The Last Day of Part 1

Today is the last day of the first part of my 2018 tour and it will be spent in the Kansas City Metro area, which means a drive of nearly three hours along the dullest, straightest and most featureless road in America (OK, maybe not, but certainly the most dull, straight and featureless that I have the misfortune to drive on).

Before breakfast I take my two costumes as well as my hat and cane to the car which has been sitting in the parking garage since I arrived three days ago.  There is still a chill in the air but the sun is bright and the sky clear.

Breakfast is my customary bowl granola and fruit, as well as a couple of little pancakes drizzled in a blueberry sauce.  Orange juice and coffee give me the hit I need for the day ahead.  Last night’s events are still weighing on my mind and I check the Douglas County Historical Society’s website which sure enough announces that I will ‘be unlikely to return next year’.  Maybe this is a clever marketing ploy by Kathy and her team, but there does seem to be a sense of finality about it and I have to accept that maybe my days of performing in Omaha came to an end last night.

In my room I make sure that I have got everything in my bags and then check out.  In the garage I load my large suitcase into the Fusion’s boot, and then get ready to drive.  Press the start button: nothing.  The car is dead.  Push the button again.  Nothing.  Get out, lock the car, unlock it, get in, press the button.  Nothing.  This is a disaster!  I have two shows later today and I have to get to Kansas City.  Press.  Nothing.  Can I call Hertz?  Can I book a flight?  Its not an electrical problem as the screen lights up like a Christmas Tree, but the engine refuses to fire

I am just beginning to panic when the truth dawns on me: this is a Hybrid car and when you start it up it is in pure electric mode, with no internal combustion engine influence: all I needed to do was select drive and the giggery-pokery under the bonnet would do the rest:  I drive out of the garage feeling very foolish.

Omaha is deserted on this Sunday morning, in stark contrast to Thursday when Lee and I sat in the gridlocked roads on our way to Lincoln.  In no time I am joining I29 S and the SaNav cheerfully announces that I should take the exit in 150 miles.

Settle In.

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Flat fields.  Firework stores.  Occasional mounds.  Ponds.  Huge irrigation mantises.  Brief excitement of a murmuration (probably not the right term, as I don’t think the birds are starlings, but whatever they are, they are doing that amazing aerial display).  Road.  Corner.

There is a moment of minor celebration when the Sat Nav tells me that I have less than 100 miles together, and another when I have less than an hour remaining.

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I pass the time by listening to the radio, I have lots of choice thanks to Hertz’s largesse, for the Fusion comes with the Sirius XM (the satellite system which gives me access to almost any station I can imagine.)  Towards the end of the journey I am able to listen to the opening laps of the Brazilian F1 Grand Prix from Sao Paulo

After two hours and fifty minutes of largely straight driving I arrive in the vicinity of Liberty, MO, and pull into the parking lot of the Woodneath Library where I am due to meet Kimberly who has been responsible for bringing me to the Kansas City area for more years than either of us care to remember.

I park my car and a few moments later Kimberly pulls up too.  We greet each other and I transfer all of my costumes into her car ready for her to take me to the Gambler Community Centre in Lee’s Summit.  We spend the journey chatting and catching up – both of us have had major events this year, and the journey passes quickly.

Kimberly works for the Mid Continent Public Library and usually my events are held in one of the branches, but this year she has decided to stage the show in the community centre which has a theatre style space.  When we arrive the stage is being decorated and the sound system is being installed.  Having had problems in previous years with Mid Continent’s own portable PA system Kimberly has engaged a specialist AV company to look after the tech side of things so that nothing should go wrong.

Anthony, the sound man, suggests a head mic (which I hate because they always fall off), assuring me that the sound quality will be much better than a lapel mic.

I have no fight in me so succumb meekly, and he carefully fits the loops over my ears and adjusts the mouthpiece until he is happy. Next Anthony addresses the issue of my music effect and quickly ascertains that his hi-tech equipment wont read my lo-tech, self-burned CD. I do have the sound file on my phone however and he plugs that in and all is well. Having tested the levels he gives me my phone back and thanks me.

The audience are arriving by this time so after hiding the two little soft toys in a Christmas tree I retreat to the tiny, and very cluttered, office that is serving as a dressing room today.

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The show is due to begin at 2, and with ten minutes to go I return to the hall and stand at the back with various members of the library staff, watching as the seats fill up for there is a good crowd gathering.

At exactly 2 o’clock the chief librarian from the local branch gets up to make an introduction, and I am rather concerned that the lighting leaves his face in deep shadow, as it presumably will do for mine in a few moments time. Well it is too late to do anything about it now.

The introduction is about half way through, and I am beginning to think myself into Scrooge, when Anthony saunters up and whispers ‘do you have your phone? I assumed that he had copied the file earlier, but apparently not! Scrooge is cast aside and I dash back to the dressing room (intro still continuing), find my phone, unlock it and find the audio file and I run back to the hall (is the intro finished yet?) give it to Anthony who plugs it in just as the audience applaud to welcome me onto the stage. Bang on cue the music rings out, and I begin a somewhat breathless walk to the stage.

All goes well with the performance, although the little cough is still present, and of course the earpieces of the head mic keep falling off.  The sound is good though, rather too good in fact, as every snuffle from my nose is broadcast loudly, meaning I have to pick moments for a sniff carefully: during snores, during sobs (Scrooge becomes extra emotional as he views the loss of Belle today), and of course at the entrance of Old Joe.

The audience enjoy it and join in enthusiastically. I have been coming to the Kansas City area since my first trip to the USA in 1995 and the crowds here are always fiercely loyal and supportive. Earlier Kimberly said that I had to keep coming back to perform because she would be strung up if I didn’t appear.

At the end of the show I take my bows and perform a quick change in my little office before returning to the stage to sign. Mid Continent have a large stock of the souvenir programmes left over and are selling them at $5 a piece. Nobody seems to mind that they are dated 2016 and 2017 and they sell well, some people even asking there isn’t a 2018 edition. It is lovely to see the colourful brochures again and to be reminded what a great job Ian and I did in creating them.

There are many familiar faces in the signing line and I chat for a long time, but soon it is time to pack up and move on.

The next show is back at Woodneath, where I left my car earlier, and Kimberly drives me back to the impressive library there. Having set the stage and made sure everything is in order I sit alone in a large meeting room, playing Angry Birds on my phone and even managing a little nap until I need to get into costume again at 6.

I usually spend two days with Mid Continent but because of the constraints of time in this years tour I only have two performances, which means that the audiences are large. At Woodneath they are expecting around 350 people and have cleverly utilised the space in the centre of the library to fit a stage as a hub to three banks of seating. With 30 minutes still to go the main seats are already filled and people are being directed to the two wings.

This time I make sure that Anthony has my phone in good time, and I wait at the back of the room with Kimberly and her colleague Sarah until it is time to begin. During the introduction the audience is asked to silence their electronic devices and the this year the list includes watches. What a long way technology has come since I started to perform when I would have to plug my computer in to a socket and endure that screeching modem dial-up sound before I could get on line at all.

Simply this is the best performance of the week. My cold seems to have gone, or retreated at any rate and the audience are amazing (they always are at Woodneath). I get energy from their response which makes the performance stronger, although I am slightly distracted by two boys in the front row who play on their tablets throughout the show.

I am pleased with the pace of the performance (I am trying to keep the passages moving along, without the rather over-dramatic pauses that I have allowed to creep in over the years), and the characterisations too. Yes, this is a good way to sign off.

Once more the signing line is filled with familiar faces and old friends, and suddenly I am lavished with gifts: A book for the girls, some cookies, a box of Fisherman’s Friends, some hand-made soap and a loaf of freshly baked pumpkin bread. You all know who you are, and I thank you most humbly for your kindnesses and friendship.

It is late now and time to go. After a few pictures on stage with the library team I get changed and make sure that I have all of my belongings. Kimberly and I drive to a nearby Longhorn steak restaurant where I chose a salmon dish which is delicious. It is sad that we only have such a brief time to chat this year but soon it is time to hug goodbye in the cold parking lot.

My hotel for the night is at the airport (my flight is at 6am meaning I want to be as close as possible) and I have a twenty minute drive before I am at the Holiday Inn. I check in and bring all of my bags and costumes up to my room ready to be packed in the morning, but for now I am tired and after setting an alarm for 3.45 I drift off into my last sleep on this side of the Atlantic for a couple of weeks.

 

 

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A Last Hurrah? I Hope Not….

After our excursions to Lincoln yesterday today sees me remaining in Omaha for two events, and as an extra bonus I have a free morning.

Having looked after the blog, and taken my first cup of coffee I busy myself with sorting the last loads of washing for this section of the tour, which I take to the always-deserted laundry room on the third floor.

Whilst my clothes are tumbling and spinning I call home and have a lovely few minutes chatting and getting the news and gossip.  It is extraordinary to think that I will be back in Oxfordshire in just a couple of days time.  Experience tells me that I am only a week in to my tour and therefore there is a long stretch on the road ahead of me, so it is wonderful to think that on Monday night I wont be in a hotel room, and that my suitcase will be empty.

For the rest of the morning I rehearse Doctor Marigold, which I will be performing this evening, and relax on the bed watching the very first Harry Potter film, which is being shows as part of the USA channel’s ‘Wizarding Weekend’ to promote the release of the new Magical Beasts film.  All of the actors look so young and tiny in the film, but it is lovely to watch.

