Dickens Was Dead: To Begin With by David Dickens

Before travelling to Minneapolis to perform ‘To Begin With’ I discovered some papers handed to me many years ago by my father.  They are two speeches, and I thought it would be fun to post them as  ‘guest blogs’

Back in 1993 I gave my first reading of A Christmas Carol and Dad was a huge inspiration to me.  He was never short of advice and wanted me to do my absolute best.   On reading this first paper, I now fully understand why!

Dad died almost ten years ago but reading his words I can hear his voice and picture his face so vividly.  There are notes in the margin written in his angular hand and I am not ashamed to say that they bring tears to my eyes.  It is as if he is sitting next to me.  I wish he were, for I’d love him to see ‘To Begin With’.

I am sure that you will enjoy:

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Dickens Was Dead: To Begin With

by David Dickens

Dickens was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  No doubt whatever, because the scene is Christmas Day in 1932.  Yet here are Dickens’s voice, his inflexions, his manner, his movements.  His son, Henry Fielding Dickens, is reading A Christmas Carol to the assembled family.

No! Not reading.  He is giving the whole thing from memory exactly as his father had done.  Henry Fielding Dickens (or Harry, or Sir Henry Fielding Dickens KC, of The Guv’nor, or Pupsey, or Pan-Pan – depending on one’s age and hierarchical status) had heard the Carol from his father – heaven knows how many times!  Indeed, he had been present throughout the last series of Readings in London, including the final one, when ‘from these garish lights’ Dickens vanished ‘for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, affectionate, farewell’.

And here we are listening to the very self-same thing.  Now, at the 150th anniversary of the Carol, it is almost incredible that this link still exists.  How fortunate, how privileged we were!  Did we realise that we were living with history?  Sadly, we did not.  Those of us who remember it (and there are not too many of us now) were children then.  We were on duty to listen to our funny old grandfather.  And we knew, having heard the performance for a good many Christmasses before, that when Bob Cratchit came back from Tiny Tim’s grave, old Pan-pan would begin to cry.  Not only cry, but weep; weep with copious tears; tears that tumbled down his cheeks.  Ye gods!  It was so embarrassing!  But worse was to come because when Scrooge threw open the window to call to the boy, Pan-Pan’s false teeth dropped out.  They always did.  Invariably.  You could set the time by it.  Such youthful Philistines were we!

There had never been a Christmas in the memory of the family but that Harry (as I will now call him) had read the Carol.  It was always on Christmas Day.  Whatever celebrations he had around our own domestic tables, and however far from London we lived, everybody came to Mulberry Walk in Chelsea that evening.  Every aunt and uncle; every great-aunt and great-uncle; every cousin; and every second cousin-once-removed, and third cousin-twice-removed – everyone was there.

The reading of the Carol was the climax of the evening.  Before that, everybody – adults as well as children – had to get on stage and do something.  When it came to our turn – the grandchildren’s turn – we were nervous and shy.  But that shyness was not to be indulged, because it was one of the immutable laws of the family that anyone who got on stage must do their piece with panache.  To perform well in public was a family expectation.

Harry, himself, did not have the appearance of an actor.  He was not a flamboyant man.  But appearance was deceptive; acting and the theatre were among his greatest loves.

After all, he had first trod the boards at the age of 5, when Dickens, Mark Lemon and Wilkie Collins put on, in 1854, the first of a series of theatricals involving the children at the annual Twelfth Night party at Tavistock House.  Harry played the title role in Tom Thumb (a burlesque written, as it happens, by his namesake Henry Fielding).  ‘The encores were frequent’ so Forster tells us.  Such instant and initial success might turn the head of any would-be actor, the more so when it was repeated the following year, and he again took the title role in Fortunio and his Seven Gifted Servants.  Dickens’s flamboyant playbill, which Forster says could not have been bettered by Mr Crummles himself, included the legend ‘Reappearance of Mr H. who created so powerful impression last year!’  It also announced ‘the first appearance on any stage of Mr Plornishmaroontigoonter (who has been kept out of bed at vast expense!’)

Harry’s own memory of his first thespian fame was more modest, recording that ‘my language at this period was of such a very dubious and incomprehensible character that the audience had to be furnished with a copy of the words which I was supposed to be singing’.  If his diction left something to be desired, his enthusiasm did not.  In Fortunio, when he had to slay the dragon (Mark Lemon) he feared that ‘Uncle Mark must have felt the effects of it for some time after’.

The theatre was all around these children.  Although they took no part in the serious dramas of The Frozen Deep and The Lighthouse, Harry at least had the important responsibility of tearing up bits of paper for snow in the arctic scenes.  Whether Harry inherited his love of the theatre from his father, or whether it was acquired by example, is of no matter.  It was there from his earliest years.

After Dickens’s death, Harry, Mamie and Georgina set up house together in London.  because of their intimacy with all Dickens’s literary, artistic and theatrical friends they knew everybody who made the lively world tick.

In another part of London there was another family – that of M. Antonin Roche.  M. Roche was French.  He had married a German wife, Emily Moscheles.  She was a consummate pianist and had been a pupil of Chopin.  That she was musical was not surprising because her father was Ignaz Moscheles, friend and pupil of Beethoven, Director of the Conservatoire of Music in Leipzig.  That same Ignaz Moscheles had been tutor to Dickens’s sister, Fanny, at the Royal Academy of Music.  Emily’s brother, Felix, was an artist of some considerable repute.

Antonin and Emily had nine children.  The eldest girl was Marie.  There were four older brothers and four younger brothers and sisters.

So the Roches, too, were an artistic family.  They, too, knew everybody who made the lively world tick.  The nine children were themselves lively – a close, loving family of enormous enthusiasms, the greatest of which was their love of the theatre.  They were forever putting on plays.  Their dearest friend was Charles Fechter, who was not above helping them in their youthful productions.  The play of his that they enjoyed most was Fanfan La Tulipe in which he brought his horse, Minerva, onto the stage and did a cross-talk act with her.  The children loved that horse, and they had, too, a particularly high regard for the kindness of Mr Charles Dickens because when the run was over, Minerva was given the sanctuary of the paddock at Gad’s Hill in which to live out her days.

Henry Irving; he was another particular friend.  When the children had put on their version of Irving’s play, Charles I, which was drawing full houses at the Lyceum he, himself, came round to maison Roche to supervise their efforts, and to make suggestions, such as that two saucepans banged together were perhaps not an adequate rendering of the sombre striking of the clock so necessary for the dramatic conclusion of the piece.

That two such lively and similar families as the Dickenses and the Roches should meet was only a matter of time.  A certain Lady Wilson got up theatricals each year among her circle of friends.  That theatrically-talented young Mr Henry Dickens was much in demand as Director and Actor.  In 1875 Marie Roche was thrilled to be invited to join the company.  When, next year, Mr Dickens was asked if he would give his services again, he replied ‘Yes – if Miss Roche acts’.  They acted together.  The piece was A Husband in Clover.  They married the same year.

If ever a prophecy came true this was it.  No husband ever lived in such clover as Harry.  For the next 57 years he was loved and cosseted and fussed over by Marie.  He was the sun of her life.  They were as devoted a couple as ever walked together in the world.

When Harry and Marie married they made a conscious and explicit vow that if they had children they would do their best to give them a happy childhood and youth.  That was not difficult for Marie because her childhood and had been energetically happy in a large rumbustuous family.  Harry, who seemed to have been a happy child despite the break-up of his home (he was 9 at the time), may have looked back to the childhood that once had been, so aptly described by FR and QD Leavis ‘….Dickens filled his own children’s lives with acting, jokes, dancing, singing, parties, travel, seaside spells, and all kinds of happy nonsense,…..he liked to describe scenes of joviality as well as to show the horrors of such family life as that of the Clennams, the Wilfers, the Snagsbys, the Gradgrinds and the Murdstones, among others such as Esther’s childhood home.’

Harry and Marie were unanimous about the way in which they would bring up their children. ‘All kinds of happy nonsense’ would be the keynote.  And the family did grow up happy.  Not only happy, but inexpressibly lively, with a wide range of enthusiasms and artistic talents.  Marie was the quintessential earth-mother (her affectionate nickname by her grandchildren became, in fact, ‘Gaïa’, although that developed from the mispronunciation of ‘Grandmere’ rather than from any classical allusion.  She was more generally known as ‘Mumsey’).  Such a role was in the very foundation of her character, and she was used to it, having been the little mother to her brothers and sisters.  Harry, by all accounts, was more like a brother to his children, so unlike the stern paterfamilias of the period.  He was a placid man.  He seemed by nature to be placid and happy (which perhaps explains why he, unlike Plorn, survived Gad’s Hill).  With Marie in command on the bridge; with Marie driving the ship from the engine room; with Marie at the helm, Harry could live his life in the state of placid happiness that suited him, and devote his considerable intellect to the practise of the law.

Marie, by contrast, was always up and doing; always bustling and commanding; always organising and overseeing.  The remarkable thing about this English family (and what could be more English than the name of Dickens?) was that it was, in fact, French.  Marie was born in London, and lived all her life in London, but French she was, and was ever determined to remain so.  She spoke only in French.  She raised her children in French.  Everything about the household was French.  She conversed with Harry in French, but in this he teased her.  He affected, in public, not to understand her.  If he did essay a few words in reply he made sure that he spoke with the most excruciating accent, as only an Englishman can.  And she, if she condescended a few words in English, would likewise mangle it.  It was a running joke throughout their 57 years.  Of course Harry spoke French perfectly well.  His father was a great Francophile.  The family had been on holiday for years in France.  Harry, himself, had been to school in Boulogne.  Of course Marie knew and spoke English perfectly well.  But she was determined to be French and that was that.

If Harry was ‘a Husband in Clover’ at home it must not be forgotten that he was pursuing a distinguished legal career.  He was called to the Bar in 1873; took Silk in 1892.  He became Common Serjeant in 1917 (sitting as a Judge at the Old Bailey) and was knighted in 1922.  He remained as Common Serjeant until his retirement at the age of 80, in 1929.

Given the theatrical backgrounds and enthusiasms of Harry and Marie it was not surprising that their children (there were seven of them) should clamber up onto the stage as soon as they could walk and talk.  The first family play, The Fir Tree, was put on in 1884.  With the actors aged between six and two (that play has been performed by every subsequent generation of the family, the actors being, as far as possible, of the equivalent ages of the originals.)  Thereafter there was scarcely a time when some play or other was not in rehearsal or performance in the Dickens household.

At about the same time Harry began to work-up short readings for the entertainment of the family.  As the children grew older he extended his readings to include his father’s repertoire – Doctor Marigold;  The Child’s Dream of a Star; Mr Chops, the Dwarf; Boots at the Holly Tree Inn; Richard Doubledick; The Cricket on the Hearth.  In doing this he copied his father exactly using Dickens’s own prompt-copies, the very same scripts and stage directions.  For the performance, like his father, he never referred to the book, knowing that the success was to keep his eye on the audience.  He went on to longer readings including the Carol and David Copperfield.  He even made his own version of Great Expectations, which Dickens had never done.  So Harry became an experienced and accomplished reader in the Dickens style, and the tradition of a performance by him at family gatherings was set.

Among the many interests and influences in the lives of the family, Charles Dickens was one, but not the only one.  He was a fact of their lives.  They took him for granted.  They were proud of him, of course, and proud of their relationship.  But Harry and Marie were determined that the children should not live in his aura, or perhaps it was his shadow that they feared.  Harry knew how difficult it had been for his brothers to find their own identities and live their own lives.  Equally, his children must not bask in reflected glory.  They must look forward, and make their own way in the world.  Such success as they might find must be their own, as Harry’s had been.  Aura and shadow were both to be avoided.

That having been said, it cannot be denied that Charles Dickens was everywhere around.  The house was full of his things.  The Children grew up familiar with his stories.  And then there was Georgina (always known simply as ‘Auntie’) and Kitty (never called Katey) – two people who had known Dickens intimately.

Georgina attached herself to Harry’s family.  After Mamie died she always lived close by.  When they moved house, she moved house.  Old photographs show her always present at family parties and picnics.  Far from being a shadowy figure from the past, she was a very vital – and very loving – presence.  At the time of her death, Harry’s children were between their thirties and forties.  ‘Auntie’ had been as much in their lives as she had been in those of the previous generation.

Kitty, too, was a very vital – but really rather a frightening – presence.  Handsome, positive, imperious, she was anything but a soft touch.  After the death of her beloved Carlo Perugini she became sad and depressed.  But she was always around.  Even we grandchildren knew her, for she lived until 1929.

