A Family Affair

My journey today is a short one, and I do not have a performance until 7pm, so it is with a leisurely air that I rise this morning.  I sit in bed writing until it is time for breakfast at 8.  I shower and get ready for the short morning stroll.  The weather is clear, sunny and cold and my exhalations produce little puffs of steam, as if I were a locomotive struggling along the tracks.

I sit at my table, and continue to read Familiar London, as the orange juice, coffee, scrambled eggs and bacon are served.  There are no other diners this morning and I have the services of the entire staff to myself, which seems a trifle greedy.

After breakfast is finished I return to my room and make sure that everything is packed (except  for my costumes, which I mustn’t forget to collect from Winterthur), and prepare to start the next leg of the tour, which will see me reunited with Liz.  She arrives tomorrow, but it feels as if I am driving to meet her now.

Winterthur is just opening as arrive and the shop is almost deserted.  I go straight to the auditorium where someone (I am guessing Barbara), has pinned a large sign onto my costume: ‘DO NOT REMOVE THIS CLOTHING.  IT WILL BE COLLECTED TOMORROW’

I pick everything up, and say good bye to the hall for another year.  As I am walking through the shop a member of staff is on the phone: ‘I don’t know where he went, I saw him go into the auditorium, but haven’t seen him since.  No, perhaps he went out the back…..’  I cough.  ‘Oh! He is here.  Yes.  Right.  OK!’  She hangs up the phone and says: ‘You are not to leave, I have to give you some things.’

Last night before the show Ellen had mentioned that I should have a Christmas Carol Colouring Book to keep me entertained on my travels, and it was her on the other end of the phone giving instructions that I should be presented with one!  I leave Winterthur clutching a bag with the book and a packet of pencils too.  Generous, kind, wonderful people.

I have looked online for a nearby Laundromat and apparently there is one in Kennett Square, so I drive off down a wonderful country road towards the town.  The houses are all large and sit in great swathes of countryside – oh, yes there is wealth in these here hills.  But one house attracts my attention particularly: it is of wooden construction, smaller than the rest, and is painted in a similar hue as the walls of my set at Winterthur.  In the front garden – well, in the countryside to the front of the property – there is the shell of a ruined cottage made from the local stone, which is crying to be restored.  Out of all of the homes here that is the one I would have!

My visit to Kennett Square is unfruitful, as the only laundry I find is actually a dry cleaner who offers a return-it-the-same-day service, which doesn’t help me on the journey.  I put my laundry needs on hold and strike out towards The Joseph Ambler Inn, and Byers’ Choice.

After a while I hit heavy traffic and sit stationary as I listen to my Christmas music.  While I am waiting my phone pings, and I have received an email from my brother Ian.  For the past few months Ian has been visiting one of the local schools to help some of the students with their reading, and naturally, on discovering his lineage, the school asked him if he would do a special day talking about A Christmas Carol and Charles Dickens.  Today was that day!  Ian had visited Camden Market and bought a frock coat and waistcoat, and he already owned a top hat, from our sponsored walk in 2012.

For the past few weeks he has been working hard at his script and preparing for the day.  This is his email:

Well, I have even more empathy with you now! Croaky voice struggling when I read my abridged version for the third time in two hours. Sweat pouring off me as wearing a heavy frock coat and top hot in direct line of a heater blasting hot air was most uncomfortable. But saying those words and seeing the kids listening with rapt attention was wonderful.

And visiting their classrooms and hear that they remembered the name Boz, that Dickens had a pet Raven called Grip, that he had written a book none of the teachers knew about called The  Life of Our Lord, that he had been in a train crash and that he died three years to the day of the accident.

I was asked to pretend to be a fierce Victorian headmaster and come and inspect a class. The rapping on their door with my walking stick scared the life out of them! Such fun. Really, such fun.

And watching the Muppets and hearing those lines faithfully followed was great. I picked out my 8 year old lad Lucas and highlighted my script so he could be the boy in the street on Christmas Day and he was perfect. Being able to say what a delightful boy, an intelligent boy made him blush and the teacher’s laugh……

My £40 outfit bought on Monday from a Camden Town flea market stall worked fine and it was nice to give the London-Portsmouth walk top hat another outing! Won-der-ful🙂

I am so happy for him to experience the joy of telling the story, and for seeing the look of happiness in his audience’s faces.  Happy, and so proud of what he is giving to his young charges. It is a lovely thought that on December 9, 2016 The Fabulous Dickens Boys are performing the same story on two continents.

The traffic eventually clears and I am soon pulling into the car cark of The Joseph Ambler Inn, where I always stay when I am performing at Byers’ Choice.  The large car park is packed, and I can’t find a space anywhere, so circulate until finally I make up my mind to park in one of the roadways: I look at it carefully and there is definitely enough room for others to leave.

I go to the little reception office, and am effusively welcomed back, before being handed the key to the Penn suite, which has become my regular room here.  I have plenty of time before I have to be at Byers’ Choice, so I take the opportunity to watch the next in the Grand Tour (re-invented Top Gear) series, which is getting better as it goes on.

As the light outside starts to fade, I have a shower and get ready to drive to the Byers’ Choice HQ and visitor centre.

Regular readers will know this history, but it is worth re-telling for newcomers:  The Byers’ Choice company was formed nearly 40 years ago when Joyce Byers started to make figurines out of wire coat hangers, tissue paper and clay.  Each figure had its own expression and character, and they were dressed in offcuts of material: the costumes were those of Victorian carol signers, and so were born the Byers’ Choice carollers.