As the morning reaches its end I get all of my bits and pieces ready and go down to the lobby to wait for Kathy’s husband Frank, who is ferrying me about today as Lee has returned to Lincoln to watch the big football game there.

The weather has cleared and the roads are running freely, despite the freezing wind that is still cutting across the prairie.  Our drive is a short one and soon we are pulling up outside the Field Club of Omaha – a lavish golf club where I perform A Christmas Carol each year.

Kathy, Susie and Roxanne are all busily setting up tables for the event as the Douglas County Historical Society take over the venue.  I dump my costumes and bag in the locker room, which is deserted as nobody is playing golf in the snow and ice, and make my way to the huge function room that will be my theatre this afternoon.  My show will be performed after the guests have had tea and the tables have been elegantly laid with cups, saucers and plates which need only sandwiches, cakes and fancies to be complete.

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The stage is set with my regular furniture and a fireplace that Frank installed yesterday, which focuses attention to the centre of what is a very wide performing area.  On the chair is my microphone and I clip it onto my shirt and do a sound check – the levels sound good in the large room.

As I walk back to the lobby I bump into Caitlin who looks after all of the events at The Field Club.  We have worked together for the last five years or so and have become great friends.  We hug and share our respective news, before returning to the business of preparing for the show, the next job being to make sure that my opening sound cue works.  At the Field Club there is no CD player, or sound system in the function room itself, and the only way of getting my 54 seconds of music into the hall is to have my phone plugged into the sound system, which is located in a tiny closet off a corridor in a different part of the building.  To make sure that the effect comes in on time, we have to set up a relay of people, starting with me in the hall, to pass the signal back to the closet.  It’s a bit of a complicated way of doing things but, fingers crossed, it works.

With all of the preparations complete Susie suggests that we have some lunch, and we retire to the restaurant where we are joined by Kathy and Glenda, another volunteer from the society who is a big Dickens fan (of both generations!).

Even though there is no golf today the clubhouse is filled with members all of whom are watching the football game from Lincoln.  It looks to be very cold there and we do not envy Lee who is somewhere in that huge crowd!

I have a delicious plate of fish and chips, which sets me up well for the afternoon.

The tea is due to start at 2, although my show is not scheduled until 3, so Kathy, Susie and Glenda have to return to their posts to welcome the audience which is already starting to mass.  It is an elegant crowd with plenty of reds and golds in evidence.  One party (mother, father and three daughters) have come in amazing hats and look quite the Victorian family.

I retire to the locker room, where I sit quietly and wait for the hour to pass by.

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Eventually 3 o’clock approaches and I finish getting my costume on before going to the tea room to see how things are progressing.  The room is packed and noisy, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and everything is in place for a good afternoon.

I give my phone to Caitlin, and the human relay is put in place ready for the commencement of the performance.  Kathy checks with me that all is OK and goes to the front of the room to introduce me.  At first she struggles to be heard over the cacophony of cups, but soon the chatter subsides and the show begins.

Earlier on I had plotted a route from the back of the room between the tables, which would get me onto the stage at the right moment, but as I walk I am dismayed to see that lots of people have moved their chairs around, thereby cutting off my path!  I plough an ever more desperate furrow until at last I spy a tiny gap and break through to the front of the room.

The audience is wonderful and attentive, but the show is slightly spoiled by the constant popping of my microphone.  It wasn’t doing it during my sound check earlier, and I think something is catching on a piece of my costume as I move around.  Allied to this the remnants of my cold are still lingering and causing the odd cough in the back of my throat, which sounds like an inappropriate chuckle.  All I can do is get on with the performance and do the best I can.

Despite the irritating interruptions everything goes very well and there are sobs as I perform the new Cratchit and Tiny Tim scene.

The applause and ovation is wonderful at the end and I gratefully take my bows.  As is always the way here in Omaha we have a few questions from the audience (one of which is about my first cockerel costume and I suspect that Susie is behind it, as she always asks and loves to hear the story re-told!)

As soon as the questions are over I dash back to the locker room and change into a dry shirt and coat, before returning to my signing table in the lobby.  The first people waiting for me are a grandmother and teenage grandson who have flow from Seattle just to see the show!  She had heard about it, looked it up on line, discovered that Omaha was the nearest performance and instantly made the arrangements!  Astounding.

I chat with others and a few people say ‘Oh, I do hope that you are coming back, we will miss you’ which is a bit strange.

When everyone has left I go and collect all of my things and change back into my regular clothes, before saying goodbye to Caitlin and the staff at the Field Club for another year.

I don’t have much time back at the hotel, just over an hour, but I shower, get into my costume for a performance of Doctor Marigold and run through the lines again.

Lee is back on driving duty now (Nebraska won the game easily) and he and Susie pick me up at 6.15.  We drive to the General Crook House which is only ten minutes away and which is already busy as the audience enjoys a sumptuous buffet laid on by Mario.

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I perform on a little stage in the parlour, and the setting is so perfect for Victorian storytelling.  I chat to the guests, most of whom come to this event year after year, and over and over again people say things like ‘Im so sorry that you will not be coming back to Omaha again’, and ‘I had to be here for your swansong performance’.  When I ask one couple what they mean they say that they’d read online that this would be my final appearance in Omaha.  I do hope not, but maybe others have taken decisions that I don’t know about.

Id better make it a good one, then!

Marigold is a lovely show, and works very well in such an intimate setting.  The small crowd (around 40, which is a full house here), laugh and cry with Doctor and the tears are flowing as he meets his grandchild at the end of the show.

When the applause dies away we all move into the dining room and stand around the table with glasses of champagne, whilst Susie reads out one of her carefully prepared toasts: this time the initial letters of each line spell out GERALD DICKENS.

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It has been a lovely evening, but as I sign books and programmes more and more people express their sadness that I will not be returning.  I can only say that I hope to, I have every intention of coming back to Omaha.

In the kitchen Mario has prepared a large bag for me to take back to my hotel, as I didn’t get to enjoy the buffet before the show. I bid farewell to Kathy, Frank and Roxanne before getting into Lee’s car and driving back to the hotel, where I give a special hug to Susie.

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In my room I lay out the delicious supper and eat as I watch yet another Harry Potter film.  Tomorrow I move onto Kansas City for one day and on Monday I fly back home to my family.

 

 

 

A Long Day to Lincoln

Today is to be a long day and Lee is due to pick me up at 7am this morning.  I actually sleep until a little after 6, which is remarkable for me, so I don’t have time to write my full blog post this morning.

On opening the blinds I discover that it is snowing quite heavily, and the roof of the hotel is covered in white. There is something magical in watching snow fall outside a window, whilst you are snuggled up warm, but today my feelings are tinged with a degree of worry as Lee and I have to drive for over an hour to the city of Lincoln.

I shower and get all of my costumes prepared before going to the lobby for a very quick breakfast.  It is 6.45 already and on TV in the breakfast room a traffic reporter is talking about the chaos on the roads this morning.  It doesn’t sound promising at all.

Lee arrives on time, and as I load my things into the car Lee confirms that the conditions are not just difficult, but treacherous, with icy roads everywhere.  We edge out into the streets very tentatively  and start our drive towards the state Capital.

When we join the freeway it is into a caterpillar of crawling cars and a forest of red lights obscured by the falling snow.  The queue stretches out in front of us and even at these low speeds the wheels skid and slide every time Lee touches the brakes.  The severity of the conditions is confirmed by the amount of wrecks on either side of the road, and the flashing blue and red lights, mingling into the view.  Fortunately most of the crashes are very minor, with cars just having spun around and touched the walls, but they are a constant reminder that a driver cannot relax for a second.

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Lee is amazing, he drives gently with smooth acceleration and braking.  Not only does he keep his Toyota fully under control, but also well away from other cars who may not be as careful.  Strangely those who have crashed already are helping us, because the traffic crawls ever more slowly thereby lessening the chance of further accidents.

The chances of getting to Lincoln for my first show later this morning are lessening by the moment.

On we edge and on the opposite carriageway is a much more serious wreck, with one car completely smashed at the front and a van that looks like it may have been on its roof, judging by the misshapen panels.

I take the opportunity of the time available to me and open the laptop to complete yesterday’s blog post.  Lee continues to keep us on a straight course.

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We have been in the road for nearly an hour, and are still in Omaha.  On we inch.

And gradually the traffic clears, and the snow abates, although it is still very icy on the road surface.  The gravitational pull of Omaha releases us and we are able to pick up a little speed as we head to Lincoln.  The clouds are less intense and indeed there is even a slither of blue slashed across the sky.

Over the carriageway there is a sign saying ‘ICY ROADS.  USE AUTION’ I am glad I am not driving because I don’t know what an aution”is – I assume some sort of traction control or brake setting, maybe it is just for truckers I really am clueless over this one.  No, not clueless, just a complete idiot, for the next gantry has the same sign, but this time with all of the letters working: ‘ICY ROAD.  USE CAUTION’

We have made good time since leaving Omaha, even though the journey that should have taken an hour has taken almost two.

Our venues today are both retirement communities run by the Immanuel group.  I have been performing at their locations for three years now and it is always a very uplifting and positive experience.  The first venue is the Clark Jeary centre, and we are welcomed with open arms.  Camille is in charge of the event, and she has gone to great lengths to make sure everything is perfect.  The residents are enjoying a sumptuous tea served from silver pots into china cups and accompanied by beautifully decorated cakes.  a choir of carol singers, from one of the other centres, are gathered around a piano singing.  Camille had wanted everyone to be in the Christmas spirit prior to the show.