And so we come back to Christmas Day in 1932, and my childhood memory.  The house at Mulberry Walk is all a-bustle with excitement, it is seething with Aunts.  Many Aunts we see only from year to year because they are French or German.  They talk – as my cousin Monica recalled the same scene in her autobiography An Open Book – in thick guttural voices and manufacture a lot of saliva.  They kiss us juicily and hug us painfully against the zareba of their stays.  The noise is deafening.  The Dickens family en masse exudes a colossal confidence.  They are absolutely sure of themselves.  They are perfectly content with their place in the world and do not care a fig for the opinion of society or anyone.  They are just a bunch of gregarious, warm, loving, articulate (in several languages), energetic, outgoing, artistic, lively people, happy in themselves and in the ambience.  They come together now, at Christmas, as they have done for every year of their lives, and they mean to enjoy it in the Dickensian way.  Beloved old Harry and Marie, old Pupsey and Mumsey, old Pan-Pan and Gaïa, are their Christmas star.

The entertainment takes place in the Billiard Room.  It is the largest room in the house, but even so, with a full-size table, a grand piano and Marie’s museum of Dickensiana, it is crowded to suffocation.  We grandchildren creep under the table for survival and try to identify the passing Aunts by their legs.  The show begins – the dreaded moment.  This year my brothers have elected to do an apache dance to mouth-organ accompaniment.  Harry makes a moue of distaste.  My brothers are the apaches ; I am dressed as the gangster’s Moll to be thrown violently from one to other.  I do not enjoy it.  I do not think the audience does, either, but it is a family audience, and we are applauded.  Well – that is over, thank goodness, and now we can sit back and watch our cousins in the agonies of their party pieces.

When all this nonsense is finished, the little old man comes on stage.  Oh!  He is so bird-like and frail.  He is the honoured patriarch.  And is still the actor.  His presence dominates……the room falls silent.

‘Marley was dead: to begin with’.

We are listening to Charles Dickens.

But that was the end of it.  Before another Christmas came round Harry was dead – victim of a road accident, and dying on 21st December 1933, at that very time – of all the good times in the year – that he loved above all.  His proudest boast was that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  And so he did!  God love it, so he did!

‘To Begin With’ continues its run at The Music Box Theatre until March 8.  If you want to book tickets time is running out, so book now at:

https://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=26

Guest Blog: Dr Gary Colledge. ‘To Begin With: A Reflection And A Review’

In my previous blog I am ashamed to say that I omitted to mention one of the most important people in our team.  Dr Gary Colledge is the author of ‘God and Charles Dickens’ and is an expert on Dickens and theology.

We first met when he travelled, with his family, to see me perform A Christmas Carol in Tennessee a few years ago.

Throughout the process of creating ‘To Begin With’ Gary has acted as the literary consultant and has provided much of the backbone for the script.

It has been wonderful to work with him on this project, for his enthusiasm and knowledge are unrivalled.

Gary was kind enough to fly from his home in Ohio to be present for the final rehearsals and opening night of the production.  These are his thoughts:

Three years ago, my wife and I sat with producer Dennis Babcock in my home discussing the idea of turning Dickens’s The Life Of Our Lord into a one-man play. Dennis shared with us that he had been toying with the possibility of this project for almost 20 years, and through a series of rather extraordinary—maybe even providential?—events, learned that The Life of Our Lord had been at the center of my post-graduate studies. He contacted me for the first time initially by phone, visited me at my home shortly thereafter, and at that meeting asked if I might consider serving as a consultant for the production.

That is why, this past Friday evening, February 20, 2015, I sat with much delight and anticipation in the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis waiting for the curtain to rise on the premiere of To Begin With, Dennis’s theatrical production about the writing of Dickens’s The Life of Our Lord.

Gerald Charles Dickens, playing Dickens, looks very much the part of his inimitable great-great-grandfather and convinces us that he is, indeed, his great-great-grandfather right from the opening lines: “Disagreeable evening. Lost an argument with Swinburne over the meaning of Christ and the existence of God. When I say ‘Swinburne,’ I do not mean Captain Swinburne, the good and respected gentleman who lives next door. I refer to his son, the ill-tempered, foul-smelling spawn. The mad, firetopped Swinburne. Swinburne the younger. Who is twelve.”

Written and directed by the accomplished and brilliant Jeffrey Hatcher, the play, set at Winterbourne, Isle of Wight, is an imagining of how Dickens may have conceived of and began writing this harmony of the Gospels for his children. Young Algernon Swinburne is the imagined antagonist whose arrogant irreligion motivates Dickens to want to tell his children “something about the Lord Jesus Christ.  For everybody ought to know about Him.”

Gerald Dickens is absolutely captivating as the 35-year-old Charles Dickens. If you have never seen Gerald perform, that is a treat in itself. And in this one-man play, he is able to bring to life and introduce us to his children, to Captain Swinburne and young Algernon, to donkeys and Pharisees, to priests and pastors and Wise Men, to Mary Magdalene and Doubting Thomas. Even a young Ellen Ternan makes an anonymous cameo in what Hatcher has called the Portsmouth Epiphany.

Gerald plays all these characters himself, of course, giving subtle nuances to each simply by his change of tone, his posture, and his gestures. His portrayal of Herod, albeit brief, is wonderful. His portrayal of the Pharisees and the “clever bunch” who desire to stone the woman taken in adultery seems spot-on to me. And his brief little portrayal of the Wise Men is laugh-out-loud funny.

On this particular Friday evening, in this particular Minneapolis theatre, the audience was treated to a unique play that asked them to think about Dickens in a way that most rarely think about him; they were treated to some very clever comedy and some rather poignant moments in Dickens’s life; and their knowledge of Dickens was playfully tested and enhanced. But perhaps more importantly they were entertained by a fantastically written play, acted with passion and reflection, and revealing a part of Dickens’s life and work with which few are familiar.

Whether or not one is a Dickens fan, this is a play well worth attending. It is entertaining. It is surprising. It is fun. It is provocative.

Catch it if at all possible.

Gary’s blog was first posted at: Dickensblog

http://dickensblog.typepad.com/dickensblog/2015/02/to-begin-with-a-reflection-and-a-review.html

Tickets for the final two weeks of our run are available at:

https://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=26

To Begin With: the First Week

And so the ‘To Begin With’ team reached our preview night:

Thrusday

When I say ‘night’ my day’s work actually started with a 1.30 call at the theatre to go through the second act, which is made up of a single, long scene.

On arrival at the theatre and putting my bag in the dressing room I found two huge bunches of flowers awaiting me.  One was from my friends in Lincoln Nebraska, wishing me luck; and the second was from all at Byers Choice – my agents in the USA.

Over the last few weeks it has been the second half that has been least rehearsed, so Jeff was keen to go through some of the lighting and sound cues and make sure that I was in the correct area of the stage.

I realised just how precise we were getting when Michael started debating whether a cross-fade of the lights should be timed at a half second or a quarter second!

When our skip through the act 2 cues was finished we had a brief break, during which Liz arrived.  During our walk to Macy’s on the previous day we had found a counter that sells and decorates cakes, so while I was at the theatre Liz went back and had one decorated to wish everyone involved with the project ‘good luck’!

Jeff working through the break

Jeff working through the break

When the break was over we started a complete run of the show, which boded well for the evening’s performance.

As well as bringing a cake, Liz had also brought a salad for me, very carefully selected so as not to include any dairy products, which tend to tighten the throat and affect my ability to project properly on stage.

As afternoon turned to early evening (although in my basement dressing room I only had the watch to confirm that fact), Tricia arrived to fix the wig.

It is always amazing to see an expert at work, in any field.  Everything looked so simple and easy; and in no time the wig was placed, firmly fixed and looking completely like my own hair (from what I can remember).

And then something very strange happened: little by little the dressing room emptied.  I had been used to having Jeff, Nayna, Ben, Dennis, Tricia, Chelsea and Liz all buzzing in and out.  But with an actual show approaching, everybody had places to be and I was left alone with my thoughts.

I was running a few of my lines, just to firmly cement them when Dennis appeared and we spoke for a few minutes.  He said a prayer for us and for the success of the show and left.

Alone again.

Jeff popped into the dressing a room with a few notes from the afternoon’s run: be careful of that, remember this, don’t worry if so and so happens.

Alone again.

My only contact with the outside world was now Ben, who popped his head around the door to announce ‘Thirty minutes!’, then ‘fifteen’ and finally ‘five’.

The five minute call was the moment that I had to start the long walk to the stage, which took me through a long subterranean corridor running beneath the auditorium, then up a flight of stone stairs towards the wings.

The long walk

The long walk

As Ben ‘calls’ the show from the back of the auditorium, I will be alone backstage.

I stood in the wings listening to the hum of a preview night audience.  But I’m not very good at standing still when I am waiting to go onto stage, so I walked around a bit, into the crosswalk from stage right to stage left, which doubles as a prop and technical storage area.

I was only gone for a few seconds but when I returned to the stage right wing I could hear the audience giggling nervously….as if the play had started and no actor had appeared.

My cue to start the show is a clock bell tolling six, and on the third ring I walk out into the black out so as to be ready to deliver the opening line ‘Disagreeable evening!’

I was beginning to panic: had I missed the bell tolling while I walked in the crosswalk?  Had the show started?  How would I know?  Would I hear a rush of feet hurtling towards the stage?  Should I walk on now?

And then the lights dimmed and in the dark came the tolling of the bell that I would have heard quite clearly wherever I had been. Phew!  Deep breath and on:

‘Disagreeable evening!  Lost an argument with Swinburne over the meaning of Christ and the existence of God.  When I say Swinburne, I do not mean Captain Swinburne, the good and respected gentleman who lives next door: I refer to his son. The Ill-tempered, foul smelling spawn.  The mad, fire-topped Swinburne.  Swinburne the younger.  Who is twelve!’

A big laugh!

It was so nice to actually be able to perform the piece to an audience and discover where the responses and reactions came.

As the show proceeded so, I became more confident and was able to do what I love to do: perform a one-man show and build a relationship with the audience.

I got to the end of the first scene and the lights faded to black. At this point I have to make my way to a window box (in the dark), take off one coat, put on a smoking jacket, deposit the first coat in the box, pick up a pile of books and then close the lid with enough of a bang to alert Ben that I am ready, at which point he will bring up the lights for scene two.

During the preview run my instincts to remain silent in the black-out kicked in and I carefully eased the box lid down, before realising that Ben would not have heard his cue, so had to re-open the box, and drop the lid more forcefully, at which the lights magically came up!  Another lesson learned.

On the show went to a successful conclusion.

During the interval Ben had suggested that I should be in the foyer as the audience left, especially as one group had brought along an old copy of ‘The Life Of Our Lord’ that they wanted signed.

As soon as I came off stage I ran down the stairs, along the long corridor, briefly into my dressing room to collect my fountain pen, then back up the other stairs, into the lobby and met the audience as they emerged from the auditorium.

And this would be the first time that we actually knew what an audience would think about the show.

The worst case scenario would be for the audience members to see me (still in costume and wig, of course), then dip their eyes and make for the exit, leaving the team standing alone pondering the future.

As it was there was soon a crowd around me, asking for programmes to be signed, another around Jeff and another around Dennis.  Although the crowd had not been a big one, they remained chatting for a long time which proved to us that we had a show that people enjoyed.

Eventually I went back down to the dressing room to begin the gentle process of teasing the wig off and changing back into Gerald Dickens.

By the time I re emerged to ground level the team was already gathered in the theatre discussing technical changes: Dennis, Jeff, Nayna, Ben, Michael, John, Rosalie and Chelsea were in the middle of a major post mortem and it seemed as if the sound effects were the issue.

Liz and I said our goodbyes and walked back to our apartment, where we talked over the evening’s events and slowly wound down.

Opening Night.  Friday

Friday dawned and the weather had warmed up to such an extent that it was actually snowing.  As I looked down from the balcony I could see that the roads were white and yet there were cars making their way quite happily along them.

Whenever we have a similar fall of snow in England the country falls to its knees.  Schools are closed, flights back up at the airports, and cars slither and slide into each other.  Even on roads that have been cleared drivers feel the need to crawl along at ten miles per hour.  We don’t ‘do’ winter in the UK.

If Minnesotans had the same attitudes, the state would shut down completely for half a year, so guess what? They just get on with it

Liz and I had a very lazy morning in the apartment, watching BBC America: ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Star Trek, the Next Generation’ punctuated by endless car insurance ads.

We walked to the nearby grocery store, Lunds (which is fabulous and very dangerous on the wallet) and stocked up with lunches and dinners for the next couple of days.

I had a call at the theatre in the afternoon to go through a few more of the sound cues (a result of last night’s discussions) and a ‘half measures’ run of the second act.

Back at the apartment Liz cooked a delicious and healthy meal of salmon and pasta and while we ate he decided that it would be a nice idea to invite a few people back to the apartment after the show, so I went to the liquor store nearby to buy a couple of bottle of wine.

The show was at eight, and I left the apartment at around six o’clock.  It was getting dark and snow was falling again.  Minneapolis doesn’t believe in taking Christmas decorations down (it was probably too cold on twelfth night), so strings of white lights in the trees moved as the slight wind stirred the branches, and the the flurries fell.  I felt like Jimmy Stewart running through Bedford Falls.