Although the original pieces were purely intended to decorate the family home, word soon began to spread and it became apparent that there was a much wider market for them.  Joyce and her husband Bob started to market the figures and soon their table-top enterprise was turning into a huge company.

And now the business is still overseen by Joyce and Bob Snr, but is run on a day to day level by their sons Bob Jnr and Jeff. It is based in a magnificent facility in Pennsylvania, which not only include the manufacturing floor and administrative department, but also an amazing visitor centre and museum.

Over ten years ago I was invited to Chalfont to perform in the Headquarters building, and so began a relationship that endures to this day.  Byers’ Choice now represent me, and manage my tour and I count them as very dear close personal friends: I could not wish for better people to work with.

As I walk towards the door of the office building Bob Jnr is waiting to welcome me.  Everything is so familiar and everyone so welcoming.  The blog has been followed assiduously throughout the building, so there are many questions about my state of health.

I put all of my things in the grand board room, which becomes a dressing room for two days, and then go to the cavernous space that is the theatre:  During working hours the room is the main factory floor, filled with work benches as artisans create the Carollers; but on Friday morning Mr Fezziwig (Bob) says ‘let’s clear away, let’s have plenty of room here!’ and the space is converted into a 600-seat theatre, with a large stage against one wall.

David, who by day works in the marketing and sales department, becomes the technical manager and rigs a wonderful array of stage lighting, as well as installing a state of the art sound system.  David has lived with the show for many years and is always thinking of new ways to enhance it.  Last year he used to a gobo to project a Church window onto the back wall which faded up as ‘Scrooge went to Church!’.  We have a carefully focussed and positioned spot light which glows eerily for Marley’s face, and then closes down onto my face for the very final lines of the show.

I know that if I mention any ideas to David they will most likely be included the following year.  It is with this in mind that I mention that I had thought of including a couple of sound effects: maybe the tingling little bell which is the harbinger of Marley’s visit, and possibly a bustling street scene as the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge into the City.  How about a slow tolling bell as Present slides into future?  Unsurprisingly Dave looks thoughtful: ‘hmm, I’ll see what I can do….’

With the sound check complete (which includes reminding myself exactly where I must stand to be in the Marley light), I chat to Bob and his wife Pam, who looks after the booking and managing of my tour, and who is always there in case of emergency: she does an amazing job for me.

As we talk, the pizza delivery man rolls a cart laden with food into the hall: the delivery man in question is Bob Byers Snr, founder and bedrock of the Byers’ Choice empire – they are that kind of family.

Bob lays out the food for anyone working tonight to share, and I chose a plain salad, with no cheese.  Various volunteers turn up, who will be assisting the large audience, and the whole machine begins to grind into life.

Pam tells me that a High School student who is writing an article based on A Christmas Carol is coming, and would very much like to interview me, so I go into the small conference room to chat, which is a fun distraction.

The audience are arriving in great numbers, and I have to go and change for the show. A few times Dave has appeared clutching his laptop saying: ‘what do you think of this?’ and then playing a sound effect that he has found online, or even recorded himself: that is quick work, to be sure: a full twelve months earlier than I had expected.

As the start time of 7 approaches I stand at the back of the hall watching the crowd take their seats and listening to the wonderful High School choir who always entertain the audiences here.  When the last of the audience have been seated Bob and I go back stage to start the show.

Well, it is always an amazing experience to stand on this huge stage and to look out into the darkness over such a big audience.  The response is wonderful (especially from a lady in the front row who laughs loudly at almost every line).  David’s sound effects are perfect – the ringing of the little bell starting slow, before building up in speed and volume and then suddenly silent – all perfectly timed.  The street scene adds extra depth to the Christmas morning, and the heavy bell tolling (lifted from my opening sound effect) is a sombre introduction to the solemn phantom.

The show is a really good one, and Ian’s experiences of earlier are in my head: whatever the discomforts, it is so important to remember what fun this all is: that way you will always give your best.

The signing session here is in the middle of the visitor centre and I inevitably get lost trying to find my way to the spectacular nativity room in which my desk is situated.  I end up walking through the entire museum, mingling with members of the audience, who shake my hands and congratulate me on the show.  Finally, I make it to the table, where Pam is on guard marshalling the line along and taking pictures for the guests as they pose with their programmes, Carollers and books.  Bob pops in to check if there is anything I need, and everything runs very smoothly right up to the very end when I can change and get ready to return to The Ambler Inn.

Bob and Pam ask if I would like to join them for a drink, and we arrange to meet up in fifteen minutes or so.   It is late and the bar as slowly closing down, after a very busy day, but we sit in the corner and chat about the tour, the audiences, the programme and the political state of the world.

It is lovely to be back here, and I always feels as if I am part of the Byers family, for they have taken me to their hearts and welcomed me in.  But of course, I have my own family: Ian who performed so passionately in England this morning, my sister Nicky in Ireland who has put on many performances of my shows in her Inn in Kilkenny, (and whose birthday it is tomorrow), and Liz who in 24 hours’ time will be here with me, at the Joseph Ambler Inn.

Yes, today has definitely been a Family Affair.

 

 

 

 

Giving My All

It has been a lovely, deep night of sleep in my four-post, curtained bed, and I wake feeling refreshed. I turn on the fire, because it is there, and start work on the blog post.  The only downside of the room is that there are no facilities to make coffee, so my caffeine craving must wait for breakfast.