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There is a bitter sweet feeling to today’s event, because the director of the centre, a lady much loved by all of the staff and residents, died last week, and it is her funeral today.  Her spirit is palpable, and it is obvious that Camille wants today to be perfect in her honour.

I am given a guest suite to change in (rather different to the restrooms of yesterday), and I can finish and post my blog before starting to change.  This is a nice time to relax in, and prepare myself for the show.

When I am ready I make sure the stage is set just how I like it.  I place the red cloth on the chair, and the two little toys, rabbit and mouse, against the black backdrop from where they can watch unseen!

The next step is to make sure that my CD can play properly, but the player is tucked away in a cupboard in another room.  We engage plenty of help from the staff, so that via a relay of hand signals the cue can be given at the perfect moment.

And now it is start time.

I walk through the audience and onto the stage.  The opening passages about death and funerals feel awkward considering the loss that the centre has suffered, but everyone is concentrating hard and seems to be fully engaged with the story.

The show is fabulous: both I and the audience are enjoying it (this is the perfect antidote to the difficult evening in the gymnasium last night).  As Scrooge walks into the streets on Christmas morning, wishing all and sundry ‘Merry Christmas’, I pick a lady in the front row to shake hands with, but rather than taking my hand she offers hers to be kissed like a princess.  Class!

When the show is finished I take a few questions, and then people are invited to bring anything that they would like signed to the stage, and my princess is first in line, holding a tiny copy of A Christmas Carol that her mother had given her when she was ten years old, and which is still cherished and loved.

More residents wait patiently to take their turn.  Camille takes photographs of each one as we chat.  One gentleman proudly announces that he is a WW2 veteran.  ‘What service?’ ‘Navy!’  and the proud sailor shines through from the frail frame before me.  I tell him that my father, and uncles and grandfather all served in the Royal Navy.  His parting shot is to proudly tell me that he is now 95.  Amazing.

In due time the residents drift away, back to their rooms or other activities and it is time to pack up and move on.  I make sure that my suite is fully cleared, I rescue the CD from the little cupboard, say my goodbyes and join Lee ready to drive on to our next venue.

The Landings is another huge community owned and managed by the Immanuel group, and I have performed there before, three years ago.

The drive is a short one and in no time I am in familiar surroundings, being greeted by folk treating me like an old friend coming home.  Lee and I are guided in by the centre director John.   When I was here three years ago the visit had been arranged and booked by one of the residents, another John, and it is with great sadness that I learn he passed away last year, although his wife Mary Ann is still at The Landings.

We have quite a time before the afternoon show, and John shows us to a private dining area where we can have lunch before preparing for the event itself.  Kathy is with us and we have a lovely time sharing stories from the last couple of days, and my time working with the Douglas County Historical Society over the last 8 years.

We return to the room where the stage has been set up, and which I remember well.  I change, and set the stage as the first residents begin to take their places.  Some nimble and fit, others using frames, others carefully assisted by the attentive staff.  All are happy and cheerful.  Once again the choir sing their carols in the hallway.

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At 1.15 I stand at the back of the room as I am introduced, and then once again start the slow walk to the stage.

The show is powerful and energetic, although my lingering cold effects some of the vocal range, but in general I am very happy with the way things go.

After the show and questions I wait in the hallway saying goodbye to the audience, and am delighted when Mary Ann, John’s widow, comes up to me. We have a long hug and remember the force of energy who was her husband.

And so my time in Lincoln is over, and once I have gathered my things and said goodbye to everyone who has helped make the day so memorable, Lee and I go back to the car.  Although it is not snowing now – indeed the sky is clear blue with a brightly setting sun, the air is bitterly cold and a vicious prairie wind blows horizontally.

Our journey home is much swifter than this morning’s adventure, and I have time to rest in the hotel for an hour before the evening’s events begin.  As I begin to sort my costumes out I realise that I have left the two shirts which I used today at The Landings, which is frustrating,  but not a disaster, for they can be sent onto to the first venue of my second trip and wait for my arrival in a couple of weeks time.

I have a shower and get into a fresh costume (wearing my ‘Happy Socks’ tonight, such is my rebellious nature), and go down to the lobby to meet Lee once more.

Our evening is to be spent at the General Crook House, which is also the HQ of the Historical Society.  This is the third year that Kathy and Susie have hosted a dinner, at which I am a guest of honour.  There is no show to be performed, just fine fellowship with a dozen or so friendly people.

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The beautiful menu is prepared by Chef Mario and his team and as ever is an amazing fusion of flavours and textures, delicately served.  Chat is loud, laughter is constant.  Stories are told.

Susie presides over the table and each time she starts an anecdote with ‘I don’t know if I should say this, but I am going to….’ we all wonder what is to follow and if we are individually involved in the story – which I usually am!

Once the final course has been cleared away, we pull Christmas crackers around the table, and wearing our paper crowns we share the jokes:
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‘Q: What did the grape say when an elephant trod on him?  A: Nothing, he just gave a little wine!’

‘Q: What do you sing at a snowman’s birthday party?  A: Freeze a jolly good fellow!’

And so on and so forth.

The evening is winding down, and bearing in mind the state of the roads most people want to get going early.  It has been a long and tiring day and I am ready to get back to my bed.  So at around 9.30 Lee, Suzie and I get into the car and drive back to the Element, where I go to the 5th floor and gratefully subside between the sheets.

One thought for today: Thank you Lee for taking such good care of me on the roads this morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shootin’ Hoops

As expected I do wake early, giving me lots of time to read and write before breakfast. As I write my blog I am aware of my computer slowly dying, even though it is plugged in.  Earlier in the year the power socket failed and needed to be replaced and it looks as if the fault has returned, meaning that from now on all of my blog posts will have to be composed on my phone or Kindle.  With that in mind I delve into my bag to find the kindle charger and discover…..the laptop charger instead!  In the vagueness of the morning I had actually used the wrong charger for the laptop, and in fact everything is just fine and dandy after all.

Eventually I get showered and go down to the lobby where I have a bowl of cereal, some fruit and a proper English muffin, which is rather nice.  There is a lady at an omelette station, which is a new innovation for the Element, and I decide to have a couple of scrambled eggs on toast as well.  Orange juice and coffee complete the morning’s repast.

I have plenty of time in hand today, as I am not being picked up for my first event until 11.15, so I go back to my room and prepare a bag of laundry, which means that I am commuting between the 5th and the 3rd floor for the next hour.  In between times I finally finish Rocket Men, which has been a wonderful read.

I also prepare my costumes.  Today I am performing at two venues and may not have time to return to the hotel, so I make sure that I have everything that I need with me.  The costumes themselves are both on hangers and in my little roller bag I pack a towel, some socks, the black boots, the red ‘blanket’ the audio CD and a USB stick, both of which have my music on them, Fisherman’s Friends, water and anything else I think I may need.

At 11 I pick everything up, along with my top hat, scarf and cane, and make my way to the lobby and wait for the arrival of my good old friend Lee Phillips who always ferries me about when I am in Omaha.  In no time his grey Toyota pulls up and we are shaking hands, loading up and getting on the road.  As we drive we catch up with each others’ news – most important of which being our respective golfing exploits, for we share that passion.

We are driving towards Omaha Bryan High School this morning, where I will be performing to a group of English and drama students.  We make good time and soon arrive at the school which is undergoing major construction and re-modelling, making it difficult to find the main door.  Eventually we are rescued by a kindly teacher who takes us to the office and soon after that we are standing in the auditorium chatting to the drama teacher there.

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It is lovely to be on a stage.  I adore performing everywhere of course, but being on a stage, with lights and curtains and wings, bring back all of those memories of productions past: the excitement, the nerves, the elation.  As ever the students have scrawled messages on the walls about old productions meaning that for generations to come those shows will live on.

Also pinned on a wall is a poster extolling various rules by which the actor should always abide:

Always listen for your cue’ – I remember being stranded on stage once when a fellow actor didn’t come on.  Later, when asked what he was doing he replied that whilst waiting in the wings he became aware that something had gone wrong on stage, so he ran to the dressing room to fetch whoever should have been making their entrance not actually realising that it was him!)

I am already flaunting the no cell phone rule by taking pictures.

‘Stay hidden from the audience’ seems an odd one, as it wont make for a very good show if I do that.

‘Keep your hands to yourself’:  (Topper, you have been told – the same could apply to ‘If it is not yours, do not touch it’)

From the murky darkness of the wings I go back into the light of the stage and there see Kathy Aultz, the director of The Doulglas County Historical Society who organisers all of my events here and with whom I have become good friends over the past 8 years.

We chat and catch up, and Kathy tells me about the battles she fought to get me here this year. Because my 2018 is a severely curtailed one many venues have not been able to book the dates they wanted or even any dates at all. Well, when Pam Byers told Kathy that I may not be available this year teeth were bared, claws were sharpened and battle commenced! The result? I am standing on the stage of The Omaha Bryan High School waiting to perform.

 
We go through the preliminaries and set the stage with the furniture that the Historical Society tote around from venue to venue. We check that the sound queue is ready to go (my CD doesn’t work in the system here but the USB back up does), and then wait for the 1.15 start time.