At the theatre there was a great sense of excitement and anticipation.  It was opening night!  I struggled slightly with that concept, as I had performed last night to a paying audience making that, in my mind, the opening night.  However, that’s the way things are done in the theatre.

In my dressing room the flower content had risen, with a fabulous bunch from Dennis and his team at The Daniel Group.  The scent in the dressing room was beautiful and it was just as well that I do not suffer from Hay Fever.

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But, in amongst all of this excitement and anticipation there was a show to be done, and that meant one thing: I must get into my sports bra, loaded with the mic pack.  Once I had struggled into that, I put myself in Tricia’s hands for the ceremony of the wig.

When Tricia had finished I started getting into costume, and the process was punctuated by various people stopping by to say ‘have a good one!’

The last to leave was Liz, with a good luck kiss, and I was alone in the dressing room. Strangely I was much more nervous for ‘opening night’ than I had been for ‘preview night’.

I made sure I did some good vocal warm up exercises in the green room, and at seven fifty-five Ben called ‘five!’

Along the dark corridor I walked and into the wings.  I made sure that I stayed there, listening intently for my clock chimes.

The audience was much bigger than Thursday, which befitted an official opening night, and again they loved the play and responded perfectly.

At the end I took my four bows (one centre, one each to left and right and a final one to the centre), and exited.

After my rat run through the basement of the Music Box, I made my way into the lobby, where there was much noise and congratulation.

I chatted and signed and shook hands and hugged: all very theatrical and luvvie!  But people were genuinely impressed by the play and we encouraged them all to get on Facebook and Twitter to spread the word among their contacts, so that we can really build a head of steam up during our run in The Twin Cities.

Among the audience were Bob and Pam Byers, who had travelled from Pennsylvania to be at the opening night, which was so generous of them.

Liz and I asked a few people back (aware that our apartment is not that big and we didn’t have that much wine in!).  Dennis, Anne and Chelsea all took a rain check as they were very tired.  Jeff and his wife Lisa accepted, as did Bob, Pam and their friends Sam and Dan.

I changed and we all made our way back to the apartment, where we had a very pleasant wind-down, first-night party.

Saturday

The opening night was not the culmination of all of our efforts.  It was just the beginning.

This fact was hammered home by a Saturday that featured two shows, very close together at five and eight.

The advantage of having the ‘matinee’ in the early evening was that it gave Liz and I the whole day to explore some of Minneapolis together, as this would  be her last full day in America, before returning to England.

As the weather was still slightly warmer (-5 instead of -25), we decided to walk for twenty minutes to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where we spent a wonderful morning admiring American folk art, Frank Lloyd Wright furniture; European paintings, including Van Goughs, Rembrandts,  Monets, Gauguins and many more.  There was a fabulous display of photography and a gallery of Chinese art.  All of this housed on the top floor of three, we didn’t have time to do the rest!

When we got back to the apartment we had some meatloaf for lunch and I got ready to go to the theatre again.  Liz had bought me a salad to eat in the dressing room between performances, so as to keep my energy up and sent me off with that, a banana and instructions to drink lots of water.

Liz was not going to be coming with me to the theatre as she was having a very special evening:  Rosalie was taking her to see Garrison Keillor perform his weekly radio show: The Prairie Home Companion, in St Paul.  We have both been fans of Keillor’s Lake Wobegon monologues for many years, and the opportunity to actually see him live was too good to miss.

Back at The Music Box everything followed a routine that is becoming well set, with one exception:  Because Tricia only came onto the team quite late in the day, she was not able to attend Sunday performances, meaning that on Saturday night she needed to give Chelsea and Ben and quick wig fitting tutorial.

Chelsea was taking pictures of my head, so that she could remember where the various hairpins were situated, and Ben took more of an overview of the whole exercise.  Between us, I was certain we could get the wig properly fixed when we had to.

The first Saturday show went so well: the best yet.  It had energy and humour and an audience who responded well.

After the opening night Dennis had suggested that I come back onto stage for a second bow, as he felt the audience had been on the verge of a standing ovation.  So, On Saturday I did as he had advised and, as in everything, he was right.

The other advice Dennis had offered was not to greet the audience after the matinee, as there was only one hour before the next show started.  Even so Ben came into the dressing room clutching three copies of The Life of our Lord that people wanted signed.

I got out of my costume, even just for an hour and ate my salad and re gummed the front of my wig, which was feeling ever so slightly precarious.

Before I knew it Ben was calling thirty and the house was open: back on duty!

I could feel the entire week catching up with me a bit, so I drank lots of water and went through my vocal exercises as well as a few lines that were still proving occasionally elusive.

The first act was, in all honesty, a bit tired.  The audience was smaller and not as responsive, but that is never an excuse: It is not the audience’s job to respond, it is my job to entertain them.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a perfectly good performance and if I had done this three days ago we’d have been delighted; but I know how the show can feel, so I expect more from myself.

During the interval I re gummed the wig again and looked at myself in the mirror.  Buck up.

The second act was much better and by the time I reached the curtain call the applause was generous, as were the comments in the lobby afterwards.

Liz had arrived at the theatre from her evening out and back at the apartment she told me all about her night in the company of Garrison Keillor.  As we talked we tried not to think about Sunday.

Sunday

Sunday really marked the end of the first hectic week in Minneapolis.  I would be performing for the last time before having two days off.  But the much more graphic indication of the passing of time would be Liz’s departure back to the UK in the evening.

We decided to treat ourselves to breakfast at the Nicolett Diner, which is situated very near the theatre.  The diner was perfect, with its chrome bar stools and vinyl-covered booth seats.  We ordered, and had served up to us, two delicious plates of pancakes, bacon and eggs.  It was the perfect treat.

Back at the apartment we began the long and awful business of preparing for Liz’s departure.  I had to be at the theatre by one, to allow Chelsea extra time to fit the wig.  Liz would be packing while I was getting ready and then would bring her case to the theatre, watch the first act, after which Dennis would drive her to the airport.

It had been so good to have Liz here during the first week.  My rehearsal and performance schedule had been so hectic, that we hadn’t actually spent that much time together, but through it all she had been an absolute tower of support.

She knew exactly when to bully me with line revision, and when to say ‘you’re tired, let’s have a break, let’s go for a walk.’

Being an extremely talented performer in her own right, Liz fully understands the pressures of performing and always says or does the right thing.

She will hate this: but I love her deeply and know I couldn’t do what I do without her.

I walked to the theatre, wrapped up in my scarf, woollen hat and gloves, bracing the icy blast that had returned.  I arrived on the dot of one, but found myself in the middle of yet another technical debate between Dennis, Jeff and Ben.

Dennis was still not happy with how some of the sound effects fitted into the scenes and we all spent about twenty minutes discussing them, changing them and re-blocking as necessary.

Chelsea was hovering nearby getting progressively more worried about the amount of time we had to fix the wig, so when the last cue was fixed we went down to the dressing room and began the operation.

Between us we remembered most of what Tricia had said, and after thirty minutes or so, the wig seemed to be sitting pretty well and tight.  Well done Chelsea!

Liz arrived and wished me good luck and went to take her seat for the first act and I waited for Ben to give me the ‘five’.

The first act was really strong and pacey again, one of the best of the week I would say and the reactions from the audience were superb.

However as the act progressed I could feel the wig shifting at the back slightly.  The front remained gummed to my forehead, but I was conscious of the possibility of things coming unstuck.  As I went through the lines, I was trying to think of some Samson and Delilah adlib that I could use if necessary.

At the interval I hurried back to the dressing room and there was Liz.  We hugged and said our goodbyes and she went away to the airport and I went to my chair and tried to refix the wig.

Chelsea came down to help and stuck a few more pins in and we hoped for the best.

While Chelsea worked I stuck the two ‘secret’ hankies up my sleeve for an effect during one of the scenes, when I produce them with the flourish of Dickens the amateur conjurer.

Before I knew it, Ben was there and it was time to carry on.

Act two continued in the same vein as the first.  The only problem being that in my haste I had stuffed the two hankies too far up my sleeve so I couldn’t reach them for the great reveal.

The applause at the end was wonderful and I took my bows (including Dennis’s extra ones) happily and gratefully.

After meeting and chatting with the audience I went to the dressing room and packed everything away for two days and as I left, my wig looked rather forlorn and lonely.

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I said good bye to everyone and left the theatre.  The apartment was empty: not good.  Although there was a lovely card from Liz saying goodbye.

The balcony looks out towards the airport so I waved at a plane that seemed to be leaving shortly after six.  I hope it was hers, but I may have sent my love to Des Moines, or somewhere.

I didn’t feel like staying in the apartment, so I decided to walk the few blocks to Brit’s Pub, which is, as its name suggests, a bar celebrating all things British.  It even has a bowling green on the roof.

I took my table and gazed at the memorabilia on the walls: signs for Guinness (ok, not strictly British I know), Whitbread, Boddingtons and Shepherd Neame’s Spitfire ale.

There were pictures of members of the Royal Family and charts showing the lines of succession.

There were football shirts representing Liverpool, Manchester United, West Ham and Manchester City (when I say ‘football’, I mean the game we play in the UK, when the players kick the ball with their feet…..).

The menu featured such English dishes as Shepherd’s Pie, Bangers and Mash, Cornish Pastie, Fish and Chips and that most English of dishes: Chicken Tikka Masala.

The music play list included: ‘Up the Junction’ by Squeeze, ‘This Charming Man’ by The Smiths, ‘Changes’ by David Bowie and ‘Happy Birthday’ by Altered Images.

Home from home.

After eating I returned home to the apartment and watched the Oscar ceremony.  I got about as far as ‘Best soundtrack for an animated short factual documentary’ before I fell asleep.

The first week of ‘To Begin With’ was at an end.

On Tuesday morning our review was published in The Star Tribune:

http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/stageandarts/293728001.html

For ticket sales visit:

https://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=26

Approaching the Beginning

Time and tide wait for no man; and neither does the opening night of To Begin With!  The story continues….

After Jeffrey Hatcher (writer and director) returned to Minneapolis I had just under a week before I followed him.  But as much as my mind was filled with the lines and the moves for To Begin With, I still had two performances of Great Expectations to give, one in Portsmouth and one in Somerset.

Both shows went very well and I was delighted with the response to my version of the novel.  Somehow when I perform a piece like Great Expectations it is just as important to me that the adaptation is appreciated as much as the performance itself; and with that thought in my mind, I realised how important it was that I do Jeff’s script full justice.

Friday

On Friday 13th Liz and I packed up our house and prepared to fly to Minneapolis.  We had checked our weather apps and had been told it would be chilly, so we packed extra fleeces and jumpers before heading to the airport.

The Heathrow experience was much more pleasant than usual, in that Liz was travelling with me, so there was no need for the prolonged and painful good bye at the security gate.

Our flight was delayed by an hour or so, as there was a mechanical fault with the plane which needed attending to.  In such circumstances I am more than happy to wait!

On arrival in Minneapolis we stood for an age in the serpentine queue to clear immigration until finally we saw the smiling face and welcoming wave of my old friend, Dennis Babcock.

Dennis, of course, is the producer of To Begin With and our arrival marked the start of a week which will see the realisation of his dream.

As I will be staying in Minneapolis for a month Dennis had arranged a short term let of an apartment, in a building just one block from the theater.  (For my English readers: I will be living in a flat very close to the theatre).

It had been a long day for us and after a quick bite to eat, we had a very early night.

Saturday

Chilly?  One look outside our apartment window told us all that we needed to know about the temperature.  Chilly?  Try -25C

Across the roofscape beneath our apartment every chimney and vent was steaming as the hot air emerged into bitter cold .  Although there was not a blanket of heavy snow on the ground, there were remnants of previous falls, and enough to make the scene beautiful.  Beautiful but oh, so cold.

Redefining cold

Redefining cold

We stood on the balcony of the apartment for about two minutes and redefined our understanding of the word ‘cold’.

My work on To Begin With was to start straight away and we left the apartment wrapped up like Eskimos for the one block walk to the Music Box Theatre.  My first duty was to sit in a chair in the dressing room and let a girl called Tricia put a plastic bag over my head.

Tricia puts a bag on my head.  Jeff looks on

Tricia puts a bag on my head. Jeff looks on

Tricia is in charge of my wig and for the next forty minutes or so, she applied lengths of clear tape to the bag, so as to create an exact mould to work from.  Very kindly she cut a slit for my nose.

When she was finished, Tricia returned to The Guthrie Theater to create, strand by strand, a wig that would transform me into Charles Dickens.

Exit Tricia, enter Nayna. Nayna Ramey is our designer and she has created the set that will act as the backdrop for the multiple scenes in Jeff’s script.  On this production Nayna is also responsible for costume and props, and she had sourced huge amounts of suits, capes, waistcoats, dressing gowns, smoking jackets, trousers and other paraphernalia for me to try on.