At 8am I walk into the main building (my room is in one of the cottages in the grounds of the Inn itself, and am immediately welcomed by the owners Laura and Rick.  There are a few other people already intent on their breakfasts and I take a little table by the window.  I have brought the lovely book that I received as a present in Lewisburg to read:  The text takes the form of a gentle stroll through London, seen from an artist’s eyes, and concentrates very much on tone, light quality and imagery (‘It had been raining heavily all day, and the sky, which had just cleared, was flooded with a golden light.  The towers of the Abbey stood up against it in misty blue.  A string of hansom cabs coming along, reflected in the wet streets, looked like a procession of black gondolas.’)

A book about London: I have a mental bet with myself as to how soon the name Dickens will appear – page 16 is the answer.

My breakfast of pumpkin pancakes and bacon is delicious, and the coffee is very welcome. Laura talks to me about the book, as she loves to collect antiques of all sorts, and indeed has a little museum/antique store upstairs in the house. 

When I have finished, I return to my room, where I have a l little time to relax, before driving to Winterthur for the matinee show.  Of course, there is no sound check to be done, but it is nice to be there as part of the team, so in the end I get into my car at around 11.

Everything is as it should be: Barbara is there busily making sure the shop is properly stocked, and Ellen arrives from her office which is located in another building on the property.  There was a lecture in the hall last night, so my set had to be cleared away.  I help Ellen re-create the elegant parlour, and then make my first tea and honey of the day.

I am walking around the shop looking at some of the books and products, when a gentleman approaches me with a paper bag.  He tells me that he has been reading the blog, and was worried for my health.  He thought that this may help.  On opening the package I find two miniature bottles of Bourbon!

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I retreat to the office and as I am sitting there I think about a conversation that Ellen Rob and I had last night: surely in Mr DuPont’s library there must be some old editions of Dickens novels, and it would be a fun project to have a series of events based on them: lectures and performances.  Something to keep in mind, for sure.

The crowd are gathering at the door, and I start to get into costume ready for the show.  With five minutes to go I take up my position at the back at the hall, and am amazed (although why I should be, I don’t know), to see the sea of smart phone screens in front of me.  Almost everyone’s face is bathed in blue.

The Director of Winterthur David Roselle is making my introduction today, and we exchange a thumbs-up signal of readiness across the crowd, which is his cue to make his way to the podium. He finishes up with his traditional warning to anyone who is caught with a mobile phone (you will be taken to the catacombs and never be heard of again), and I begin my walk to the stage.

The show goes well, and the movements are precise and controlled.  I have finally abandoned my experiment of moving backwards towards the audience as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, as I don’t think it really works.  The thought was that the audience would just see a black shape advancing upon them, with no features, but of course that they actually see is me with my back to them.  Also, the impact of the skeletal, pointing hand is lost.  So, not all of my ideas are successful!

The show is good, and the applause is lovely, with lots of high fives and handshakes as I leave the building to change.  Having changed I make my way to the cafeteria and welcome the group of people who have been waiting patiently.  First in line is a girl who was sat in the front row, and who is completely start-struck; she can hardly speak as she shakes my hand, and looks pleadingly back to her family who are taking photographs: ‘help me out!’ she gasps.

There are lots of programmes and books to be signed, and pictures to be posed for.  Ellen does a great job as unofficial photographer, making sure everyone is in position, so that as soon as I have signed I can look up, ‘click, click, click’ and we are moving on to the next, with a minimum of delay.

When everyone has left Ellen says ‘right: change, go, eat, rest!’ I obey her order and leave Winterthur for a couple of hours.

Between Winterthur and the Fairville Inn is the hamlet of Centreville, which is the location of Buckley’s Tavern, where I often wind down after my evening shows, but today I decide to stop by for some soup and salad, which I eat at the bar.  As I am eating a lady taps me on the shoulder: ‘is your first name Gerald?’ 

‘Yes.’

‘Oh, I will be seeing you at 6!’

That opens the flood gates: almost every table in the bar seems to have been at the afternoon show, and so I am soon posing and smiling with group after group.  It is lovely to know how much people enjoyed the show, and to be wanted to this extent, but I really need a little rest, so make my excuses and leave.

I only will have an hour or so at the Inn, but it is long enough to lay back and relax for a while, before returning for the evening show.  As I get out of the car, there is the most beautiful sunset, and a arrow formation of geese fly across it with their loud calls breaking the dusk’s silence.

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The evening’s audience is the largest of the three here, but it doesn’t sound like that: while the two matinee audiences have gathered an hour before the show, and waited noisily in line, this group just trails in one at a time, there is very little lingering in the store. Listening from my office it all sounds very quiet, so it is a quite surprise to me when I go into the hall to find it so full!

David is back to do the introductions again, and we go through the thumbs up routine before the off.  I am feeling very weary and tired tonight, but want to give this large group a good performance.  When I reach the stage I try a little too hard, am beginning to strain again, but unlike at Langhorne I am able to catch it and pull back.  I have mentioned previously the incredible acoustics in this hall, but they are not apparent from the stage – If anything the room sounds slightly ‘dead’.  It is only when I walk into the audience and go to Scrooge’s melancholy tavern, that I hear the resonant and electric tone of my voice, and that is when I can relax.

It is another good show, although I am physically shattered by the end: I feel that I couldn’t go for another five minutes, but that is fine as I do not have another show until tomorrow evening. 