 
I get changed in a small rest room near the stage, and go through a series of vocal warm ups to prepare for the performance:

 
‘Bibbity Bobbity brought a bat. Bibbity Bobbity brought a ball.’

 
And:

 
‘She stood upon the balcony mimicking him hiccupping and amicably welcoming him in.’

 
As I am chanting these refrains I am suddenly aware that Kathy is talking to the students ready to welcome me onto the stage. A few deep breaths later and I am on.

 
The audience is quite small in the large auditorium, but very attentive and I can give the full show with all of its nuances. The characterisation is good, and the movement around the stage works well – this is the first time this year that I have been able to give a full-scale theatrical performance and I am delighted to discover that it is in a good place.

 
When I finish I return to the stage and the students, especially those in the drama department, are keen to ask questions and we spend a very enjoyable twenty minutes or so bantering to and fro.

 
Even when the Q&A session ends the group pour onto stage for lots of photographs. There is something infectious about being around young theatre folk – there is an idealism, a positivity, about them. Recently I joined an online community hosted by some people I was at college with in the early 1980, and even though we are all in our 50s now, the memories of that same spirit came flooding back to me.

 
When everything is wrapped up and the last pictures taken I return to my rest room to change, and then Lee and I go to find some lunch. As we drive we come to a railroad crossing just as a huge freight train lumbers through and I am treated to the twin evocative sounds of the clanging crossing bell and the train’s mournful hooter. Never was I more in America than at this moment.

 
We have a simple yet delicious lunch at a Panera Bread outlet and then Lee drops me off at the hotel where I can rest for an hour or so, before he returns to drive me to my evening performance. This time his wife Susie is with him and we hug on the forecourt of The Element before getting into the car. It was Susie who first made moves to bring me to Omaha and over the years she and Lee have travelled to England and stayed in our house. They are both true friends and Susie is keen to have updates about all of our news.

 
As it happens she has plenty of time to grill me, as the Omaha traffic is heavy and we crawl slowly toward our destination. Our route takes us past the American National Bank building, where a tree lighting ceremony is in progress. On a small stage a Salvation Army band is playing and there is something wonderfully evocative about carols played on brass. For a moment I am six years old again standing outside my childhood home on the corner of Boyne Park and Mayfield Road, listening to the Salvation Army band play ‘Away in a Manger’ just for me.

 
Back in the twenty first-century our progress is slow, but eventually we find our way to the Michael Mount High School, which is a private boys school formed by Benedictine monks, and where I am to perform for the borders this evening.

 
We pull up outside the auditorium and make our way inside. My heart sinks, for this is not an auditorium, this is a basketball court. I am in a 1950s gymnasium. Along the longest wall some wooden bleachers have been pulled out which is presumably where the boys will sit. Kathy and her assistant Roxanne are already there and as I greet them my words echo round and round and round. In the background a vintage air conditioning unit growls loudly and intimidatingly.

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Mic or no mic?

 
I shouldn’t need one, as the audience will be close to me, but on the other hand the room is so long (about the length of a basketball court strangely), that as soon as I address one end the others wont be able to hear. However amplification will simply exaggerate the echo and render the words inaudible. I spend a few minutes trying passages with and without a microphone as the others listen, and the decision is made that it will be better with. So be it.

 
The next job is to get the air conditioning shut off and Gina, our contact here, spends a lot of time on the phone until she is told by the maintenance department how to put the poor old system out of its misery.

 
I am not looking forward to this show.

 
As seven approaches the boys begin to appear in shorts and t shirts, trainers (sneakers) and slippers. I am not entirely sure that they are keen on spending their evening watching a Victorian novel being performed by one man, and my expectations for the evening drop another notch.

 
When everyone is on the bleachers (some sitting, most lounging, some laying), Kathy makes an introduction and I am ready to start. My worst fears are realised as there is a lot of shuffling going on. There is no reaction to the show. I plough on – I am determined to get through this properly, and some of the adults present (teachers and a smattering of parents) seem to be enjoying it.

 
About a third of the way through my heart sinks as one boy gets up and leaves the gym. This is a recurring stress-nightmare I have, that during a show one member of the audience leaves, followed by a second and a third, until the room is empty except for me. However that does not happen and everyone else remains seated. In fact the boy in question returns after a few minutes and resumes his place. I get a little boost from that and move on.

 
I do not enjoy the performance.  It is one of the evenings when I believe that nobody in the room actually wants to be there!  But I am proud of the show as I do not let my negative thoughts get the better of me and delivered the full script.

 
We have a question session afterwards again, and although most of the questions come from the adults, the boys listen politely and applaud loudly (enhanced by the natural acoustic of the hall), when I say goodnight.

 
Having got changed and collected all my things we say goodbye to Gina and drive back to Omaha and my hotel. Rather than going to a restaurant tonight I pick up a microwavable chicken dish from the hotel pantry, and cook it for 3 minutes and forty-five seconds back in my room. I watch the TV as I eat and slowly wind down after what has been a busy and tiring day.

 
My final thought of the day is an odd one: there is a commercial for Macy’s promoting their Veteran’s Day sale. Is this not a little distasteful? Veteran’s Day is a great thing for the nation to thank those who have given service in the name of their country, and if Macy’s would like to offer discounts to those who have served, then that would be a good thing; but to have a special sale the purpose of which is purely to increase their profits, using the veteran’s as an excuse? No. I don’t like that.

 
And with that, I sign off!

To Omaha

And so my time at The Inn comes to a close for another year.  I have settled in so well that it was a bit of a shock to realise that I have to pack my cases once more.

I stuff my top hat with socks and underwear then wrap the thick woollen scarf that I use in the show around it, both of which help to protect its shape during travel.  Then I pack the freshly laundered white shirts, which I have folded, around the hat before adding my other clothes.  The two costumes are separated – one in the main case and one in the little carry-on roller, so that in the event of a suitcase being lost I can still perform.

And now I scour the room – cufflinks, chargers, wallet, phone, gloves, my pen, ink cartridges, watch, the two little toy animals, cards and pictures given to me by audience members, all are carefully located and packed, for I am determined not to leave anything anywhere this year (I know, fat chance of that happening but it is a laudable ambition nonetheless).  My search is actually profitable because I find a little USB mains plug, left by a precious incumbent of room 533.  I don’t know, some people are just SO careless!

I have an early breakfast but there are still plenty of folk to chat to and say good bye to.  It is always strange to see ‘my’ room without the stage and returned to its natural state – a touch of the Fezziwigs ballroom being returned to a warehouse.  At least the video promoting my shows (and on which some regular guests have recorded very nice comments), is still playing.

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With breakfast finished I pack the final few things and check out of the hotel, having given Dwight a great big hug and handshake at his concierge’s desk. I locate my silver Nissan Ultima in the car park, (a slightly different automotive prospect to yesterday’s offering, but one which is perfectly adequate for my needs.), get my cases in, set the sat nav and head off towards Knoxville airport.

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I mentioned on Saturday that I missed the views of the mountains as I drove in at night, well today the views are fantastic with a low winter light highlighting the last remaining fall colours.

I love the roadside advertisements on this route and one that catches my eye particularly is for, I imagine, filtered water.  The company in question is not a big corporation with teams of marketing men giving presentations to board members before signing off an ad campaign.  No, I think that this slogan was plucked out of the air around a kitchen table somewhere: ‘What’s in your water?  King’s Water for Better Wetter Water’!  I know that in Britain if you make a claim in an advert you have to be able to justify that it is true, so how do you prove that your water is wetter? and wetter than what?  Of course the thing is that among all of the other ads that is the one I noticed, meaning that it worked rather well.

The journey to Knoxville passes uneventfully and any worries that I may have had about heavy rush hour traffic prove unfounded.  I refuel the car (although the gauge is almost on full anyway), and return it to the Hertz desk where I am sent on my way by a very cheery employee of that company.

Knoxville airport is beautifully compact so that check in, bag-drop and security is the work of but a few moments.  I walk to gate 11 which is at the very furthest extremity of the terminal building meaning a trek of maybe a minute, and find a seat to wait until the flight is called.  I am still reading Rocket Men and still marvelling at the bravery and ingenuity of the men who not only flew but built those beautiful rocket ships.  In the book there is a photograph of the three astronauts being interviewed on the 40th anniversary of their flight, so I get online and search YouTube to see if the footage is still available.  Sure enough I find a wonderful recording of a Smithsonian lecture at which Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders recalled their mission.  All of the men were into their 70s or 80s at the time of the interview, but the clarity of recall is amazing, as is the fact that the dynamic between them is still exactly as it was in 1868.

Whilst I am online I also go to the Netflix site and download a couple of episodes of the last series of House of Cards, which will be fun to catch up with.

My first flight is to Chicago  and we leave the ground on schedule at 10.50 and sore above the golden foliage beneath, which bids me farewell to the Smokey’s for another year.

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The flight is very routine and smooth.  I enjoy episode one of House of Cards and it looks as if it is going in a good direction with Claire Underwood at the helm.

As we start our descent into Chicago I notice that we are running absolutely parallel to a large 747 on his own final approach and together we break through the clouds and together we glide over the massive sprawl of Chicago before touching down together on our respective runways.

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As is always the case in the huge city hub airports I have to change terminal to find my onward flight, but there is plenty of time to ride the moving walkway with the neon light art installation, which takes me under the runway to concourse C.  In fact the timing works well as I just have time for a sandwich for lunch before my flight to Omaha is called.

