence-drizen-collection

There are editions of A Christmas Carol ranging from a signed presentation copy (estimate £50,000-£70,000), to first editions (£7,000 – £10,000), to a 10th edition which could be yours for a paltry £700.  There is a signed first book edition of David Copperfield available for £90,000, and a printed copy of a speech made in London in 1851 for which you would pay only £40.

As Philip said in his introductory remarks ‘There is something for every pocket!’

Sadly I will not be able to be at the auction, although I would love to attend, but I shall try to follow it online and will pay particular interest to a little volume containing the Mrs Gamp reading.