With Jeff looking on we worked our way through various combinations.  From the very beginning a few garments leapt up at us and demanded to be used: a great linen suit would be perfect for Dickens spending his summer on the Isle of Wight, and a double breasted green waistcoat looked perfect with the it.

For the second act we decided to be more monochrome and Nayna produced a great black and white waistcoat, although we struggled, bizarrely, to find plain black trousers of the right style….and fit.

In the end we came up with a set of clothing that worked for all of the scenes in both of the acts.

Once all of the hair and costuming requirements had been completed it was upstairs into the lobby of the theatre to begin rehearsing.

The set had been marked out with chairs and I was ready to pick up where I had left off in Didcot.  The team was building by this time and we were joined by Joelle, who works as a stage manager with Dennis’s company.  Joelle would be sitting next to Jeff taking notes of everything that the stage management team may need to refer to during the coming days.

We did a run of the first act and I was very pleased with where it was.  Jeff seemed pleased; Dennis seemed pleased.  We were all pleased.

During the lunch break I had a brief interview with a local newspaper, which carried on a little longer than I had expected, so I never managed to get a sandwich.  Oh well, I could do with losing a few pounds.

In the afternoon we rehearsed for a little longer until it was time to vacate the theatre, so that it could be prepared to welcome audiences for the incumbent show: Triple Espresso.

Liz had been walking to find the local grocery store and get the lay of the land. She returned like a block of ice.

We had a couple of hours in the apartment before going back to the theatre, this time as audience members.  Denis had very kindly sorted out tickets for us to watch Triple Espresso: his hugely successful and long-running show.

We settled in the auditorium, ready to be highly entertained: which we were.  Triple Espresso is a show about three small-time entertainers reuniting and reminiscing about their not-so-successful act.  One is a pianist and singer, one is a physical comedian and the third is a magician.  Of course the script showcases their individual talents, but it is so much more than that and by the end we were weeping with laughter.  A brilliant show, and one I urge that you see if you ever have the opportunity.

Saturday done.  Time moves on.

Sunday

Sunday morning saw the first cut to my beard.  I have been letting it grow long and shaggy so that I could trim and cut it to whatever shape Jeff decided was appropriate for the show.  Hirsute topiary.

He had decided that I should start with just taking a short strip out on each side, leaving long side-burns and a bushy goatee.

Liz assisted in trimming the areas that were to go and I set to work with the razor.  The result was certainly a strange look, but it was a start.

The first cut

The first cut

Back at the theatre we were meeting in an upstairs conference room, as a local Church takes over the stage on a Sunday.

There was Jeff, Joelle, Dennis and a new member of the team today: Dennis’s daughter Chelsea.  Chelsea’s job was to generally assist Jeff, but most particularly to follow the script and to mark any line that I was getting wrong, or omitting.  There she sat: script and pen in hand……

We rehearsed again and I was so aware of Chelsea’s pen, which never seemed to stop!

Towards the end of the session Joelle had to leave and she was replaced by a very important member of the team: Ben Netzley, who will be the production stage manager.

We carried on rehearsing, and I stumbled and bumbled my way through the lines.

We stopped at one, and spent some time discussing the script.  Jeff decided to make some more changes.

Over our weeks of rehearsal the script had been constantly changing, and it was getting difficult for me to remember where the changes had been made.  One scene in particular, which had been transported from act two into act one, was giving me a great deal of trouble.

I left the theatre slightly despondent and quite panic stricken.  There was still a lot of work still to do. Under my arm was Chelsea’s script, which appeared to have pen markings under every line.

Liz was perfect.  She had sat in on the rehearsal, so knew what was going on.  Back at the apartment she suggested that we go for a walk in the clear cold air, and just let it all go for a brief few minutes, which was perfect.  We walked through a nearby park and returned thoroughly energised.  Or cold, as we say in England.

Liz cooked a roast dinner and we watched television.    At 9.30 I had to call a local radio station, and spent ten minutes doing a live interview on The Center Stage programme, to promote the show.

By ten we were both exhausted, as the jet lag was beginning to catch up with us now.  A good night’s sleep was what was needed.

Monday

I woke at four.  Lines, lines lines.  My head was spinning as I lay in bed trying to silently recite.  It was no good: I got up and started to pace going over and over the script.

For two hours or so I worked and then Liz got up and we had some breakfast, before I trimmed more of the beard and got ready for the day ahead.

Today I was not due at the theatre until two pm, so I had the morning to work in the apartment.  Liz was brilliant: she sat with the script and picked up every – and I mean every – slip.  We worked over and over and over.  Good old fashioned line bashing.  It was tiring and frustrating but oh so necessary.

After lunch we turned up at the theatre, and over night the banners above the door had been changed: ‘Gerald Charles Dickens as Charles Dickens in To Begin With.’  Gulp!

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In the auditorium the scene had been transformed. Triple Espresso had finished its run and the morning had been spent getting one set out and another one in.

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The set for To Begin With is simple: consisting of three large windows, three rugs, a chaise, a chair, a table and an ottoman (which has turned into a circular pouf).  There was great activity throughout the auditorium.  Ben was in position behind a bank of computers with Michael Klaers (lighting designer) on one side, and John Markiewicz (sound) on the other.  The three of them would not have looked out of place on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Ben, Michael, John

Ben, Michael, John

For the next two days we would be plotting the show technically. I would be running the scenes and stopping at each technical cue, so that Ben could take Michael’s lighting plot and John’s sound plot, mix them together and tuck them away deep into his computer’s memory.

A technical exercise like this is a very long and slow process but absolutely necessary.  Jeff had created a show with plenty of very subtle light changes to reflect certain moods, as well as a complicated soundscape (not just a sound effect every now and then, but a collection of layered effects to create an ambient noise).

Each element of sound and light had to be carefully coordinated.  And as we went through some had to be changed: perhaps the light was in the wrong place, or an effect lasted too long.  Tap tap tap went Ben’s laptop.

In between the effects editing I ran the scenes, and there in the front row was Chelsea, using a green pen, so that I could distinguish today’s mistakes from yesterday’s.

I was wearing as much of the costume as I could, so that we could discover how easy any quick changes would be.  John announced that my microphone pack would be concealed within a sports bra, so as not to be dislodged during the changes.  Did I know what size sports bra I took?  I can honestly say that nobody has ever asked me that question before.

We worked until ten and almost reached the end of the first act.  Tomorrow we would continue.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning was very exciting.  Dennis had arranged a photo shoot so that the local press would have images to include with their stories, which meant full costume and, of course, full wig.

In the dressing room Nayna was bustling around having been working on the costumes all week:  this one shortened, that one lengthened, those taken out and so on.  Inappropriate buttons were removed and replaced with better ones.  She produced piles of cravats to try, as well as packs of new t-shirts and socks for me to wear.

And then the moment arrived: sat in front of the mirror Islowly eased the wig on and there, looking back at me, was Charles Dickens.  It was quite breathtaking: I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

CD appears

CD appears

The wig was amazing.  Tricia had taken the plastic bag covered with tape, and over the last few days had hand-crafted Charles Dickens’s head of hair.  Each strand was woven into a lace skull cap, carefully coiffure into CD’s rather wild style.

Nayna and I did our best to fix it, but both realised that we didn’t really know what we were doing.  As the wig is one of the major expenses of the show we really wanted to have professional advice.

Nayna called Tricia, who promised to come to our rehearsal at around five to show us how to cope with the hairpiece.  We were all mightily relieved.

When I was dressed and wigged, I strode into the auditorium with a renewed confidence: this all felt RIGHT!

The photographer spent forty minutes or so taking a collection of different pictures and when everyone was happy, we continued with the technical blocking.

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We worked our way slowly through the second act and there was Chelsea in the front row: today’s colour was pink.

It went well and we got to the end of the show by 4.30.

Tricia arrived to fit my wig properly, watched by Nayna, Jeff and Dennis.  John (sound) was also there to find the best place to conceal the microphone into the hairpiece.

Like the professional that she is Tricia made the whole thing look and sound ridiculously easy, but it seemed very complicated to us.  When the show actually is running I won’t have Nayna to bustle around me: I will have to do this myself.

Dennis quickly took an executive decision and almost before she knew it, Tricia had agreed to come to the theatre before each performance to fix the hairpiece.  Another member of the team had been added.

When my coiffure was completed and I was in costume, the team was ready to run the show, from beginning to end, with no breaks.  This was such a relief after the last two days and was really our chance to discover where we had got to.

The audience gathered in the auditorium: Dennis and his wife Anne, along with her mother and sister.  Liz was there too.  Nayna was making costume notes, Jeff held fort at his desk in the middle of the auditorium.

In the command centre Ben was flanked by Michael and John.

Blackout.  Sound effect. Enter.

It was so nice to just do the play.  I was very tired from a combination of very early mornings and the busy rehearsal schedule but as the show went on I found more and more energy and was thoroughly enjoying myself until the moment that my mind went completely blank: one line – not even a line I have ever struggled with before – refused to come.

So annoying.  Jeff filled the gap, and I picked up straight away, but it nagged away in my mind.

We ‘took fifteen’ for the interval, during which I changed costume and then we carried on.

Blackout.  Sound effect.  Enter.

The second act was strong and dramatic:  it is more intense than the first and I was very pleased with the way it felt.

I knew that there was still plenty of work to be done over the next couple of days but there was one clear message from that run: we had a show!

When I had changed I went back into the auditorium.  Everyone seemed happy with the way things had gone.  Jeff sent suggested that we met the next day to go through notes, and I should go home and rest.

Liz took charge and eased my weary frame out of the theatre.

It was the first time that she had seen the show since our rehearsed readings in London last year, and she was amazed at how it had grown and come alive.  Everyone was making the right noises.

Now I just needed a good night’s sleep.

Wednesday

I did it!  I made it to six o’clock: a veritable lie-in.

Liz and I mooched during the morning and walked to the nearby shops, bracing the icy blast.  We needed a few bits for the apartment, and wanted to buy good luck cards for the crew of the show.  We went to Macy’s, Barnes and Noble and Target, before returning home.

Liz had booked a session in a local salon and I did some work on my lines before going to the theatre at two to meet with Jeff.

We sat in the dressing room and went through notes from the previous days run, most of which had to do with picking up the pace a little, as well as some corrections to the blocking.

Notes finished, we joined Ben, Michael and John in a strangely deserted auditorium to do a run of the first act.

It all went well (apart from my trying to exit in a blackout and walking straight into one of the window frames: I managed to find enough self-restraint not to utter an expletive which would be out of place in a show about the New Testament).

After the run we spent some time going over lighting cues, making sure that I was standing in exactly the correct spot to make the effect work:  ‘One foot further forward…half a foot to your left.  Back one. There!  That’s where you need to be!’

We were treated to a slightly longer supper break than usual, as Jeff had to get over to the Guthrie Theater to be present at the opening night of another one of his plays.  He is a busy and a talented man, and no mistake.

I went back to the apartment where we had a delicious dinner of steak and chips, and a nice rest before returning to The Music Box to run the second act.

As in the afternoon, we ran the scene before going over the minor and delicate tweaks to light, sound and blocking.

By 9.30 we were finished and I wrapped myself up in hat, scarf and gloves before making the icy walk home.

On Thursday it will be our preview night.  Everything has been leading up to this moment………

Tickets  for To Begin With are available from:

https://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=26

Continue reading

The Beginnings of To Begin With

In the Beginning

‘I am very anxious, dear children, that you should know something about the history of Jesus Christ…’

Sometime between the years of 1847 and 1849 my great great grandfather, Charles Dickens, dipped his pen into his inkwell and wrote those words.

They were not part of a novel, nor where they part of an angry letter fired off to a newspaper.  For a man who lived in the limelight, these words were intensely personal.

Dickens wrote The Life of our Lord for his children, to explain in a way that they could all fully understand a simple story about a simple man.

Charles never quite trusted any organisation that was regulated by the human race.  He saw corruption in government, banking, welfare and medicine (ah, plus ca change!) and so, was suspicious of any particular Church instructing his children.  However he devoutly believed the teachings of the New Testament and reckoned that if his children abided by its rules they would not go far wrong.

And that is where we came in.

For almost 100 years The Life of our Lord remained a private family book until my great grandfather, Henry Fielding Dickens made his final will and testament. Henry was a highly successful lawyer and senior judge in London; he was also the last of Charles Dickens’s children alive and believed that after his death the family should be allowed to publish the book if they wished.

Poor Henry: just before Christmas of 1933 he was crossing the road on the Embankment in London (not far from where his father had worked in a blacking factory).  Heavy motorised traffic was still anathema to a gentleman raised in the Victorian era, and the old man strode into the road, waving his walking cane as a warning to the mechanised masses that he was crossing.  Alas a motorcyclist either did not see him, or did not have time to react, and struck him, inflicting terrible injuries.