After the signing is done Ellen says ‘you look tired, let’s get you out of here’  I change, and am able to hang all of my costumes on the rail in the theatre to air over night: it saves carrying them all into my room at the Inn, and I can pick them up as I drive past in the morning.

I say good bye to Ellen and Barbara, and drive to Buckley’s, but it is so full that I decide against it ans continue to the Inn.  Once in my room I light the flickering gas fire and sit in front of it.  Maybe I should take some cold medication: now, where did I put that bourbon?

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Various Elizabeths, but Not the Important One!

This morning I have a fairly early, but not a horribly early start, as I have a hundred-mile drive to Winterthur in Delaware.  I start packing the case and realise that I haven’t unwrapped a gift that one of the audience gave me last night: it is a beautiful book, published in 1904 called Familiar London.  It contains watercolour paintings of the great city by Rose Barton, along with some fascinating-looking history.  What a special gift, and thank you Daniel for your thoughtfulness.

I hang my two costume suits and take them to the car, (what am I going to do when I have to fly again?  I will have forgotten how to pack properly) and then go to the hotel lobby for a very quick breakfast of fruit and waffle, before returning to my room (not forgetting to collect all of my costume shirts, which have been in the drier overnight – oh, my, that could have been quite a disaster…..)

It is a cold, misty morning as I drive away, but there is no snow on the roads, although the grass verges and banks along the way are still white.  Even the fog co-operates and hangs only over the surrounding hill tops, leaving good visibility on the road itself.  

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But it looks as if conditions may have been worse earlier, as I pass quite a few wrecks along the way, including the remains of a blue car that has vaulted the barrier and rolled itself into destruction. The roof is smashed and the front is gone.  I can’t see how anyone could have survived a crash of that magnitude, and the fact that the car has no snow on it suggests it happened within the last few hours: what an awful thought.

The snow on the verges becomes more sparse and by the time I reach Allentown there is no sign that winter had ever made an appearance.

I drive on and cross the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, which reminds me that today is actually Pearl Harbor Day, and I have a quiet moment of remembrance for the terrible events of 75 years ago.

I have made excellent time this morning, so stop off for a quick coffee before driving the last few miles to the Winterthur Estate.  Winterthur was one of the DuPont homes and it sits magnificently in beautiful landscaped grounds: a statement of wealth and importance in the same way as The Breakers was in Newport (although Mr DuPont obviously had rather better taste than Mr Vanderbilt).

As I drive into the car park, my final Bond audiobook, You Only Live Twice, comes to an end.  There is an interview with Martin Jarvis, the reader, and he talks about being an actor and ‘an inhabitor’.  That is an interesting word, and although rather arty, sums up how I feel about my show: when I am performing a Christmas Carol I try, as far as possible, to ‘inhabit’ each character completely, rather than just represent them.

I unload my costume, and walk into the Winterthur visitor centre, where I am welcomed by the event organiser, and good friend, Ellen, along with the retail manager Barbara.  It hardly seems a year since I was here last….and it isn’t, for I did a few shows at Winterthur in the Summer: the venue seems very familiar and comfortable to be now.

Ellen proudly takes me into the auditorium to show off the new addition to this year’s event: the estate carpenters have been hard at work to build an amazing set for me to perform in.  It I spectacular and features a fireplace, a window, some beautiful furniture, while  the walls are painted in an elegant Georgian blue.  Everyone is justifiably proud of the construction, and even as I am admiring it various volunteers come to look and take pictures. 

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The set will make a great difference to the show here, for the theatre is actually a lecture hall, and the stage can appear a little sparse in its natural state.

Ellen, who is an avid reader of the blogs, has been worried about my throat and voice, but this is one of the easiest venues to speak in on the tour; even though it holds 400, I do not need to use a microphone for the acoustics are quite remarkable.  We do a quick sound check, in the same way that Charles Dickens used to with his manager George Dolby:  I speak on stage as Ellen moves around the auditorium checking that she can hear.  With hardly any voice-projection the words fill the space, and everything is settled: no microphone needed.

I now settle into my dressing room, which is actually Barbara’s office.  A desk has been cleared for me, and there is a large bowl of fruit, as well as tea bags and a bottle of honey.  In a cooler there are bottles of water and soda – Barbara likes to fuss over me and make me feel at home, in which effort she certainly succeeds admirably.

The audience is already gathering even though the doors won’t open for a while yet, and I can hear the chat outside.  Ellen is doing a great job working the line with the programmes and hopefully they are selling well. 

I get into costume and stand at the back of the hall watching the crowd gather – over 200 this afternoon, and they are chatting and laughing, which means that they should be a fun group to perform for.

At 1pm Jeff, who is in charge of the archival research, as well as interpretation and presentation of history at Wintertur, walks to the lecturer’s podium and makes an eloquent introduction.

I walk to the stage accompanied by my good friends in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and begin.  As always here, despite my successful vocal check earlier, I have self-doubts about doing the show without amplification; but then I remind myself that I DO have amplification, that the hall itself is as effective than any microphone (and quite a lot more effective than some).  I relax and concentrate on inhabiting Scrooge and the rest.

The show goes very well and the audience seem to greatly enjoy it.  There is a wonderful ovation at the end, and lots of congratulations as I leave the hall (which means walking past the rows of seats to the door at the back).

As I get changed, I notice that there is an email on my phone: it is a message from my brother Ian telling me that his grandson Joe has just finished performing as the narrator in his school’s nativity play: he was on stage for the whole show and had more dialogue than anyone else in the cast, and all on his 5th birthday:  The Dickens gene is still as strong as ever.