The flight is only an hour or so and is again unremarkable.  Soon we are flying low over huge Midwest farms and touching down.  It is 2.30 pm, which is a nice time to arrive.

Having collected my bags (after a worryingly long wait during which everybody else seemed to retrieve their luggage), I board a shuttle bus to the car rental facility and go to the Hertz office.  This year Bob Byers has booked all of the rental cars through Hertz, meaning I can just turn up, collect the keys and go, without the need for all of the extra palaver that can take up so much time.

This time I find my steed to be a solid and impressive white Ford Fusion.  It is very comfortable and as I drive away I notice that it is a hybrid model, matching the internal combustion engine with harvested electrical power, meaning that under urban driving conditions the emissions are lower and efficiency better.  I think that this is my first time to drive a Hybrid car – goodness, yesterday first time in a V8 6.2 litre Corvette Stingray, and today first time in Hybrid car.  How adventurous I am.

The drive from the airport to my hotel in the city only takes up about 20 minutes of my day and soon I am pulling into my home in Omaha, the Element hotel at Midtown Crossing.  The rooms are mini suites with full kitchen facilities, should I need them, and I feel very comfortable very quickly.

Waiting for me is a bag of goodies from my dear friends at The Douglas County Historical Society, with whom I shall be working over the next three days.  Also in the bag is my itinerary for my time here.  Over the first two days I will be performing at High Schools (Thursday) and retirement communities (Friday), before my regular performances at The Field Club and the Crook House on Saturday.  It promises to be a fun few days.

I unpack my costumes and hang them up so that any creases can drop out, before relaxing and reading for a while.

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I have lost an hour travelling from East Tennessee to Nebraska and I feel quite hungry quite early, so at around 6.30 I wrap up in scarf, coat and gloves to make the short walk to the Black Oak Grill which is part of the Midtown Crossing complex.  It is sad to see that many of the retail and dining units are empty, for this has always had the feeling of a very vibrant and thriving part of town.  The great curve of buildings overlooking the swoop of a green park is an impressive site and it would be terrible if it proved to be a white elephant of a development.

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Once in the restaurant I sit at the bar with my book and order what turns out to be a delicious ‘Iron Skillet Trout: Toasted almond crust, served with a blend of green onion basmati rice, pinot-infused cranberries and toasted almonds. Topped with saffron lemon butter’.

It is a good dinner and long may the Black Oak Grill remain!

It is still early when I return to the hotel, but I am ready for sleep, although I know that I will pay for it in the early hours.  I unpack a few more things and then get to bed at around 9.45.

 

 

 

 

Please Santa…

Breakfast this morning is certainly a busy affair.  I go down slightly later than usual and the two rooms are packed.  Almost everyone there has seen at least one of my shows, and there is lots of chat and thanks, which is wonderful.

The main room (aka my theatre) is very crowded and the best way to get to my table is across the stage, which feels very odd for I feel as if I should ‘do’ something up there. The little stage is such a safe place for me during the shows but now I feel clumsy and awkward up there – very strange.

Among the conversations is a fascinating one from a couple who have recently visited the Normal Rockwell museum in Massachusetts and who learned that the artist used to sketch Dickens characters as his father read him Pickwick, Copperfield, Little Dorrit and the rest.  I had no idea that there was such a close connection between these two icons of Christmas and I am keen to learn more.

When I finish breakfast the Rockwell connection continues, for there is the most perfect  Santa sitting in front of the tree.  I pose for a picture with him and before I know it we are the centre of a major photo op, with countless phones and tablets pointing at us.  It is great fun among the many friends I have here.

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Among the camera-toting group is Gary Guthrie who I am due to meet a little later for my Pigeon Forge Christmas treat, the clue to which is emblazoned on his polo shirt.

At 10 o’clock I go down to the lobby where quite a crowd has gathered and there parked outside the hotel door is the most beautiful gun metal Corvette Stingray C7.

Two years ago I wrote the following entry in my blog post:

As I walk back I notice the most remarkable vehicle in the hotel car park. It looks like a Lamborghini, or something from a Batman movie. It is steely grey, with red brake callipers being the only flash of colour. The exhaust pipes are lined up like four flame throwers and the whole vehicle seems to hug the ground. It is an extraordinary piece of automotive engineering and I am amazed to see that it is, in fact, a Corvette. The whole thing is quirkily set of by the licence plate: ‘Thx Santa’!

A day or two later I received an email from Gary:

I’m the guy that owns the THX SNTA Corvette you talked about in your Blog. If I’m lucky enough to make it to the Inn next year while you are there and drive the Corvette I will let you drive it as long as you stay away from the deer. My wife and I loved all three of the events we went to and loved getting to talk to you. Thank you so much for making our Christmas Season so enjoyable.

Although the Guthries did come to the show last year they didn’t travel in the Corvette, but this year the beast is back and Gary wanted to make good on his offer.  Those who regularly read my posts will know that I am a complete car nut, a real petrol head, so the chance to drive such an amazing vehicle was not one I was going to ignore.

The Stingray is Gary’s pride and toy and he loves showing it off.  I am still not sure if we are going for a ride in it (fine by me), or if he is really happy for me to take the driving seat but after posing for a few pictures he gestures to the cockpit and says ‘so, would you like to take it out?’  Um, let me think for a momen…YES!

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With Gary and the Stingray

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Posing

The car is instantly comfortable and once the seat and steering wheel is adjusted (I use a racing position – quite upright with the wheel high) I feel completely at one with the car.  The visibility is much better than I had imagined and I have a very clear sense of where the extremities are.

Push the start button and GROWWWWWWLLLLLL  6.2 litre, V8: oh, this is an American car alright.  Gary explains how the exhaust note can actually be adjusted – muted for urban driving and full beans for track days and drives around Pigeon Forge.

The driving is amazing, and surprisingly easy, I can tell that it would be a good grand tourer as well as a racer (a similar model competes at the 24 hours of Le Mans). It moves away easily and rides smoothly, but I am always aware that under my right foot there is untold power.  When we are at a red light Gary suggests that when we move away I shift from 1st to 2nd quickly and then floor the throttle – I do as he says and in an instant the wheels are spinning and the traction control is taking over as the whole thing bucks and shudders.  Oh yes!

We drive around the back roads of Pigeon Forge past the Dollywood theme park.  The road is not exactly Laguna Seca or the Nürburgring , but I do get a fantastic sense of the capabilities of the ‘vette.

As pleasurable as the driving is, one of the great things about the morning is chatting with Gary, who I have to say is remarkable relaxed despite my clumsy gearchanges and woeful lane discipline.  Gary worked for GM for many years and even worked on the American version of the turbocharged Lotus Esprit.  He is a kind and fascinating man, and we have lots in common.

All too soon we are pulling back into the parking lot of the hotel and I sadly shut down the engine and clamber out.  What an amazing morning: Gary, thank you!  I go back into the hotel – where is Santa? I may want to add something to my Christmas list…..

And I am back to normal life.

My first show today is at 3 so I have plenty of time to spare.  I decide to walk across the main Pigeon Forge strip to the Incredible Christmas Store, which is a temple to all things Christmas from traditional nativities to glittery ornaments in the shape of, well, anything you can imagine.  The store is divided into different zones one of which promotes the products of Department 56.  D56 have been making a range of ceramic buildings based on the life and works of Charles Dickens for many years, but the veracity of their products can not always be relied upon, for example I notice there is a model of the Marshalsea debtors prison in which Dickens’ father John was incarcerated.  The D56 model is a rather quaint, quirky little cottage – not the high-walled edifice that Charles knew and feared.

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NOT the Marshalsea!

Returning from the store I still have left myself time for lunch today (unlike yesterday) and I decide to go to the Blue Moose restaurant where I have chicken, fries and a corn on the cob, which should keep me going until dinner this evening.  I have to be back in my room by 1, as I have to phone a radio station in Nebraska to record an interview regarding one of my events there in a few days’ time.

The interview is actually going to air next Monday, after the event, so we chat as if the presenter was there and had watched it.  I hope for his sake nothing extraordinary  happens during the actual performance otherwise we are going to look very silly!

During our conversation Dale points out that I am 55 and that Charles Dickens died at the age of 58, which is a cheery prospect to reflect upon.

Interview finished I walk to a local pharmacy and purchase some cold remedies, as I am still feeling a bit ‘heavy’, and then it is time to prepare for Nickleby again.

The audience is smaller today, but are just as curious to see a new show.  I begin by explaining the background of the book, and my creation of the script, and then I launch in.  It is a much more physical and energetic show than last night, and the sweat is flowing freely as I reach the end.

I have always had a bit of an issue with three characters in Nickleby and today I decide to resolve it:  The voices that I give to Newman Noggs, Ned Cheeryble and his brother Charles have always been very similar.  In the case of the last two that is fine, because they are twins and I play up to the fact that they sound identical, but differentiating them from Noggs has been my problem.  Today – during the performance – I suddenly decide to make the Brothers Cheeryble Welsh.  Don’t ask me why, it just seemed like an interesting idea, and it works!

With the play finished I host another Q&A before letting Kristy take the stage to hand out the door prizes, while I prepare for the signing session in the shadow of the giant Glockenspiel.