My father, not yet ten, was spending the day at Henry’s London home and remembered it vividly:

‘At about lunchtime there was an unexpected ring at the door.  Diffused in the stained glass panel of the front door was the unmistakable outline and blue bulk of a large London policeman.  There were urgent, furtive, whispers and I was bundled away out of sight and hearing.  Pan-Pan had been crossing the road and had been knocked down by a motor cycle.  He was now lying critically injured in hospital.  He died a day or two later.

‘It was a dreadful tragedy.  Gentle old Pan-pan had been deeply loved by everybody….’

While they mourned, the Dickens family held a conference and decided that The Life of our Lord should be published, in accordance with Henry’s wishes.

Rather than producing a grandly bound edition of ‘The Dickens you’ve never heard of’, it was decided to publish it simply in a  newspaper, as the original novels had been published.  So in 1934 The Daily Mail in London began a serialisation of The Life of our Lord.

It can never be said that the Life of our Lord is as rich, earthy and exciting as any of Dickens’s novels; but then again it shouldn’t be.  If it were filled with characters boasting ridiculous names, and situations that make you weep with laughter, it would be a proof that Charles was writing with one eye on his public.  No, The Life of our Lord was definitely for the children:

‘You never saw a locust, because they belong to that country near Jerusalem, which is a great way off.  So do camels, but I think you have seen a camel.  At all events, they are brought over here, sometimes; and if you would like to see one, I will show you one.’

The book is a harmony of the four gospels and tells the story of Christ from his birth to the resurrection; before finishing with a firm reminder to always follow Christ’s teaching and his examples.

To Begin With

For many years I ended my Christmas tours of America at the St Paul Hotel, in Minnesota.  I would stay there for three or four days, doing two shows a day and the atmosphere would be such fun.

The audience would come in their Christmas sweaters and bring gifts to give to friends.  The park outside the hotel was always under a blanket of snow and the hotel served a lavish English tea.

My stage was in the middle of the room and we all celebrated the Christmas season together.  They were certainly happy times.

Every year a theatre producer from Minneapolis, Dennis Babcock, would come to one of my shows.  Dennis is a keen Dickensian and always brought his first edition of A Christmas Carol to the event, so that the audience could see it.

Dennis and I became good friends and each year he would say: ‘one day we must work together, I will find a show that you can do.’ And I filed the promises away in that optimist place that all actors have – the one that never seems to get reopened.

But a few years ago I had a call from Dennis, out of the blue, telling me that he was coming to London and could we get together?  He had someone he wanted me to meet and a project he wished to discuss.

I was, naturally, intrigued.

In London Dennis introduced me to a writer, Jeffrey Hatcher, and then began to outline his new dream: a play based on The Life of our Lord.

It must be said that Dennis’s inspiration for the play was not merely that of a producer trying to cash in on a little-known Dickens story: his love of the story was very very personal.  As a devout Christian he wanted to share Dickens’s faith with audiences.  As a theatre man he wanted to stage a great, entertaining show.

The initial plan was for Jeffrey to chat to plenty of people about the book and to see the places where Dickens wrote it, so that he could come up with a framework for the story.  Immediately it was obvious that just dramatising the book was a non-starter, but there could well be a biographical slant to the script.

I left the meeting wondering if I would hear any more about the project, but excited by the ideas that we had all thrown around.

Silence reigned for a year.

Dennis is nothing if not persistent: when he gets his teeth into an idea he clings on like a terrier, and he had been working hard behind the scenes to secure the beginnings of a budget, so that ‘Faith’ could move forward.

Jeffrey had created a script based on Dickens coming up with the idea of creating The Life of Our Lord, using Charles’s holiday home on the Isle of Wight as the main setting.

Dennis had taken Jeffrey to visit Winterbourne House, and they had discovered that the Swinburne family lived next door.  ‘So,’ thought Jeffrey, ‘what if Dickens had encountered the young Algernon Swinburne during his visit?’

Algernon was known to be a precocious and troubled child.  What would Charles Dickens have made of this flame-headed firebrand…..?

The next stage was to try the script out, at a series of performed readings and try to get feedback from audiences.

I flew to Minneapolis and ‘performed’ the script over a weekend and after each show Dennis, Jeff and I sat on the stage and listened as the many comments came in.  Some wanted more of Christ’s story, some wanted more of Dickens, some wanted more Swinburne.  Some thought it was too preachy, some thought it did not have enough theological content.  Some liked the name.  Some didn’t like the name.

Everyone, however, had an opinion and that was a huge relief to all of us, for it meant we had something worth working on.

After our time in Minneapolis we repeated the exercise in London, once again performing in front of interested parties and gauging their feedback.

One comment that was made over and over was to do with the title.  ‘Faith’ didn’t quite seem to sum up the biographical nature of Jeff’s script.  Could we find a title that shouted ‘DICKENS’ but also maintained a relationship with the Bible?

It was Dennis’s British theatrical advisor, Paul Savident, who came up with the perfect solution: ‘To Begin With’ which has echoes of the first line of John’s gospel: ‘In the beginning there was the word….’, as well as quoting the opening line of Dickens’s most famous work: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’

Armed with a new title, the production team returned to America and began working to create the final version of the show.

Things moved slowly for a while, as Dennis laboured hard to secure investors.  Suddenly, however, it was on!

The Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis was booked for a three week run.  A designer was already working on set, costumes and wigs (I’m sorry?  Did you say wigs…..?)

Jeff was signed to direct his own piece and I was asked to find a rehearsal venue in Britain.

A final script arrived and as soon as I had finished my Christmas season I began work on the line learning.

The learning process was an interesting one:  usually I have written my own scripts, so much of the structure and language is already in my mind.  But ‘To Begin With’ was someone else’s work and I was really starting from scratch- although much of it was unchanged from our public readings, so there was a certain sense of familiarity.

I have written about my line learning process before: it requires constant pacing and movement.  As I was learning in the depths of an English winter I could not avail myself of the garden, so had to pace from kitchen to living room and from living room to kitchen.

‘Disagreeable evening.  Lost an argument with Swinburne over the meaning of Christ and the existence of God….’

‘Within an hour I was on the ferry to Portsmouth, then made my way to the Theatre Royal and discovered, upon entering, great chaos and commotion….’

‘This is something I wrote so as not to forget: ‘When my father’s debts had set him to penury, it was proposed that I should go into the blacking warehouse at a salary of six shillings a week….’

‘The Miracles!  I wished to impart and  impress upon them, that the miracles Jesus performs are not magic tricks, for they have all of them been to the Hippodrome and seen the illusionists there…’

And so on.

At the start of February Dennis and Jeff arrived in England and we began to work on the show itself.  For the first time in over twenty years I had director telling me what to do, where to stand, how to deliver this or that line.

I have to say it felt very strange at first but as the week went on I realised how exciting the whole process was.  Jeff was brilliant at ‘seeing’ the show and creating all of the different scenes within the set design.

We discussed text and tone, and created light and shade which made the performance so different to the rather bombastic readings I had given last year.

When our week ended I had to get back to the script to tidy my lines up and make sure that everything was firmly cemented into place.  The paraphrasing that I permit myself in my own scripts, has no place here.

And now there is little over a week to go.  On Friday I fly to Minneapolis and will spend plenty of time in the theatre with Jeff and Dennis bringing the show up to yet another level ready for our previews on February 19.

And then it is opening night!

To Begin With will run at The Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis from 20 Feb until 8 March and tickets are available right now

I know I have readers across America and I hope that some of you will be able to make a trip to Minneapolis and be part of this story, right at the start of its life.

Our plan is to then bring the show to London for a short run, before mounting a series of tours throughout the USA in the coming years.

I will keep you updated on the final week’s preparations: the set, the costume and the wig (oh yes, the wig).  It is certainly an exciting time for me and I can’t wait for the house lights to dim and for the stage lights to come up….

‘Disagreeable evening……’

Tickets for ‘To Begin With’ are available at:

http://tickets.musicboxmpls.com/eventperformances

Goodbye America.

And so I am at Liberty International Airport, Newark; waiting at terminal B, gate 53, for Virgin Atlantic flight VS2 to take me home.

Bethlehem

I sleep through to a decent time this morning and am able to write the blog before going to the lobby for my breakfast.  No buffet here and I chose a lovely traditional plate of eggs and bacon, followed by toast and marmalade.  No pancakes or waffles this morning: I must be ready to go home.

When I have eaten I ask at the front desk to see if there is a possibility of a late check out.  My flight doesn’t leave until eight pm, so strictly speaking I don’t need to be on the road until three.  Brittney is on duty and after much peering at computer screens she announces that I can stay in the room until one thirty, which is helpful.

This morning I want to get out and have a walk so I take to the streets as soon as I am ready.  The immediate neighbourhood is familiar to me, but I have decided to walk over the bridge which crosses the river and railway, and make my way to the abandoned Steel Stacks in the south side of the city.

It is a brisk morning and the chilled air is lovely.  I take large lungfulls and I wish I were doing my last show right now as my throat feels tip top again.

Steel used to be the main industry in Bethlehem and there have been works here since 1857.  The company finally went bankrupt and closed its operations in 1995.  Now, standing as a monument to a lost age, are a series of towering rusting, disintegrating and  macabre buildings.

Although there is a visitor centre here, no attempt has been made to pretty the site up and quite rightly so.  You can almost imagine the hellish heat and deafening noise as the steel molten helped to shape an era of heavy engineering.

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Ironically right opposite the steelworks is an ice rink.

The new industry in town is the Sands Casino, which has taken over part of the steelworks, but it was not visible from the direction I approached.

Having had a brief look around and taken a few photographs, I walk back to the historic downtown area of Bethlehem, which is definitely suffering at the hands of the casino.

My walk has taken up two hours and I now spend two more in the hotel room.  I take the opportunity to actually commit my script of A Christmas Carol to paper, ready for the theatre shows I will be performing in England in a few days time.

At one thirty I take my bags and say goodbye to hotel life for a short while.  I bid a particularly wistful farewell to my last Keurig coffee maker, and my half finished packets of biscuits.

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As I am still a little early I have decided to drive to Newark via Staten Island, which isn’t too far from the airport.

Many years ago I used to perform at a cultural centre on the island and one year I was shown a view which at the time I find profoundly moving.  I have decided to return to the same spot

My journey takes two and a half hours, and the traffic is heavy as I near New York City.  My route actually takes me passed the airport, and I consider just driving straight there, but it is still so early and I will get bored stiff.

I have rather vaguely set my Satnav for ‘Staten island, but I don’t really know where I am going.  I am guided by nothing more than the Freedom Tower on Manhattan:  Which is most appropriate.

I eventually arrive at the north end of the Island, close to the ferry terminal and in front of me Manhattan is spread out, lit by a golden setting sun.

The last time that I stood on this spot was in November 2001.  I had looked across the water and for the first time the enormity of what had occurred just two months earlier really struck me.  The New York Skyline was incomplete.

Today, in the golden glow, the City stands proudly there, the skyline is complete once more and I am very glad I that I have come back to this spot to see it.

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The sun is setting and it is time to drive back to Newark, where I go through the whole rigmarole of returning the car, getting to the terminal, checking in, removing shoes, watch, belt and coat, clearing security and putting them all back on again.

My gate is not busy yet, as there is still almost two hours before boarding starts, so I get my laptop out and begin to write.

The Tour

I have been on the road for almost six weeks and performed in twenty cities.  During that time I have delivered five different shows and stood in front of an audience fifty times.

It has on the whole been extremely successful.  I believe that the show is as good as it has ever been (although I know some audience members will miss my coat flying into the audience).  Of course I have added a few bits in, which mainly have been culled from my two act version.

The audiences responses have been quite amazing throughout and it has been very moving when people have shaken me by the hand afterwards and said: ‘your great great grandfather would be so proud of you’.  That means a great deal

Health wise I have had a very trouble free time.  My voice started to give out slightly during the last couple of days, but I blame that on solely on my choice of cheese-filled ravioli in Burlington.

I am slightly concerned that I am sweating so much during the show and may take some advice to see if there is anything I can, or should do, to help that before I return next year.

I have had no travel troubles (apart from grumpy SatNav units) and my bags have always appeared on carousels, even after tight connections in major airports.

I have had no difficulties with the weather, despite my worries of heavy snow in Massachusetts.  In fact the whole tour has been rather un-seasonal from that point of view.

People

What makes a trip like this are the people I meet and sadly I can’t name everyone who has made sure that I have venues to perform in, people to perform to, and beds to sleep in. I thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart.

Of course a very special mention must go to Bob and Pam Byers who are not only my professional colleagues but genuine and dear friends.  Working with Byers Choice has been such a turning point in my life and they represent me with a generosity that most actors can only dream of.

I was particularly delighted to see Gary Vaillancourt this year after he scared everyone by having a major heart attack in the spring.  To see him and Judi in California was a real treat.

Bob Watford.  Do you remember Bob: The Hertz car agent who befriended me on a cold morning at Kansas City airport and drove me to the terminal building, while telling me all about his life? That was a very special memory, which I will cherish.