The signing line is mainly filled by familiar faces, including Mary Jane from the Philadelphia Dickens Fellowship branch, who has brought a large family group this year; the executive chef from the nearby Merion Golf Club is back too, reiterating his invitation to visit and play at the club if I am back in the summer – as a taster he gives me a bag of ball markers and pitch mark repairer from Merion.  I will be the envy of Oxford Golf Club as I casually toss one of the markers onto the green: ‘Merion?  Oh, yes, am good friends with the exec chef there, you know…!’

 After the signing, I am free for the rest of the day: what luxury.  I hang my costumes up, and drive the short distance to the lovely Fairville Inn, where I am shown to the room that has become my home over the last 5 years (and one that I have shared with Liz on a few occasions, which gives me a pang of melancholy that she is not here yet).  The room  is a such a nice change to the generic hotel pods that make up so much of my stay, and I set the fire burning in the grate, before working through a few emails that need replies.

I also unpack my costume shirts, which had been rather unceremoniously stuffed into a bag this morning, and carefully fold them, setting aside three for tomorrow’s shows.  I iron a few things, and then lay on the bed and have a brief nap, loving the feeling of relaxation in this little cottage room.

In the evening I have arranged to meet Ellen and the Rob, the Finance director at Winterthur, for dinner and at 7.15 I get into the car to drive to the perfectly-named Pizza by Elizabeths restaurant. 

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The restaurant was created by two women called Elizabeth, and the entire décor is styled to the name: two large prints of Queen Elizabeth II and Bette Davis dominate, and the are other pictures on the walls featuring every Liz, Betty and Eliza that you could imagine (Taylor and Boop among them)

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The menu carries the theme forward, as every pizza is named after a famous Elizabeth: Barrett Browning is disappointingly a rather plain Margherita, whereas the Davis is a spicy blackened chicken, bacon and fire-roasted pepper.

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There is only one Elizabeth missing from the evening, and she is the most important one.  However, in three days’ time she will be with me!

It is a lovely, relaxing evening: Ellen and Rob are great company and we talk about many things as we eat our pizzas (Shannon for Ellen, Montgomery for me and I am not sure what Rob ordered).

Our plates are soon cleared away and It is soon time to go to our various homes.  We say our goodbyes in the parking lot  and I drive back to Fairville, and am in my room before 10.  I turn the fire on and put the NBC live performance of Hairspray on, but as the flames flicker, I fall asleep very quickly.  When I wake there is a completely different programme on.  I have no idea as to the time, but getting ready for bed seems to be a sensible option.  I turn the lights out, snuggle into the pillow and soon am drifting away to wherever it is that I drift to at night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cowboy Man

After my lazy, recuperative day it is time to move on again.  I am still feeling full of cold, but a few tentative explorative lines seem to suggest that my throat is back with us, which is the important thing.  A cold can be coped with (indeed Dickens tells us that Ebenezer has a slight cold in the head, so my performance could be even more complete than before), but without the ability to push the words out, things get awkward.

I go down to breakfast and sadly there is no impressive buffet today. I am the only person in the restaurant at this early hour, and order a relatively healthy collection of fruit, granola and pastries.  The orange juice and coffee keep flowing, until I have cleared the various plates that have been laid before me.

I sign the check and return to my room to finish packing, before checking out.  I am astounded when the girl tells me that there are no charges: Mr O’Day was true to his word when he said ‘use the hotel’, and has been remarkably generous in his hospitality.

The car’s screen is iced, so I run the engine while I set the SatNav unit for Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a distance of 49 miles.  It is a drive that I have made a few times now, and I always enjoy it.  I head towards Harrisburg, and then strike out along the bank of the Susquehanna River, one of the most beautiful in the world.  I look out for the tiny Lady Liberty, who stands with her torch aloft on the crumbling pillar of a long demolished bridge. 

As is so often the way in this part of the country, I could be driving in England, as the road signs direct me to Carlisle, Halifax and onto Liverpool.  A very slight mist, nothing more than an ethereal presence, hangs over the river and lends a sense of mystery to the scene, as I drive North.  A greater and more base sense of reality is presented by the many stores on this road selling ‘intimate apparel’ and ‘Adult DVDs’.  Of course, there are also the inevitable firework stores too.  At one point I pass a sign advertising a local McDonalds restaurant which boasts that it has a ‘Unique Victorian Dining Room’  Unique in that the words McDonalds and Victorian appear in the same sentence.

Traffic is light today, and despite the warnings of overhead signs promising ‘Winter Weather Alert’, the conditions are dry and sunny.  I am listening to You Only Live Twice now, which is the last of the three Bloefeld books, but I don’t like Martin Jarvis’ reading of it as much as I liked David Tennant’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Sevice, which in turn I didn’t like as much as Jason Isaac’s Thunderball.

The roads takes me through small communities; the houses are mainly made of wood, and are in varying stages of rot and decay, from pristine to collapsing.  I drive on and reach Shamokin Dam whose town sign announces it to be ‘A Friendly Community!’  I don’t have time to stop and find out if this boast is true, and I have no doubt it is, for I am nearing my destination now: The Country Cupboard store and restaurant, where I will be performing twice today.

I pull up outside the Best Western Hotel that is associated with the venue and unload my cases confident in the fact that I will be able to check-in, despite the early hour:  they always have my room ready here!  The room is one of those mini suites and on the kitchen work counter is a magnificent basket of cookies, pretzels, chocolates and  biscuits (the English kind) and other delights.