When I am finished I suddenly realise that I am leaving the Inn tomorrow and travelling onto Nebraska, so I make sure that I am checked in for my flight, and then do my first laundry of the tour, before sitting on my bed and watching TV until it is time to get ready for the evening’s performance of A Christmas Carol.

It is another full house, but before we let them in Kristy, Dwight and I have a chat and reflect on another successful year together.  We really have become a great team!

The show is not my best, as my voice is not at its strongest, however the pacing of the show is good (I have been trying to speed things up a little, with not so many dramatic, but ponderous, pauses) and overall I am pleased with the way the evening pans out.  Once again we have a brief question and answer session, before I retire to my dressing room and change into my dry costume ready for the signing session, which is long again.

My post show routine is well trodden now, and soon I am back at my favourite haunt and eating a pizza and salad.

Music is playing over the sound system and it is mostly country artists whom I don’t know, but suddenly there is Don Mclean’s American Pie and I am singing along – as, I notice, are most of the other customers.  Memory is an amazing thing: I haven’t heard this recording for years (we used to have a Don Mclean greatest hits album at home), but the lyrics come straight back to me: ‘ Well I know that you’re in love with him, ’cause I saw you dancing in the gym.  You both kicked off your shoes.  Man, I dig those rhythm and blues’  and ‘Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Jack Flash sat on a candlestick….’.  Everyone in that bar knew all the words to all the verses – that makes it a true classic in my book!

Dinner finished I return to my room, set an alarm and tuck myself into bed, no doubt to dream of American muscle cars!

mellow mushroom

 

 

 

 

 

NickNick

My third day in Pigeon Forge begin in time honoured fashion with darkness outside the window and the view dominated by the constantly-changing lurid neon of the local ferris wheel which never seems to shut down (is it the Pigeon Forge Eye?  The Pigeon Eye.  The Eye that Never Sleeps, with apologies to Pinkerton’s Detective Agency).

I sit in bed and think through  the events of yesterday before recording them for posterity.  At around 7.30 I get up and showered  and make my way down to the breakfast room.  I load up a couple of bowls with granola and fruit and find a table in the large room that is dominated by my stage and set.  Later today I will be performing one of my other shows, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and I need to work out how to adapt it to the little T-shaped stage that I have here.  As I devour my pears I run through various scenes in my mind, trying too see how they will fit in this space.  I must look rather vacant and pre-occupied to anyone else who is watching on, but it is a useful exercise.

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Pondering the stage

There are many faces I know in the room and many people wave and chat about yesterday’s shows or their excitement at seeing a new performance today.  It is a fact that without exception everyone here is just so polite!  The manners and etiquette in the Southern states are so strong, and as I watch a father with his child gently enforcing ideals of respect as they eat together I can see where this innate good nature is born.  Very rarely do you see instances of a parent shouting at kids, or ignoring them, or belittling them as is so often the case elsewhere in the world.

I have always been impressed about how genuinely friendly folk are here and how they eager they are to talk, but also how much they respect personal space and leave me to my own devices when they can see that is what I want.

There is a lot that the world can learn from Tennessee folk.

One conversation is particularly exciting, I get chatting to an old friend from years past called Gary Guthrie, and he is keen to see if I have any spare time during my stay as he has a treat for me.  We agree to meet on Tuesday morning for…ah, but that would be telling!  However on Tuesday I will be like a kid in a sweet shop.

Back in my room I get all of the props and costume for Nicholas Nickleby out and make sure everything is in order – noose, horse-whip, schoolmaster’s cane.  I wonder what airport security made of that lot when they x-rayed my case a few days ago.  For the next hour or so I work my way through the script, and recalling the thoughts I had in the breakfast room, to fit what is basically a theatre show onto a smaller stage.

The rehearsal goes well and it is nice to slip back into Nickleby which I haven’t performed for a couple of years but which used to be the most performed show in my repertoire.

My first actual commitment is at 1pm, and it is back to the Carol again.  I get into costume and go downstairs to prepare.  Dwight and Kristy have great feedback from yesterday’s shows and the initial feelings is that the new Tiny Tim scene is working well and people like it, which is good to hear.

The room is laid out ready, with plates of delicious looking cookies and gingerbread men, as well as urns of coffee and hot spicy cider.

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The doors are opened and in come the crowd, excited and noisy.  Dwight and Kristy welcome, chat and banter in their inimitable way, while I shake hands and greet in mine.  People fill out their door-prize slips and put them in the little box, and generally settle in ready to be taken back to 1843.

With 15 minutes to go we start the handing out of the gifts for those on a package, and as usual there is much laughter and fun to be had.  This is really a very good way of warming the audience up and getting them fully involved even before the show has started.

At 1 the giant glockenspiel in the lobby chimes the hour, and Dwight makes his introductory remarks before welcoming me onto the stage.  The mournful cellos of the Trans Siberian orchestra fill the room and Ebenezer Scrooge makes his slow way onto the stage, as if following the coffin of his deceased partner to the grave.  The bells toll.  The atmosphere is set.  ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.  There is no doubt…..’ at which the strains of Percy Faith’s rousing ‘Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly’ blare out and rather destroy the whole moment. Bugger!

Whether because of the sound mistake (I shouldn’t have both tracks on the same CD), or whether that is how this particular audience are, the show has a slow start with little response from the crowd.  I carry on with the script not letting myself get agitated and concentrate on doing the best job I can.  As the story progresses the audience relax and soon are fully involved, which is a great relief!

The rest of the show goes without a hitch (apart from a couple of coughs and splutters due to my ever-improving cold), and the end is greeted by a lovely standing ovation.

Having changed into a dry costume I return to the stage to do our now regular Q&A session, which is fun.  The lady in the front row whose arm had been the recipient of Old Joe’s snot wiping admits that she has played the same role for the last two years (she really shouldn’t keep sitting in that seat!), whilst the lady who Topper flirted with piped up to say that she had been Joe’s arm three years ago and in general much preferred being the object of Topper’s attentions.

Having wound up the questions we all make our way to the lobby for the signing session, where I sit in front of the tree to scribble my name and smile.

When everything ends I go back to my room, and relax for a while, before returning to the tree for yet more signing.  In past years I have appeared at the Amazing Christmas Place itself, but the signing sessions have never really worked there, so this year Kristy has decided to bring it back to the hotel  Any proceeds raised will be donated to local elementary schools, but not for books, or teaching resources, but to supply them with walkie-talkies for heightened security in these uncertain times.  It is an awful realism that in the shadow of the majestic Smoky Mountains, in a region of good manners and respect there is a need to protect students from attack, but these are the times we live in.

There is a good stream of people buying books and we all have fun together. In between times Kristy and I chat about the best way of laying out the stage for the evening’s performance of Nickleby.  In the end we find a very small table and chair, which wont get in the way too much, and rather than having a screen for old Ralph to hang himself behind we move the entire fireplace from the Carol set forward, so I can slip behind that at the relevant moment.  It should all work.

The signing session finished at 5.30 and I have a couple of hours to rest before preparing for the evening’s show.  Thanks to a succession of early mornings I am feeling a little tired, so go to my room, set an alarm and doze for a while which is lovely.

All too soon 7pm comes around and I start to prepare.  First of all I have one of my icy showers to wake and energise me and then get into the all-black costume for Nickleby.  I make sure I have the various props needed for the show and make my way down to find a huge crowd waiting and baying at the door.

With everything where it should be we are ready to go and Kristy opens the doors as if they were sluice gates on a weir and the tide of excited and curious folk flood in.

I begin the show by talking about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby and how that so inspired me back in the early 80s, and then launch in to my show.  It is so different to A Christmas Carol and I think the audience take a little while to adapt (also the thick Yorkshire accents may be rather difficult to comprehend), but as the show goes on they are laughing along.  Mr Vincent Crummles and his family are particular hits, as is dear old Tim Linkinwater.

It is a lovely feeling to inhabit old friends again and the evil Ralph Nickleby, Wackford Squeers and Sir Mulberry Hawk take the stage with ease, while the two Cheeryble Brothers live up to the spelling of their name.  All is a success.

It is interesting where the Q&A sessions go, and this time the questions very much focus on my process of creating a show – how long does it take to write and to learn and do I write the adaptations myself?

The signing session that follows is quite a long one, which I am surprised by as most people have already seen A Christmas Carol and have already purchased books, but people just love to chat, which is brilliant.

We wrap up at around 9.30 and I go back to my room to change.  I am starving, as I never really had a proper lunch today, so I cant wait for a good supper at the dear old Mellow Mushroom.  I select a large burger and mini roasted potatoes and sit alone at the bar running the events of the day through my mind as I eat and wind down. I even treat myself to a lavish, and most unhealthy, dessert.

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It has been a fun day, and things went well.  Tomorrow will be my last in Pigeon Forge before moving away from this little cocoon that is the Inn at Christmas Place, and I have two more shows to do, but before that there is my treat.  Tomorrow Gary will let me….well, you must read the next blog post to discover what!

 

 

 

 

Up and Running

Despite the long travel day yesterday my body clock stubbornly refuses to admit that I may be tired and I wake, according to the bedside clock, at around 5.  Unfortunately, briefly unbeknown to me, in the USA the clocks went back this morning so it is in fact around 4.

Pooh!