But the most important person is Liz.  I abandon her for six weeks, and send her accounts of sleeping in the Queen’s suite at Williamsburg, while she has to work and run the house at home.  She is such a tower of strength and supports me so completely.  I could never do what I do if it wasn’t for her.

It has been lovely to relax before shows listening to her CD this year.  I am biased, but she makes a piano sing like few others can.

And on that note, it is time to close up the laptop and board my plane.

I am not signing off for good, for between the seventeenth and the twenty third of December I will be playing in some very exciting venues in the UK.  The tour continues, and I shall be keeping you up to date with my adventures in the old country.

Thank you to everyone who has attended my shows and followed this blog: quite literally, it could not happen without you.

 

The Ultimate Performance?

At 3.15 am the lyrics of Paul Simon’s 1972 hit ‘Duncan’, are running through my mind:

Couple in the next room bound to win a prize, They been goin’ at it all night long. Well I’m tryin’ to get some sleep, But these motel walls are cheap……..

Whilst I have to admire their stamina, this is not a good way to start my final performing day.

I get some coffee and write the blog, whilst I munch on my Rich Tea biscuits.

Eventually things fall silent next door, but I am now wide awake.  Thanks, guys.

At seven o’clock I get up, shower and go to the lobby for a very frugal breakfast.  There is a waffle machine, but little else.  The Quality Inn and Suites does not rank highly on my breakfast league table.

I go back to my room and pack my bags for the day ahead.  The chances are that I won’t be able to check in early to my hotel in Bethlehem, so I need all of my costumes ready to take to the theatre.

I am on the road by nine and the sky is once again blue and clear, making for a lovely drive.  As I push on into Pennsylvania once more I realise that I am going to pass through Gwynned, very close to the Joseph Ambler Inn and Byers’ Choice.

Ahead the sky is cloudy and heavy: it looks like a snow sky, which would be festive, even though I no longer have an SUV to cope with bad conditions.  As I drive on there is some snow laying at the edges of the road: not much, but enough to remind me that it is winter.

After ninety minutes of driving I leave the freeway and make my way into the centre of Bethlehem: ‘The Christmas City’.  I pull into the parking garage of The Hotel Bethlehem and go into the lobby and straight away know that I won’t be getting an early check-in.  The hotel is so busy: there are major functions in all of the main ballrooms, as well as in the restaurant.  Even parts of the lobby are being cordoned off for ‘private events’.

I go to the desk and suspicions are proved correct:  No room at the Inn, until later.

I have just under an hour to kill before my morning sound-check, so I buy a coffee and a pastry before finding a seat from where I can watch the world go by.

It is not just the hotel that is busy; the main street is filled with people bustling here and there, all wrapped up in scarves and hats.  There are horse-drawn carriages giving rides and a German-style Christmas market is just opening up.

At eleven I leave the hotel and walk to the Moravian College, where I will be performing in The Foy Auditorium.  As I walk I meet up with Blair, who works in the music department of the college, and who has looked after my technical needs for the last six years.

In the auditorium my set is already in place and this year has been dressed with a crust of bread on a pewter plate, a small tankard and a quill.  It looks very good.

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To get ready for my sound check, Blair throws all of the necessary switches (The Blair Switch Project?), and the stage is bathed in light.

Foy Hall, Moravian College

Foy Hall, Moravian College

I do a few lines from the show until all of the levels are correctly set, and then we can relax.  I sit in the auditorium thinking about the tour and all of the people I have met along the way.

I mustn’t get too carried away with nostalgia, though: there are two shows to perform today and the audience members deserve just as much from me as any of the others have had.

As I sit, Lisa Girard arrives and gives me a big hello-hug.  Lisa works at the Moravian Book Store, which sponsors my time in Bethlehem.  We catch up on our respective news for a little while, until it is time for me to go to my dressing room and get ready for the one o’clock show.

The audience is arriving very early, and everyone is keen to get to the front of the auditorium, which will be good for me.

The buzz in the hall is a good one, and I stand in the wings listening to the growing excitement.

As the start time gets closer Lisa and I are enjoyed by Kristy, also from the book store, who is dressed in a magnificent Victorian dress ready to introduce me.

On the stroke of one, Kristy heads onto the stage and starts to read the introduction: as she reads, she suddenly realizes that the script dates from 2012, and talks about the two hundredth anniversary celebrations: she quickly improvises and the audience is informed that we are lucky to be here for this very special performance, celebrating the two hundred…and second anniversary.

I am welcomed to the stage by a very long and loud ovation and have to wait for a while until I can begin the show.

It goes very well and I do indeed give the audience as much as I can; which actually may be too much.  I am aware that I am using up large amounts of energy, not to mention making great demands on my voice, which I will probably pay for later.

However, the afternoon audience gets a very good performance and they respond with a loud, long standing ovation.  I take my bows and leave the stage, ready to change.

The signing session is not held at the auditorium, but back in the bookstore.  After I am changed I walk with Lisa through the festive crowds, who do not bat an eyelid at the sight of a Victorian gent in their midst.

The line has already formed in the shop and as soon as I am in my seat the fun begins.  Lisa rules the queue with a rod of iron, ushering people to the table, making sure that the books are opened to the correct page for my signature.  Small talk is limited as she constantly moves the line on.  Kristy is on photographic duty, dealing with the alarming array of smart phones and cameras with great aplomb.

By three fifteen the queue has diminished and I am released, so that I can finally check into the hotel.

The Hotel Bethlehem is part of the Historic Hotel of America chain (in good company with Hershey and Williamsburg), and has a lovely stately, old feel to it.  The lifts have those semi-circular floor indicators above the doors, so beloved by film makers.

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In my room I run a hot bath and soak for a while, before putting on the white robe and being generally lazy on the bed.

I am expecting a call from radio WKNY, which is for a re-scheduled interview, after I missed the original call in Williamsburg.  At precisely four thirty my phone rings and I spend fifteen minutes chatting about A Christmas Carol and its enduring legacy.

With the interview over I order a salad from room service and try to get some rest.  The early start to my day is beginning to tell now, and I’m sure that my body somehow knows that the punishment is almost at an end.

At five thirty it is time to get going again and I have a shower before dressing in costume.

My schedule today is a bit upside down, as I now have another signing session: before the evening show.

There is a musical event in the Foy Auditorium, so my show can’t start until eight, which would make for a very late signing session.  Lisa has therefore decided to have me in the store for an hour prior to the show, rather than after it.

I know that I am supposed to be there, and so does Lisa.  Kritsy knows and the other staff know.  Unfortunately, the audience doesn’t and we all spend a very quiet time chatting about this and that.

At one point I grab a couple of fluffy animal glove puppets from a nearby display and give an impromptu puppetry rendition of Scrooge berating Bob Cratchit.  It works, as a small crowd gathers to watch.  Maybe I should change the show for next year….

At seven the non-existent signing session ends and I leave the shop to return to the theatre.

My walk from the book shop takes me past the Central Moravian Church, where queues of people are waiting in the cold to listen to the annual Vespers concert.

The crowd is being entertained by a trombone ensemble, which is playing in the bell tower, high above the hustle and bustle.  The atmosphere in Bethlehem tonight is so, well, Christmassy, which is very apt.

In the auditorium I do another sound check and start to focus on the upcoming performance.  I would love tonight’s show to be a magical celebration of all that has gone before, encompassing all of the lessons that I have learned over six weeks.  I would love my ultimate show to be the ultimate performance, but I fear that will not happen.

I am drinking lots of water and sucking Fishermen’s Friends to ease my strained throat, but I know it is going to be struggle tonight.

At eight Kristy makes her updated introduction and I make my way to centre stage.

The show goes pretty well, and the audience enjoys it, but it is not an easy performance from my point of view: everything feels a bit of an effort.  My voice isn’t great and is a bit crackly.  I ignore my own advice and try a bit too hard, and strain a bit too much.

However as I say ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’ for the last time on USA soil, the standing ovation is instant, noisy and robust.  There are cheers and cries of ‘BRAVO!’  I even get a ‘HUZZAH!’

I take my usual three bows (one central, one right, one left), and then take an extra one, which is a bit cheeky!

In the dressing room I peel off my costume and take a few deep breaths.  There is no rush, as there is no signing session to get to, which feels a bit strange.

Finished!

Finished!

I get into civvies, and take the microphone back to Blair and find a few patient audience members who have waited behind to try and catch an autograph and picture.  One family has a copy of A Christmas Carol, previously signed by Cedric and it is lovely to see his cheerful ‘keep smiling!’ written above his name.  Cedric could never just sign something; he always had to add a quote or a comment.

I pack up my case, and get ready to leave.  I say thank you to Blair and then walk back to the hotel.  The lobby and bar is busy and noisy and it is a struggle to get through to the lifts, which take a long time to arrive: Bah! Humbug!

I drop my cases off in my room and then go back to the bar, where Lisa joins me.  We find a couple of chairs in a corner and sip our white wines.  We are both exhausted.  All around us parties are in full swing and people are celebrating the season with their family, friends and colleagues.

I am fading fast and need to get to bed, so I say goodbye to Lisa for another year and  head up to the sixth floor.  I hang up all of my costumes to air, so I am not travelling with damp clothes tomorrow, before getting into bed.  I turn the TV on and set the timer, so that it will switch off after I’ve fallen asleep: which I do very quickly.

The Spirit of A Christmas Carol

After my wonderful day of rest, it is back to the routine of life on the road today.  I have a flight from Richmond Airport at nine twenty and want to be there by eight o’clock, so that I can return the rental car without too much panic.

As always I build in extra time into any journey to allow for traffic delays, so I have decided to leave the hotel at seven – which is exactly when the breakfast service starts.  Sadly, therefore, I must forego the delights of the Williamsburg buffet and throw myself upon the mercy of the Richmond International Airport’s food outlets.

It is another clear, crisp morning and the hotel looks beautiful against the first light of a new day.  I load my bags, check out and start the drive through the historic area of the city.

The Inn at Dawn

The Inn at Dawn

Once on the Interstate, the traffic is heavy, but flows well and I am soon seeing the signs for the airport, at which point my SatNav unit starts to misbehave as it did way back on Thanksgiving Day, when I picked the car up.  For no reason it suddenly announces that it has lost external power and will shut down in 14,13,12,11…..

It is very odd!  Apart from on my journey from Boston to Worcester all those weeks ago, it has behaved impeccably and now, just as I am about to return it, it becomes sullen and grumpy again.

At the Thrifty drop-off the agent asks if everything was OK and I, like a benevolent uncle, say ‘Yes, everything worked perfectly’.  The secret of the SatNav’s strops will remain between us – no need to tell the parents.

The airport is fairly quiet and I am soon in the security line.  The TSA agent is a cheery gentleman, who scans everyone’s ID and makes some comment about their home city, or their name.  I know what is coming.

‘Hey!  Do you know anyone called Charles?’ he asks, as he sees my name.

‘I’ve got the right name for the season, haven’t I?’  I reply.  It’s not a moment for self-promotion.

I find a restaurant and the breakfast when it comes is worth waiting for.  I have plenty of time, so I eat slowly whilst looking out across the apparently deserted runways.

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My flight today is to take me back to Philadelphia and, being a short one, US Airways have laid on a Dash 8 for the job.  The Dash is a little prop-driven aircraft and we have to walk across the tarmac to board it.  Somehow it seems more exciting and somewhat nostalgic to board a plane this way.

As I walk, I feel like Bleriot or Lindbergh ready to take to the skies.  Neither Bleriot or Lindbergh had the good fortune to see their suitcases being loaded into the hold, as I do.  I can relax in the knowledge that my costumes will be waiting for me in Philly.  Assuming they remember to close the hold door.

The flight only takes an hour but the poor little aeroplane is buffeted by low-level winds and we are tossed this way and that, meaning that the flight attendant can’t provide a beverage service.  Oh, the hardships that we pioneers of flight have to deal with.

Catching forty

Catching forty

Once safely on the ground I walk about the same distance as we have flown to retrieve my bags, and then take the courtesy bus to the Enterprise car rental office.

The very helpful agent completes the paperwork in good time and takes me out to the lot.  He can’t find a car in the category we have booked, so chooses a silver Mazda 6 as a free upgrade, which is very nice.

The first thing I do is to try and Sync my phone to the car and it works!  I can actually listen to my Christmas playlist properly at last.  I plug my phone’s power cable in but it does not start to charge, and I see that the lead has frayed and split.  I will have to pick up another one somewhere.

My venue today is in Burlington New Jersey and it is not a long drive.  I have plenty of time, so I go to my hotel first, where I can get everything sorted out for the day.  I go through the well drilled routine of getting the costume into my small case and then set off for the Broad Street United Methodist Church.

In the car park I suddenly panic that my car has been stolen –  it is not where I left it: and then I realise that I’ve got so used to my black Ford Escape,  I didn’t even notice the silver Mazda sitting exactly where I had left it.