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The first thing to do, of course, is to catch up on laundry so I make my way through the warren of corridors to the little laundry room, where I put a load of my dark regular clothes into the machine (I will do the white costume shirts tonight, after the performances have finished, so I have a full stock again for the next few days.)

It is getting on towards 11.30, which is when I am due to meet Missy and the team from Country Cupboard in the function room that doubles as my theatre for the events here.  The stage is beautifully dressed, and lit with footlights which give a very Victorian feel (rather more so I assume, than the McDonalds restaurant!)  There is a slight issue with the microphone, in that the clip won’t hold the cable in place. I am on the point of searching for more bulldog clips (butterfly clips, file clips), which proved so successful in Burlington, until a pair of pliers is produced and by brute force the cable is clamped tightly in.

I do a sound check and am relieved that my voice sounds alright.  I must remember not to try too hard, even though the room is large, and will be full.  Missy has the sound effect on her ipad, but it is one from last year which has 5 minutes’ worth of tolling bells.  I suggest that I email her the version with only 4 bells on it, and she gives me her address.

I return to my room (via the laundry to collect my clothes), and immediately email Missy.  The message is returned: I haven’t included the ‘inc’ at the end of the address.  I resend, and the message is returned again: this time I haven’t put a U in the word country.  Third time lucky and the message goes through successfully.

I have an hour or so to relax, before getting into my costume and walking back to the room which is already filled with over 200 guests, eating their lunch from the huge buffet which is the speciality of the Country Cupboard restaurant.

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I stand at the back chatting to Missy, and members of the audience come up to ask for an autograph or a picture, or just to chat.  It is a relaxed build-up to the show and everything feels good, although the room itself is very hot, even though the air conditioning is turned right up – I am in for a work-out.

At 1.30 Missy makes a speech of welcome and starts the show:  How will I fare?  First indications are good, and when I sing ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentleman’ as the carol singer my voice is clear (this, along with the Ghost of Christmas Past and Mrs Cratchit, is a tell-tale sign as to the state of my throat).  And the show is not only good vocally, but I am much happier with the movement too.  Over the last week, and actually maybe throughout the tour, I have been aware that my progress around the stage has been slightly heavy and leaden; today it is back to being more balletic.

The audience are reacting well and joining in – the lady who gets my top hat on her head won’t give it back until her friend has taken a photo of her.  To the right of the stage a couple are following my lines in a copy of the book, and it is amusing to watch them flicking pages as I skip forward in the story.

As the performance continues I begin to be aware of the room feeling much cooler and assume Missy has cranked the aircon up to 11.  Although it feels nice, I am also worried about the effect on my voice (air conditioning dries out your throat).  I make sure that I rely on the microphone a little more and don’t force anything.

I get to the end of the show and everyone stands to applaud, I am so relieved as today has been another step forward in the right direction.

I retire to the little room behind the stage where I change.  The signing session is in a different part of the complex, so I go outside to meet Missy before walking over there.  The weather has changed, it is raining and feels icy – this is the first hint of winter weather that I have seen on this trip and I hope that it doesn’t effect my drive tomorrow morning.

As we walk to my signing table Missy explains that the air condition unit was malfunctioning through the event, hence the very hot beginning and the very cold end.  Fortunately, it can be fixed for the evening performance.

There is never a huge signing line here, as only the dedicated want to make their way to a different location and queue patiently, so the signing is over and done with quite quickly, although those that do make the effort are very keen fans, and there is plenty to talk about.

I return to the hotel and change back into normal clothes, and then go to the restaurant to have a bite to eat with Missy.  It is tempting to pile the plate high with a bit of everything (as the guests at the show were doing earlier), but I restrict myself to a slice of prime rib, accompanied by roast potatoes and vegetables.  After dinner, I re set the stage for the evening show, which involves moving Bob Cratchit’s stool from its down stage centre finishing position, back to down stage left, and then return to my room to relax.

I am fortunate here that my room has a magnificent deep whirlpool bath, so I set the taps running and potter around the room as it fills – which takes quite a time.  When it is ready I slide in and hit the bubble button! MMMMMMMMMM wonderful.

I have a couple of hours before the evening performance, and spend the time doing nothing, which feels good.  As the clock moves on I get into costume again and head back to work.  Out of the hotel, and snow is laying on the ground!  It is wet and slushy and only on the grass and flowerbeds, but snow it certainly is!

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Once more the audience are tucking into their platefuls of food as Missy and survey them from the back.  One gentleman immediately stands out from the crowd:  he is wearing a huge Stetson, with feathers in it, and has wraparound sunglasses, even though it is dark outside, snowing, and we are in a theatre.  Beneath the shades, he has a large moustache and the grizzled looks of a man who has lived life a few times over.  He, in fact, looks not unlike the King of NASCAR, Richard Petty.

Missy and I chat, and I drink more tea with honey, until this cowboy man comes to talk.  He is definitely what you may call a character.  Loud, abrupt and likes his own way: ‘Hey! I am here with my fiancée and her mother and a few others, I want to buy a book.  I don’t want to stand in a long line afterwards, so I’m goin’ to get ‘em now, and you will sign ‘em before the show, right?’

With that he disappears, and only returns with six books just as Missy is preparing to make the introduction.  ‘Hey, let’s do this’, he says.  ‘Don’t want to be standin’ in line now.  Sign mine to The Pickle Man, right?’