I read a bit, write my blog, and eventually make some coffee as the minutes, and eventually hours, drift slowly by.  But being five hours behind the UK means that Liz and the girls will be up and about, so for the first time on this trip I take advantage of  WatsApp and send a few messages home, which leads to a video call and thanks to the wonders of modern technology I am stood in my hotel room watching the girls on a blustery hill as they have a Sunday morning walk together.

It is so good to talk, and hear their news, whilst I can take them on a brief tour of the hotel room, showing off the beautifully lit Christmas decorations, and the view out of my window as dawn breaks over the Smoky Mountains.  The call is very special and makes me feel very happy.

One of the books I am reading at the moment is ‘Rocket Men’ about the early days of the space race and specifically the Apollo missions, and I say a silent ‘thank you’ to the intrepid astronauts whose bravery meant that I can stand in a Tennessee hotel and be in direct contact with my family thousands of miles away.

Morning breaks, and it is a beautiful day, with a clear sky over the mountains which are still tinged in magnificent fall colours.

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I gradually get ready for the first day of the tour.  I hang my costumes up in the wardrobe and unpack a few things from my suitcase before having a shower and generally joining the human race.  I am aware that I have a bit of a cold, probably not helped by my day in a pressurised cabin, but I hope that it doesn’t effect my performances later today.

Breakfast at The Inn at Christmas Place is a large, noisy buffet and even though I am early there are platy of people already tucking into large omelettes, pancakes, waffles, cereals and fruit.  Among them are many familiar faces of old friends who have been coming to see my shows here over multiple years.  There is a particular and unique atmosphere at The Inn which I experience nowhere else – an atmosphere of companionship and conviviality.

My breakfast is satisfying, if not altogether healthy, and I have an extra cup of coffee to finish, whilst thinking about my unofficial ‘breakfast of the tour’ award, which is seriously up for grabs this year.  In the past the top spot has been a battle between the sumptuous offerings of Williamsburg or Hershey, but as I am not visiting either this year, the field is wide open!

Although I have no commitments until 3 pm, I have decided to have a very quiet and lazy day in my room, and hope to catch up on a bit of sleep, if possible, but the first thing to do is to rehearse.

I move furniture in the room so that there is rough approximation of the set, and  get my top hat, scarf and cane ready.  I place the red cloth, which is my new addition for this year, on the chair and even use the CD player on the bedside table to play my intro music.

Although it is useful to go through the lines, the real point of this rehearsal is to see how I can use the cloth throughout the show.  The main point is to have it next to Tiny Tim’s stool during the passage I am introducing this year, but there may be opportunities to use it at other moments too.

My first inclination is to use the cloth far too much:  it becomes Scrooge’s bedspread, then a sort of puppetry Ghost of Christmas Past floating all over the place, then a shawl for young Belle, which old Scrooge picks up sorrowfully as she leaves his younger self.  The cloth then reverts to the bedspread before becoming a representation of Tiny Tim being carried by Bob, and then the Cratchit’s table cloth.  On into the future and it becomes bed curtains and, at last, the frail figure of Tiny Tim, gently held and kissed by his father.

I have always prided myself in ‘less is more’ when it comes to props, and it quickly becomes apparent that I am attempting far too much with my new toy, and it will become completely confusing to an audience as to what it represents, so I go back and try it again, this time restricting myself to using it as bedcovers and Tim, which seems to work much more successfully.

I rest a little and at 12 go out for lunch, knowing that I have two full shows before I can eat a proper meal tonight, so it is important to get properly fuelled.  There is an Italian restaurant next door to the hotel, and it is quiet today.  I order a small bowl of Minestrone soup and a grilled salmon with roasted vegetables for my entrée: a perfect show day meal.

Back at the hotel it is time to start getting ready.  I check my costumes and find that the new trousers could do with a press, so I liberate a pillow case and wet it to use as a pressing cloth (goodness knows what housekeeping must think).  I trim my beard, shave, and shower to freshen up and stimulate some energy.  My cold is feeling heavy, which is frustrating, but there’s nothing I can do other than trust to Doctor Theatre (or his colleague Dr. Footlights) to get me through.

At 2pm I take all of my costumes and props down to the ballroom where I meet Kristy, Dwight and Debbi for the first time this year.  We have formed a brilliant team over the years and we have soon dropped into the same banter as ever, as if the last twelve months have never happened.  But they have – and one of my commitments this year is to include the two little dolls representing our daughters on the set, so that they can feel part of the shows.  Here there is a magnificent mantle piece with lanterns and a large clock, so the little bunny and mouse snuggle close together there.

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Even though there is an hour to go before showtime there is a long queue building already, and soon Kristy and Dwight take the decision to open the doors, and allow the flood to pour in.

Soon there is a loud buzz in the room as people find seats and avail themselves of cookies, gingerbread men and hot cider.  I don’t hide myself away here, but meet, greet, chat and pose as the audience grows ever larger.  With about five minutes to go Kristy and Dwight take to the stage for the ceremony of presenting everyone who has booked a package at the hotel, with their books and ornaments: this is fun and I scurry from one side of the room to the other directed from the stage.

Gifts distributed, Dwight remains on the stage to make my formal introductions which he does with his silky, musical East Tennessee accent, and then the deep tones of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen are playing over the PA system and I am on stage uttering, for the first time, ‘Marley Was dead, to begin with’

The cold in my head (which according to the novel old Scrooge is also suffering with) is annoying and means that I cant give the vocal performance I want to, but everything runs smoothly.  I resist the temptation to use the cloth all the time, and it works very well in its brief moments under the spotlight.

It is not a great show, but a perfectly good one, and the audience stand to applaud when I get to the end.  I had suggested to Kristy earlier that it may be fun to do a quick bit of Q&A after the show, and as she needs to draw the door prizes I have time to change costume before returning to the stage.  We have a fun few minutes talking about various aspects of the show, and in particular the creation of a Christmas Pudding and just why Mrs Cratchit gets so irate about hers.  One gentleman asks me my age:  I was hoping for a gasp of ‘no, you are not that old, you look so much younger’ but am greeted by general nodding of heads, as if to say ‘yup, that’s what we thought!’

We wrap up the session and then I lead the audience, Pied Piper style, out to the lobby where I sit behind a high desk in front of a lavishly decorated Christmas tree and sign books and pose for pictures, until the last of the group drifts away.

I have a little time to myself now, so return to the room and lay on the bed to rest before getting ready for the evening show.  Kristy has asked me to be in the ballroom for 7.15 as she is expecting a television crew to turn up, but when I get there all is deserted (although once again there is a huge line forming as the evening audience jostle to get the best seat).  I sit alone in the room looking at the set and reflecting on the afternoon’s show and thinking what could be done better, or differently, until my reverie is broken by Kristy and Dwight, bearing the news that the TV crew cant come after all.

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In which case, it is showtime once more.  The doors are opened and we go back into our meet and greet routine again, with a larger audience this time, most of who have booked packages with the hotel, making the distribution of gifts a very long affair, with lots of laughter and fun.

The show itself is a better version, although still somewhat restricted by a croaky throat and a heavy head, but the movement on stage is working better, as are the characterisations.  The audience are lively and boisterous and join in willingly, which is always fun, and the time seems to rush by (even though by the clock the show is the same length as the earlier one).

The Q&A tonight lasts longer and with some great questions, and I get to talk quite a bit about how the show came into existence, which actually is very useful for me to remember.  I talk about how I originally edited the script and how I have developed it over the years, and what my objectives were.  I am asked which my favourite scenes are, and who my favourite characters are.  Do I have a favourite film version? Which is my favourite novel?  What did I think of ‘The Man who Invented Christmas’ and so on.

Eventually I bring the session to a close and then the signing starts, which is equally long – everybody wants to chat tonight which is a sure fire sign that things went well and everyone is happy.  However, I am flagging and am rather glad when the line finally dwindles to an end.

I get back to my room, change into regular clothes, and head out to the only restaurant still serving food at this hour, and my regular post-show haunt, the Mellow Mushroom, where I have a delicious sausage Calzone for dinner.

The clear skies of the morning have given way to heavy rain, but it is cooling and refreshing as I walk to the bar.

It has been a good day, and nice to get things going so successfully.  Hopefully I can shake off the cold quickly and really enjoy these first days of performing, before returning home briefly in a week’s time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (without the Trains)

The day has arrived and my 2018 Christmas season is officially underway.  Between now and December 25th I will be on the road performing A Christmas Carol in America and home in Britain.  As regular readers will know this year’s American visits are somewhat shorter than in years past, as it is impossible to be away from our adopted children for long periods of time  having spent the last three months building a firm connection.

Also, and equally as important, is the fact that I am leaving Liz to cope alone with two boisterous, excitable and energetic girls, and she needs me home to help.

Goodbyes never get any easier, and this morning runs true to form.  Because the first trip is relatively short (just over a week, covering three venues), I am actually taking our little bright green Mazda to Heathrow airport and leaving it in long term parking, and it is with heavy hearts that Liz and I make sure that everything is packed and loaded into the back of it.

The girls are up at 7am and I get two lovely pyjama’d hugs from them, before they disappear to decide what they would like for their breakfasts, leaving Liz and I to have our own tearful goodbye.  My last sight of my new  family is the three of them standing on the doorstop and waving as I drive away.

The traffic on a Saturday morning isn’t too bad, until I get to the perimeter of Heathrow itself when everything grinds to a halt.  I haven’t had any breakfast at home, assuming that I would have plenty of time at the airport, but the clock is ticking as the little green car inches forward, and my hopes of bacon and eggs are gradually dashed.