As I drive I look out for a store where I can buy a new charging lead for my phone and in doing so find myself in a lane which takes me onto a highway and away from Burlington.  I forget my need for an electronics store and concentrate on the road; I can ask the team at the Church about buying a lead later.

At the Church preparations are in full swing and I am straight away greeted by the event organiser Laura Jaskot, who is making sure that everything is ready for the events.  She is an energetic organiser and has a fabulous team around her

I have been coming to the Broad Street Church for six years, so it is a well known routine and I go straight to my dressing room (actually a counselling room), and unpack my things.

I grab a cup of tea and dollop some honey into it, before going upstairs into the sanctuary itself, to do a sound check.  Bob looks after the technicalities and always does a superb job, I trust him completely and if he says it sounds good, then I know it does.

Sadly for Bob he has had a difficult year and recently has broken his wrist as well as cracking some ribs.  However he is great good spirits, as always.

We play around with the various lighting options in the Church until we arrive at a combination that works.  By now the first audience members are arriving, so it is time to withdraw.

In the dressing room there is a large set of shelves upon which canned foods are collected ready for distribution throughout the city.  It is always fun to see what is there, and this year I think a donation has been made by the Warhol family:

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I set my phone and speaker up and listen to Rhapsody in Blue until the battery finally gives out.

The perfect preparation

The perfect preparation

I get into costume and go upstairs to the little ante-room next to the stage.  Laura appears and at precisely two-thirty she steps out and greets the audience.

After the standard spiel about cell phones and photography, and a little history of the Church itself, she turns the afternoon over to me and I walk out to the applause of an appreciative crowd of about a hundred.

The sanctuary is a beautiful place to perform.  The main part of the stage is quite narrow (front to back), so doesn’t give much room for movement, but there are four different levels that I can play with, and I can experiment with some different moves, which is always fun.

Many of the audience are old hands at this and know how the show is going to work.  They ooh, and ahh at the Cratchit’s lunch; and titter in anticipation as I become Topper homing in on ‘the niece’s sister.’

The show is good and there is plenty of applause as I take my bows.

Once off the stage I change and make my way to the signing reception, which they do so well here.

My table is set in the corner of a large room, and as the audience mingle they are served with tea and cakes and cookies and muffins and all sorts of good things.  On my signing table stands a china teapot, cup and saucer and a plate filled with delights, including a selection of my favourite British biscuits: McVitie’s Rich Tea.  I am in biscuit Heaven!

There is already a long queue waiting for me, so I pour myself a cup of tea and begin. Most people are bringing event programmes, or the Arthur Rackham illustrated edition of A Christmas Carol that the Church are selling, to be signed.

One lady, however has a very special copy of the book and takes her time before speaking.  Her father used to read the Carol to the family every Christmas and today would have been his one hundred and first birthday. Please would I sign his old copy, as it would mean so much to the family.  The volume dates from 1937 and is well loved. It is an extremely moving moment for all at the table.

Another lady gives me a book to be signed and then places a programme in front of me, saying ‘will you sign that to….’ I miss the name in the general hubbub of the room, although I think it begins with P.   I ask her for the name again. ‘Oh, no name, just sign it.’  And then I realise that what she said was ‘Can you sign that, too please?’ not ‘can you sign that to Prince’, or whoever.

Once the tea party has disbanded, I get back into my normal clothes and the whole team walks around the corner to go to dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant that has become our regular haunt in recent years.

Tables are pushed together to accommodate our party of fourteen and we all order.  I chose ravioli in a tomato sauce: pasta is always a safe bet before show.

When my dish arrives eagerly tuck in and am horrified to discover that the ravioli is filled with cheese.  I had assumed they would be meat filled and hadn’t thought to ask.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cheese in all of its varieties, but cheese, or indeed any dairy product, doesn’t like my throat. For a performer, dairy lines the throat and constricts it, making it difficult to project properly.

Other actors and singers had told me this for many years and I had always thought it was rather faddy.  However on tour a few years ago I started to have a lot of trouble with my throat, and was constantly struggling to perform well.  I decided to try the ‘no dairy regime’ and it has worked superbly.

I should just ask for a simple salad instead, but time is pushing on and the team needs to be back at the Church before the audience starts to arrive.  I decide to eat.

I drink as much water as I can, and with any luck all will be OK.

When we are done, we all walk back to the Church, everyone mans their stations and I lay on a couch and grab thirty minutes sleep before getting ready.

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I drink more water, suck on Fisherman’s Friend lozenges and do some deep breathing exercises.  However, as I feared, my throat is tight. Damn! (Actually, I probably shouldn’t be cursing in a Church, when I need all the help I can get).

The most important thing is not to panic.  I know what the situation is and I know that Bob will do a great job with the sound.  Don’t overdo it, don’t try too hard.  Don’t panic.

As soon as I start the show I know that I haven’t got away with it.  My voice is strained and I struggle with the more delicate dialects (Ghost of Christmas Past and the boy signing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen).  But I obey my mantra and calm everything down.   Gradually it begins to work and the show comes back to me.

I am helped in no uncertain terms by a superb audience who are out to enjoy themselves and give me just as much as I give them.  The standing ovation at the end is noisy and boisterous and I clap them too.

Downstairs at the reception the high spirits remain.  The line is long and here are lots of things to be signed.

One gentleman has driven for eight hours from North Carolina with his family, just to be here.  He has seen me on previous occasions at Hershey and Williamsburg and apparently I have picked on him more than once to be Mr Fezziwig.  The reasons for that choice are obvious!

He has taken to reading A Christmas Carol to his friends each Christmas, and this year has decided to buy them all books.  A stack of sixteen is placed on the table.  Would I inscribe God Bless Us Every One, in each and sign?

There is a long line forming behind, so he suggests we wait until everyone has finished, and then do them.  The stack of books remains on the edge of the table.

As the queue dwindles a mother and her son come to the table and she sees the pile of books: ‘Oh, great, you have more!  They said you’d clean sold out.’  I explain that these books have already been sold and are just waiting to be signed.  She and her son look crestfallen.  ‘Oh, that’s a shame, he really wanted a book.  We’ll just have to get one next year instead.  Come on David.’ And they start to leave.

‘Mr Fezziwig’ has heard this exchange.   He picks up one of his books and gives it to her:  The spirit of A Christmas Carol is alive and well in Burlington.

I sign the copy for David and a very special Christmas moment has been played out before me.  I’m sure that CD is looking down with a twinkle in his eye.

At the very end of the line, waiting patiently, are Bob and Pam, who have come to see the show for a final time this season, and to say goodbye.  It is lovely to see them again and we chat for a while, and catch up on some news, before they leave to drive back to Chalfont.  I change and pack up my things ready to drive back to The Quality Inn and Suites.

All of Laura’s team are packing up their own things too and gradually the Broad Street Methodist Church is being returned to its natural state.  I say good bye to everyone and drive back to the hotel

On the way I pass a Wal-Mart, where I successfully find a new lead for my phone. I plug it in and the battery begins to recharge.  Not very many minutes later I am in bed, and metaphorically the same process begins for me.

A Day of Golf: A Day of Rest

And so a day off:   It has certainly been a tough week and I am definitely ready for a little me time.

So, what happens?  I wake at four thirty in the morning, which is extremely annoying.  I doze on and off but the damage is done.  I sit in my bed and write the blog, until six o’clock comes round, and then I dress to go and fetch a cup of coffee from the lobby.

As it is a performance-free day I also take the opportunity of having the frock coat and waistcoat that I did not clean in Hershey, dry cleaned.

After I have finished my coffee I have a shower and re-dress, ready for breakfast.

The Regency Room is a restaurant once more, and the area where I performed twelve hours ago is now surrounded by marble topped buffet stations.  It is strange to look at it now, with the memories of a packed room echoing with laughter and clapping so fresh in my mind

Leroy (surely he must live in this restaurant), shows me to a seat by the window, where I have a gorgeous view of the hotel’s golf course.  It is a bright, cold morning and the frost is sparkling on the greens.

My waiter for breakfast is Emmanuel, whom I have known for many years.  It is remarkable how The Williamsburg Inn holds onto its personnel, and presumably that is a testament to the way they treat their employees.

Emmanuel is originally from Jamaica and we chat a bit about cricket.  I think that we should arrange a double-header sports event here, where the Revolutionary War was conceived and planned, the USA vs Great Britain: one cricket match and one baseball match.

My breakfast begins with the best of intentions and I have a plate of fruit, followed by some cheese, ham and croissant.  However, the siren call of the pancakes and syrup is too enticing and I give into temptation.

As I leave the restaurant I say goodbye to Leroy, as I’m not sure if I am going to be at breakfast tomorrow morning, and return to the Queen’s Suite for the last time.

I have already packed my bags, and take them down to the front desk to discover where I am to be relocated to.  My new room is at the far end of the hotel and, although not a regal suite, is just as luxurious and much more suitable for a man travelling alone.

I leave my bags and then get ready for my day’s activity: golf.  At last the golf shoes that I have trailed around the United States; the golf shoes that I was going to use in Omaha; the golf shoes that I was going to use in Wilmington, are actually going to see some action.

Williamsburg is the home of The Golden Horseshoe Golf Club, which comprises three different courses.  Unfortunately the Gold Course, which is the one I was admiring at breakfast, is not open today, but the Green Course is only a mile away and equally as impressive.

I leave the hotel in plenty of time to get registered and fitted out with rental clubs.  The heavy frost has delayed the opening of the course, so there is a bit of waiting around until I can get out to play.

A frosty start

A frosty start

I buy plenty of balls, a glove, a cap, a pitch mark repair tool and a yardage book for the course.  Unfortunately my UK bank card doesn’t work, which is frustrating.  Almost at the moment that the card is handed back to me it my phone rings:  it is my UK bank’s fraud department checking that I am in fact in Virginia.  Very impressive.

I had originally assumed that I would be playing alone but the pro shop has paired me up with a local player and I am introduced to Jack who, although not a member, plays the course often.  It will be good to have a bit of local knowledge but I hope my very rusty game does not embarrass me.

At nine o’clock the practice range is opened and we can go and hit a few balls.  I am very relieved that most of the shots are fairly decent.

Waiting to play

Waiting to play

As I am standing with an 8-iron in hand, concentrating on not swinging back to fast or too far, I am aware of somebody standing close behind me.  I keep my mind on the shot and execute a fairly passable swing, sending the ball some one hundred and thirty yards down the range.

‘Mr Dickens?’

I answer in the affirmative.

‘My name is Glen Byrnes and I am the Director of Golf here at The Golden Horseshoe.  I heard you were coming today and I wanted to say thank you for all you do at Williamsburg.  It is a pleasure to have you here.’

Jack (my playing partner), looks at me with a degree of surprise.

Glen goes on to offer to have a special bag tag made up for me, so that I will always be reminded of my day’s golf at Williamsburg.  Realising that Jack is going to be playing with me, Glen offers to have a tag made up for him too.  Jack is now definitely impressed by his playing partner.

The warm sun is starting to have an effect and the course is starting to come alive.  At ten twenty we are ready to go.  Just before we tee off, the official starter informs us that a third player, Tom, is going to join us.  We all shake hands and introduce ourselves and then look down the course, wondering what the next few hours hold in store.

I won’t give you a shot by shot account of the round but it is my usual cocktail of some fantastic shots, mixed in with an unhealthy slug of blooming awful ones.

I am very glad that I have Jack with me, as there are no signs on the course directing the way to the next tees and I would definitely have got lost on many occasions.

It is a perfect way to relax and despite the appallingly high score that I am amassing, I love being in the crisp air, beneath the blue sky, in the good company of two men who don’t mention Charles Dickens once.

Away from it all

Away from it all

Jack and Tom approach the green

Jack and Tom approach the green

The last hole is a long straight par five and my third shot is one of my best of the day.  It is a satisfying way to finish.

I shake hands with Tom and Jack and after returning my golf cart, I drive back to the hotel.

I spend the rest of the afternoon watching television and checking emails.  I am horrified to get one from Pam telling me that I had missed an interview this morning at eight forty-five.

In my joy at having a day off I had completely shut off all thoughts of the tour and completely forgot that I had a call coming in.  Fortunately Pam is able to re-schedule it for Saturday afternoon, which is a relief.

At seven I walk through the long corridor to the bar, where I sit chatting to the bar tender, Mark.  He is great company and asks after Liz and Cameron who came here for Christmas some three years ago.  He even remembers that Cameron supports Arsenal football club.

I order a chicken dish, which is delicious.  Last night I really couldn’t enjoy the food, as I had the show to think of, so it is nice to be able to eat slowly and savour Chef Brust’s beautiful flavours.

Watching Mark at work behind the bar is amazing.  He is constantly on the move, mixing cocktails for the restaurant, as well as his own customers, but he is always able to have a conversation with everyone, as if he has known them for years.

At one point he throws out an open question:  favourite and least favourite Christmas song?.  The choice of best is varied, and I plump for Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song.  However there is a clear winner in the least favourite category: Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.