Missy waits patiently as I scrawl as quickly as I can.  She goes to the stage as Cowboy walks through all the other tables proudly holding his signed books – oh yes, he likes his own way.

So, the show starts.  As is always the way here at Country Cupboard, the evening audience is quite.  Very quiet.  I was prepared for this and don’t let it worry me.  Quiet, that is, except for my cowboy, who is sat right at the front beneath the stage.  At very odd places in the story he barks out comments, in an incredibly loud voice, which completely throw me.  As people who have seen the show will know, I don’t mind, and positively enjoy plenty of audience reaction, but this is different.

When I don’t answer back, he becomes sullen, and talks to his fiancée.  Then he gets up to go to the bathroom, and makes a very public exit from the room, before returning a few minutes later just as ostentatiously.  Once back in his seat, he is morose (presumably upset because I’m not his buddy and not responding to his calls), and sits head down reading one of the books.

It is all very unnerving.  On one of the occasions that I fall asleep, and start to snore he calls out ‘That sure sounds familiar!’

Although his occasional interruptions (and that is what makes it awkward, there seems to be no pattern to his comments), are difficult to me, they do have a benefit, in that the rest of the audience sort of gather round me metaphorically: ‘don’t worry, we are with you!  Keep going!  They become more responsive as cowboy man becomes increasingly glum.  At one point, I have a flashing fearful image that he may just stand up at any moment, say ‘Hell!  I’ve had enough of this!’ and pull a gun to put his evening out of its misery. The newspaper headlines flash through my head.  That’s the sort of effect he has on me.

Well, he doesn’t shoot me, and in fact doesn’t really interrupt for the second half of the show, which goes well.  When I come to the stage to take my bows, everyone is standing and applauding, except him.  He is standing, but with his back to me, and not clapping.  A tricky evening, one might say.

I go through the process of changing and come into the store to meet those audience members who have stayed behind, which do not include the ‘Pickle Man’

The comments and congratulations are kind and sincere, and despite everything it has been a good performance once more.  When everyone has left I chat to Missy and Steve about the evening.  They had been at the back of the hall while all of this was going on, and didn’t know how to handle the situation.  They thought about coming and talking to the cowboy, maybe asking him to leave, but feared that he would cause an even bigger scene, which is probably correct.

I say good bye, collect all of my things and crunch across the snowy, icy paths back to the hotel, where I put all of my costumes shirts into wash, before walking across the car park to a small bar where I have a piece of cheesecake and a glass of wine.  After that I return to the Best Western, transfer my shirts to the drier, where I will leave them overnight, and return to my room. 

I think that my sleep will be filled with scenes from the wild west and moustachioed gunslingers! 

A Day Off

Today is a day off: a luxurious, welcome, uncluttered day off, and never have I needed one more.  Today is my chance to let my worn body recover a little, whilst resting my voice as much as possible.  Last night, as we said our good byes, the hotel’s manager, Brian O’Day had said ‘use the hotel – the hotel is yours, use whatever facilities you want, oh, maybe not the jeweller’s shop!’  So, I may take him at his word.

Initially my task is to make sure that I have some cleaned costume shirts for my events tomorrow, so I bag three up (one for each show and one for the signing sessions), and take them down to the lobby good and early, to ensure that they are returned today.

Then I go to the magnificent Circular Dining room, where in days of yore I used to perform my dinner show, and wait to be seated.  The entrance is guarded by two life-size nutcrackers, both of whom wear staff badges: one is called Brittany and the other Rosa – I think they need work at their interpersonal skills as they seem to be, well I have to say, a bit wooden.

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I am shown to a table by the window looking out over the hotel gardens, which are shrouded in fog, and am immediately fussed over by my server who brings me orange juice and coffee.  The breakfast buffet here is magnificent and I spend a lot of time perusing the many delights on offer, before settling down to eat. 

Last night Teresa had said that if we met at breakfast then she would love to see my green waistcoat that gave me so much trouble earlier in the tour, and which has gained a notoriety all of its own.  I have the waistcoat with me, but there is no sign of David and Teresa at this rather early hour.

I finish eating, and go back to my room, where I lay back on my bed, suitable dosed up with cold medication.  After an hour or so, during which time I finish the blog, and watch TV, I get a call from Teresa: they are just going down to breakfast, and would I like to join them?  I collect the waistcoat again, and return to the dining room where Brittany and Rosa inscrutably welcome me once more.

Teresa and David are suitably impressed by the luxurious, green oriental pattern of the waistcoat, as they tuck into plates of omelette, fruit and potatoes.  I confine myself to another vitamin C shot, with a large glass of orange juice.

After we have chatted for a while, and said our goodbyes once more, I go back to my room to collect my swimming shorts.  I am going to head to the spa and have a good long session in the sauna, before having a lovely swim.  It is indeed a lovely hour or so, hopping from sauna to pool, to Jacuzzi, to sauna and to shower.  I don’t know if it does me any good, but it FEELS as if it does, and that is the most important thing,

Feeling suitably refreshed, I head to my room, via the little café where I will pick up a salad for lunch.  Who should I find there reading the papers and sipping coffee?  David and Teresa who are having too much fun to leave!  We chat a little more: they are planning to come to the UK in February, and it would be wonderful to get David a gig, so that I can actually watch his show.  I mention the village of Pluckley, which styles itself the most haunted village in England: that would be a good place to perform Poe! Let’s hope it happens.

We all say goodbye once more and I go to my room, where I settle back to watch Mr Magoo’s A Christmas Carol, as given to me yesterday by young Derek.