The America Airline check-in desk is an automated affair, although I still need to see a clerk to go through the security questions.  My interview is actually more involved than the one at the US Embassy a few weeks ago, and time continues to pass.

From check-in to security and more waiting in lines.  I am rather disappointed to find that I do not have to remove my shoes, as I am wearing my new brightly coloured striped ‘Happy Socks’ which Liz gave me for my birthday but they remain sorrowfully hidden inside my tan boots.

Once I am through security (a process delayed by a young professional couple who are surprisingly naïve regarding travelling, as their bags are filled with liquids all of which have to be removed and inspected), I check the screens and discover that I am already being called to gate 34 to board my flight.  Heathrow airport helpfully give a guide as to how long it takes to walk to each gate and I learn that number 34 is as far away as can be, requiring a walk of 20 minutes.

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Bye bye Breakfast!

Once in the proximity of the gate I grab a cup of coffee and a muffin and am soon shuffling down the jetway and to my seat, which is next to the window, and with an empty seat next to me, which is a bonus.  I settle in to the little cocoon which will be my home for the next ten hours, and strap the two little companions, through whom the children can share my adventures, into the seat next to me and wait to be launched into the sky.

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We take off to the west and in no time I have the most perfect view of Windsor castle laid out like a Lego kit beneath me.

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The flight is a flight, with not much out of the ordinary.  I watch a number of films, and chose meatballs over pasta for my lunch.  I read.  I play games.  I watch more films.  There is one worrying moment as I go to the lavatory at the back of the cabin just as the plane hits turbulence, and am just ‘settled in’, so to speak, when the captain announces ‘Please remain seated’  In the tight confines of the loo this announcement feels terribly personal, and I have awful thoughts of being firmly stuck in here until the air smooths out again.

Towards the end of the flight we pass over Boston and then over Philadelphia and it is around these two cities that the second leg of my tour will be based.  We continue south over Virginia, where I will not be visiting this year, and then the pressure in my ears lets me know that we are descending into Charlotte airport.

I have a very long layover, so there is no rush to get off the plane quickly, and I join other similarly languid folk taking time to get our belongings together before making our way into the immigration hall.

In recent years the US Immigration force has made strenuous attempts to automate the process which means that folk travelling on a visa and therefore requiring a face to face interview, are not stuck in a huge line and I walk straight up to a booth and after a brief chat I am officially in America.  The next step is to retrieve my suitcase, clear customs and then re-check it, and as I stand at the carousel I suddenly remember that I have a new case and should be looking for a blue one, not the old silver which broke at the end of last year’s trip.

With all of the formalities out of the way I now have four hours to kill.  I make my way to the beautiful main concourse at Charlotte airport and find a white rocking chair beneath the trees, and watch yet another film, this time on my laptop, which passes another hour or so.

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As the clock ticks past 6pm I find a restaurant and order a burger for supper, which fills more time.  Meal finished I amble to concourse E which is like a busy hive from which hundreds of little regional jets buzz all over the south.

My flight to Knoxville is due to leave at 8.05 and I am beginning to fade now.  In the UK it is 1pm and it has been a long day.  I have a seat at the far back of the plane and fall asleep as soo as we accelerate down the runway, so there is nothing to say about this leg of my journey, except I hope I don’t snore!

There is a lovely familiarity about Knoxville airport which I have come to love over the years, and it is a with a sense of homecoming that I walk through the terminal and to the Hertz car rental desk, which is right next to the baggage carousel .

Hertz give me a Nissan Altima and having set my sat nav unit, I start the hour’s drive to Pigeon Forge.  It is an odd drive, as usually I do it during the day and have the beautiful vista of the Smoky Mountains on the horizon, but the only clue of their existence tonight are little dots of red light from TV masts and cell phone towers hovering in the night sky.

The hour passes quickly and I am driving towards the Inn at Christmas Place before I know it.  The hotel is beautifully lit for Christmas, and it positively glows in the night sky.

 

I am really feeling tired now and check in is quickly completed. As I get into the lift I find myself in the company of two ladies who say ‘Mr Dickens? Great to see you!  We will be coming to the show tomorrow!’

My room with its Christmas tree decorations and wreathes is oh so welcoming.

Unpacking can wait until the morning but the day that has seen me drive two cars and fly in two aircraft over a period of twenty two hours needs to be wrapped up.

It is time for bed.

 

 

 

Preparing for a New Style of Tour

With just under week to go before my Christmas season starts I am making the final preparations for this year’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ tour.
As readers of my previous post will know this year has been quite an adventure for Liz and me, with the arrival of our two adopted children which has changed so much in our lives, not least the length of time I can (or want to) be away from home.
I first mentioned to Bob and Pam Byers that the 2018 tour would need to be severely curtailed over a year ago and they immediately embraced the new situation and began to work hard to create a trip that would work for everyone involved. The final result is that I will be performing for a week at the beginning of November with dear old friends in Pigeon Forge, Omaha and Kansas City before returning home for just under two weeks before returning to begin more performances from the Thanksgiving weekend for a couple more weeks.
Whilst we have managed to retain many old established venues (Vaillancourt Folk Art, Fortin Gage in Nashua, Country Cupboard in Lewisburg, Winterthur, Byers’ Choice and Burlington, New Jersey), sadly there are some places where I have been travelling to for many years who we have lost for this year, prominent among them being Williamsburg and Hershey (both fixtures on tour since I first travelled in 1995), as well as more recent additions such as Cambridge Ohio, Roger’s Gardens in California and Andrew Jackson’s House in Nashville. Other notable absentees are as a result of circumstances beyond our control, for instance the dear old Golden Goose store in Occoquan has closed allowing Pat and Laverne to enjoy a well-deserved retirement, and The Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem PA is no longer run as an independent store but is now under the management of Barnes and Noble.

I apologise to all of those who have enjoyed coming to my shows over the years – especially Derek and his family in Hershey – but I am sure that you understand my reasons for this trimmed trip, and please know that I hope to see you all again soon!

 

Preparations

With the two children both under the age of ten it has been important to carefully prepare them for this period of absence.  Liz and I have been gently talking about the trip, and I have showed them lots of photographs of my shows (thanks to the souvenir brochures of the last two years).  We have a chart which shows where I will be every day alongside their swimming lessons, gym clubs etc.  During the tour I will make sure I Skype as much as I can, and record bedtime stories that Liz can play them in the evenings.

A couple of weeks ago I hit upon the idea of buying two little soft toys which will come to every venue with me, and sit somewhere on the stage throughout the show.  I will photograph them wherever I go so that the children can share the trip through their alter egos.

The other important thing is to make sure that Liz has as much help as possible, as looking after them has been quite a handful for the two of us, not to mention singly.  She will definitely have her work cut out during my two absences and family and close friends you must prepare yourselves for plenty of phone calls!

 

Changes

Alongside the obvious changes to my tour this year, I have also considered the show itself a little, as I do each year, and come up with a very slight change to the scrip that may or may not prove popular with dyed-in-the-wool fans.  One of the strongest moments of the story is when Scrooge is taken by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to the Cratchit’s house, and witnesses the grief of little Bob when he returns from the grave.

Since 1995 I have played the scene (somewhat lazily I now realise), as if Bob alone had gone to visit Tim’s grave, leaving Mrs Cratchit to look after the rest of the family apparently unmoved.

However last year a viewing of the Jim Carey Disney version of the story sent me scuttling back to the original text.  Bob is NOT visiting Tim in his grave, just the site which is being prepared for the simple funeral.  Having talked with his family and ‘broken down all at once’, Bob makes his way upstairs to where Tim still lies and by his bedside reconciles himself to what has happened, before returning to the rest of his family who dearly need his love and support.

So, I have included this simple and touching moment in the ’18 script and have also introduced a new prop, the idea of which comes from Doctor Marigold and was created by Liz a couple of years ago.  In Marigold there is a scene in which the market cheapjack steps out onto the footboard of his cart holding his baby daughter.  Somehow I could never effectively mime the scene to be believable, and Liz suggested using a rug or blanket to represent the child.

So during this season I will have a red blanket with me, which can have multiple uses:  It will be over Scrooge’s knees as he settles into his chair on Christmas Eve, it can be tidied away at Fezziwig’s ball, it can be a shawl for Belle, it can be bed curtains being sold to old Joe, and then it can become the frail form of Tiny Tim.

It is always a pleasure to find details in the book that I have either passed over or forgotten and this  is no exception.  I am greatly looking forward to my first show on Sunday to see how it all works out!

The only other change that I have planned (and there will be others along the way, for the show always develops on the road), is a costume tweak.  For years my friend David, a theatrical costumier by trade, has railed against my very formal pinstriped trousers, which come from a morning suit.  ‘No!’ he tells me, ‘Victorian gentleman’s trousers were plain in colour, with no crease in the front.  They had high waist and back, and the braces were buttons not clips!’

So, for David, I have ordered two pairs of plain grey trousers, cut as he prescribed.  They are lightweight, and washable (which is always a bonus) and should create a more authentic look.

The only issue is that they have yet to arrive!  I tried some other colours, which didn’t look right, and returned them but somehow the courier company failed to deliver the replacements.  I am hoping they will arrive today or tomorrow and can be in my case on Saturday morning.

My next update will be from Pigeon Forge in Tennessee and I look forward to sharing my adventures with you once more.