Once dinner is finished I return to my room.   My dry cleaning is hanging in the wardrobe, so I add the frock coat and waistcoat to my cases, which have not been unpacked since this morning, and get ready for bed.

As ever Williamsburg has been good to me and it will be a shame to leave this luxurious life.  Tomorrow morning, however, I will be back on the road driving to Richmond and then flying north again, towards the final two days of my USA tour.

A Right Royal Party

Firstly, congratulations dear readers:  The blog posted on Tuesday (Plenty of Beer), received more views than any other I have written.  Obviously my laundry and breakfast habits are more interesting than I could ever have imaged!

Meanwhile, in a hotel near Occoquan….

In essence today is a copy of yesterday, in that I need to leave fairly early for a two and a half hour drive, which will be followed by two performances.  The only slight difference is that yesterday I left an elegant historic hotel and slept in a Hampton Inn, whereas today I am leaving the Hampton Inn and will sleep in an elegant Historic hotel.

I go to the lobby for breakfast and have the obligatory waffle.  While I am sat, a couple arrive for their breakfast and, as they have plenty of bags, it looks as if they are checking out too.

There follows a conversation that Harold Pinter would have been proud to put in one of his plays.  There is nothing witty about it; neither is it particularly profound.  What makes the exchange striking is its sheer normalness.

Here’s how Pinter may have recorded it:

‘Act 1: Morning. The scene:  a motel breakfast room.  Two characters enter: a man and a woman. They are dressed casually in jeans.  He wears a hat.  They appear to be together.  They carry bags which may have Christmas gifts within.

Together they approach the table where a coffee urn is set.  They fill their cups.  She looks at a box containing assorted tea bags. She looks at him.

A pause.

F: ‘Do you drink tea?’

He pauses.

M: ‘No.’

F: ‘I don’t either.’

She pauses.  He sips his coffee while she studies the tea bags further.

F:  ‘I drink Ice tea.’

He looks at her.  A pause.

M: ‘Ice tea, yes.’ A pause. ‘Not hot tea’

F: ‘Not hot tea, no.’

The more I think about this conversation the more questions it raises.  If they are a couple, as they appear to be, they would know about each other’s tea drinking habits.  The bags and their general manner do not suggest some illicit wild love affair and they certainly don’t have the appearance of work colleagues travelling together.  So, who are they?  Where are they going and where have they been?

Anyway, whatever their background, they eat a quick breakfast and leave the motel to continue their story, whatever it is, without me eavesdropping.

Moments like that can be fascinating when you are travelling on the road alone.  I’m sure that I have been the subject of such scrutiny by various people along the way.

After breakfast I pack my bags and get onto the road, having filled up the car with fuel.  My route takes me south on the I 95 to Williamsburg.

I decide to entertain myself by trying to spot licence plates from as many different states as I can.  Obviously Virginia and Maryland are popular, but little by little my collection increases.

You would not believe the sheer joy I feel when I spot ‘Indiana’ or ‘Delaware’, or some such.

By the time I reach Williamsburg I have collected 22 different states and as I pull into the car park I spy ‘Ohio’ to add one more.  I think that’s quite impressive.  If I could have seen California, Nebraska, Missouri and New Hampshire, I would have had a full house of States visited on this tour, bad sadly those four eluded me.

The Williamsburg Inn is magnificent; there is no other word for it.  The building is a mansion and sits at the head of its very own sweeping, circular drive.  The portico is four stories high, and is supported by four pillars, each decorated by white Christmas lights.  Southern charm exudes from every white brick.

Inside the elegance continues.  A tastefully decorated Christmas tree sits opposite the main door, and the lobby is filled with antique furniture.  To the left a fire burns in a grate.  Behind the tree there are windows which allow the hall to be filled with natural light.

The main reception desk is tucked away in a separate room to the right, so as not to sully the ambience with the distasteful business of checking in or out.

I am greeted as soon as I walk in: ‘Welcome home Mr Dickens’

Apparently there has been some confusion over the actual dates of my stay.  The hotel had expected me to arrive last night, and to check out on Thursday, whereas my schedule has me checking in today and remaining here until Friday.  The issue is swiftly and quietly dealt with and I am soon given the keys to room 3269: The Queen’s Suite.

Oh yes!  As last year I am being treated, literally, like Royalty.  The suite is magnificent, with four different rooms, each of which is larger than any hotel room I’ve enjoyed on the trip so far.

Part of the Queen's Suite

Part of the Queen’s Suite

The bathroom boasts his ‘n’ her wash basins (for Queen Liz and Prince Phil), and a big, deep bathtub.

In the wardrobe I discover a new amenity that I have not realised was essential in a hotel room before, and that is a shoehorn.

Essential in any room: my shoehorn

Essential in any room: my shoehorn

However, what the Queen’s Suite at The Williamsburg Inn does not boast is a coffee machine, Keurig or other.  I suppose that the Queen has a little man to fetch her morning pick-me-up.

I call room service and order a burger for lunch and get my things ready for the shows.

As I wait for my lunch I check emails and am interested to see that there is one from Katherine Desinger at the Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.  She has thoughtfully forwarded some of the feedback from the audience at our event.

You may have gathered during some of my posts, that actors are a delicate, insecure bunch, and never was that more apparent than now.

There are thirty two comments and spread through thirty one of them are words such as: ‘Superb; captivating; animated; excellent; professional and entertaining; magical; great’ and so on.  But amongst all of the fulsome praise is one negative comment and of course that is the only one I will remember:

“I found Gerald’s rendition of Scrooge’s voice quite annoying and irritating. Gerald’s interpretation of how Scrooge would sound was grating on my nerves the entire evening. With regard to the other character’s voices, I think Gerald did a nice job.

However, being that Scrooge is the main character that voice rendition put a significant damper on things for me throughout the presentation. Should this event be offered once again in the future, I would not attend. “

Oh dear!  Although, in my defence, when Dickens describes Scrooge, he does say that the cold within him ‘spoke out  shrewdly in his grating voice’, so the fact that the writer of the comment uses the word ‘grates’ is a sort of compliment.  But it hurts, nonetheless.

After I have eaten I go down the sweeping staircase, resisting the temptation to wave to my subjects, and head for the Regency Room, the hotel’s signature dining room.

The Regency Room

The Regency Room

I am greeted by Michele DeRosa, who is responsible for booking me and running the events at the Inn.  She is terribly apologetic but has to tell me that the Queen’s Suite is only free for one day (as they thought I was arriving yesterday and hadn’t expected me to take up residence for the extra day), so I am going to have to move room tomorrow morning.

I don’t mind at all, of course.  It is lovely to be in the suite even for one day, and there is no bad room here, they all have the same degree of luxury.

The Regency Room is laid out for the tea and one look tells me that it is a sell-out event.  White-jacketed waiters are making sure that each table is properly laid, and that water glasses are filled.  The whole operation, I am delighted to see, is under the military control of Leroy.

I have worked with Leroy for many years and was dismayed when he told me last year that he would be retiring, but here he is, still commanding his troops.

As I am being wired up to do a sound check, another old friend arrives: Ryan Fletcher, who has introduced me at every one of my events at Williamsburg.  Ryan is an opera singer, who teaches at William and Mary College.  We have always got on well and exchange a big hug of welcome, which almost crushes my ribcage!

We chat and catch up for a while and then I go back to my room to change.

By the time I get back down, the seating has already begun and there is a fine array of Christmas sweaters and ties on display.  I stand with Michele and Leroy at the top of the stairs which lead into the Regency Room, and greet the guests as they arrive.  One young girl hands me a bag with a wrapped gift in it:  a large tin of chocolate covered peanuts.  People are really so kind, and I am very humbled.

When everyone is seated, Leroy gives Ryan the nod and the event begins.

Ryan and Michele check the time, while Leroy takes control

Ryan and Michele check the time, while Leroy takes control

The atmosphere in The Regency Room is always amazing.  My performance space is the dance floor in the centre, but I try to roam among the tables whenever I can, to include those guests sat at the sides of the room.

Everyone joins in and laughs at the appropriate moments, and the hardly-stifled giggles as Mrs Cratchit prepares to fetch her pudding, tell me that a lot of people have seen the show many times before.

As I get towards the end I move a small table to centre stage, to represent Cratchit’s desk.  There is a large hand bell on it (I used to use a bell here, and the staff have put it on the stage in case I need it).  During the very last lines of the show I place Scrooge’s top hat on the table too, and suddenly realise that Scrooge has been linguistically reunited with his ex fiancé, Belle.  It is a rather sweet moment, and I actually start to well up.

The show runs its course and I take my bows as the audience stands.  I hope Scrooge’s voice wasn’t too irritating, though.

As my suite is very close to the main hallway, where I will be signing, it is easy to run upstairs and change costume.  When I come down there is a goodly line and I start the pleasurable experience of signing, and talking about the show.

As the line gets near its end a few people who are arriving for the evening show start to come to the table.  Among them are two ladies, who turn out to be mother and daughter.

They explain that Starr, the mother, has been trying to come to the show for three years and has actually had tickets for the last two, but last-minute medical issues have prevented her from being able to attend.  At last, this year, she has made it and is quite overawed.

She is clutching a Christmas box, and hands it to me saying, almost in tears, that she has made this for me.

It is the most beautifully designed and stitched sampler, in the Victorian style, featuring three quotes from A Christmas Carol.  So much thought and effort has gone into the piece.

A printed label on the back explains the history of samplers and points out that they often featured spelling mistakes.  This one is perfect: even the word ‘honour’ is spelled correctly!

I am dumb-struck at Starr’s creativity and generosity.

Starr's sampler

Starr’s sampler

I have an hour or so in my room, before the evening event gets under way, so I make use of the bathtub.  I just lay, letting the hot water soak my aching limbs.  It feels very luxurious.  I wonder if the Queen had a bath here too.

Suitably relaxed and cleansed, I am soon getting back into my costume.

The lobby and bar are already busy with guests for the dinner event.  I go straight to the Regency Room to check everything is OK.

In past years I used to perform each chapter between the courses at dinner, as at Hershey but we made a change last year and now I wait until dessert is served, before starting a  complete run of the script.  It is easier for me and easier for the kitchen staff.

I am seated at a table with Ryan and his wife Jeanne, as well as Carol Godwin, Christine Vincent and her husband Erich.  This is a great table, as it represents the original Williamsburg team.  Ryan has been present at all of my shows, Carol was in charge of PR when I first visited, whilst Christine worked in the events department and always looked after me during my stays here.  There is a lot of nostalgia, and plenty of anecdotes around the table.

Also in the audience, sat just a few tables away, are Stephen Kirkland and his wife Sarah-Jane.  Those of you who have been following the blog from the start of the tour will remember that I worked with Stephen for a day to promote his event in Norfolk, Virginia: The Dickens Christmas Towne.

I greet Stephen and Sarah-Jane and chat about how successful Christmas Towne has been: Stephen is confident that they will top 10,000 visitors during the coming weekend.  I am very glad for him as it is the result of a long held dream and back in November nobody had any idea if it would actually work.

Dinner is served, which is a thick crabmeat soup, followed by the tenderest beef you have ever tasted.  The hum of conversation in the room tells its own story, and everyone is having a most enjoyable evening.

At eight fifteen Ryan once more gets the nod from Leroy and the reminiscing with Carol and Christine must stop.

Once again it is a pleasure to play the room, and  the audience once more become part of the story.  I have placed Starr’s sampler on the set, and make sure that I include her in part of the show.

Poor Sarah-Jane Kirkland was earmarked from the beginning of the evening to be the object of Topper’s flirtatious advances, and she blushes perfectly on cue.

I am wearing the nicer of my two frock coats this evening, but it is also the heavier one, and I am building up quite a sweat as I move around the room.

‘And, as Tiny Tim Observed: God Bless Us, Every One.’

The applause and ovation are wonderful and I make my bows to all corners of the room.

The change of costume now is a necessity rather than a luxury, and I take a few minutes in my room to gather myself, before going back to the lobby where a long line is waiting.

Everyone is happy, and there is definitely a Christmas spirit in the air.

When the last of the guests have donned their coats and left the hotel, or returned to their rooms, I make for the bar where Carol, Christine and Erich are waiting (Ryan and Jeanne had to leave straight after dinner).

Over dinner Ryan suggested, as he does every year, that I should be performing this in The Whitehouse.  Carol has decided that this is a superb idea and is putting her marketing brain to work on the problem.  She picks my brains about Dickens’s visit to DC and where she can read about it.

It is an interesting thought: could Topper sidle up to the first lady and purr into her ear: ‘Hellloooo’.  Probably not, without being shot.

As we chat I can feel the energy draining away from me.  I have performed fifteen times in eight days and it has been an exhausting period.  Tomorrow I have a complete day off, surrounded by the delights of Williamsburg, before heading into the final two days of the tour.

Everyone is ready to leave and I hug my good byes to Carol, Christine and Erich, before returning to my palatial suite and falling asleep between the Queen’s sheets.

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