It is an interesting version, and at the outset incredibly faithful to Dickens’ text, until suddenly it takes a sudden departure.  For some unknown reason the Ghost of Christmas Present is the first to visit, taking Scrooge to the Cratchit’s Christmas lunch, before returning him to his bed, where he wakes once more to be greeted by the Ghost of Christmas Past!  I don’t quite understand it, but the message of the story is never lost.  There is an interesting moment at the end too, as the Cratchits feast on their massive turkey there is a scene of almost horrific gluttony as the children gorge themselves on Razzleberry Dressing, which is smeared all around their faces.

What a fun way to pass an hour or so.

I have decided to take myself away from the hotel this afternoon and visit a nearby cinema, where the new Harry Potter spin off, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is playing.  This being Hershey the cinema is called Cocoaplex, and I buy my ticket (only $7, which seems remarkable cheap compared to UK prices), before entering the theatre itself, which is completely empty.  For a while I think that I am going to have a private screening, but with a few minutes to go a family arrives loaded up with popcorn and drink.

 

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Nearly a Private Screening!

 

The movie is fun – not as strong as a Harry Potter film of course, but an amazing testament to the art of CGI movie making.  Eddie Redmayne is likeable, although appears to perform at 45 degrees for most of the time.  There are scenes which are reminiscent of the famous bar sequence in Star Wars, where the screen is filled with as many different creatures as possible: there is a lovely kleptomaniac mole/platypus hybrid which steals many a scene, and a leather suitcase that contains not only the deserts of Arizona, but frozen tundra and wild African savannah too.  Fortunately the case has a ‘muggle’ setting so that Mr Scamander can clear customs.

All fun, and instantly forgettable!

It is dark when I emerge, and the drive back to the hotel takes me back through some beautifully decorated neighbourhoods, where coloured lights twinkle and move in the gentle wind.  Once again I think how well America does Christmas lights, so much better than we do in the UK.

Back at the hotel I book a table for dinner at the Harvest restaurant, and walk through the gardens, suitably wrapped up against the evening chill, to dine at 7.30.  I treat myself to a wonderful steak, reared on a farm just 2 miles away.  It is cooked to perfection.

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Dressed, or Wrapped, for Dinner

I am back in my room early, and lay on the bed watching (half-watching) The Martian with Matt Damon.  I drift in and out of sleep, before giving in to the inevitable.

This has been my last day off on the tour, and from now on I have a hectic schedule until I (we, for Liz will be with me by then), leave on December 17.  I have taken it easy today, and hope that I have enough in reserve to see me through the next couple of weeks.

 

 

Rebuilding

After last night’s show I can feel that my throat is tender and tired, so I dose up with various medicinal products, before getting ready to face the day. 

My first priority is to get a load of laundry done, as I am running short of white costume shirts, so I bag them all up and head downstairs to the lobby.  But – BUT – they have no guest laundry!!  A Hampton Inn, with no laundry?  I am astounded!  I take my bulging bag back to the third floor.  Fortunately I have two clean shirts, which will do for today, and then I will send a few to the laundry service at Hershey on my day off on Monday.

So, for now it is time to have breakfast.  I get my costumes consolidated onto their hangers and take them down to put in the car.  It is a gorgeous morning, and I am greeted with a spectacular sunrise; the fresh air feels good, and I take deep breaths. to fill my lungs.   I don’t know if it is doing my throat any good, but it feels as if it is, and that is half the battle.   Once again, the restaurant is full of the women’s basketball team.  It appears that there is a match today, and everyone is checking out – most of the players are carrying bags in the shape of long ice-hockey sticks: call me a brilliant detective if you like, but I am beginning to think that perhaps they are not a basketball team after all…..

I don’t have to leave too early this morning:  Hershey is just over an hour away, and there is no sound check until 1.30, so I have plenty of time to relax.  I watch some TV, and lay on the bed, trying to do as little as possible, so as to let the faded batteries re-charge for today’s events.

At 11am I check out of the hotel and drive towards the Sweetest Place on Earth – Hershey, PA.  I am on familiar roads, as I am not far from Chalfont, and I pass a sign to the Byers’ Choice headquarters, which gives me a warm glow of happiness: next time I am here, next weekend, Liz will be joining me.

The journey to Hershey is through beautiful pastoral landscape.  If I were blindfolded and dropped into this scenery I would know instantly that I was in Pennsylvania, with the scattered dairy farms and their tall silos.  Gently rolling hills give definition to the scene and it is a gorgeous drive.

Soon I see the Hershey Park, with its contorted rollercoasters, and take the turn up onto the hilltop where the twin-towered Hotel Hershey sits.  As ever the lobby is very busy, with people checking out.  Bellmen steer fully-laden tall brass carts to waiting cars and families say their farewells, slipping a tip as they do so.  I am working against the tide, but am welcomed back to the hotel with real affection: ‘Oh, I don’t think we need to see any ID!’  My room is ready, and soon I am safely installed on the 4th floor.

At 1.30 I go to the Fountain Lobby, where I will be performing for afternoon tea. The microphone is there, but nobody from the AV department.  That’s OK, they do a good job here and I know that someone will be monitoring the show itself.  I turn the mic on, and do a few lines, as well as ‘One. Two. One. Two. Check check.’  I don’t know why I do that: I never do that!

Having turned the volume down a touch, I replace the mic, and go to buy a sandwich for my lunch, which I take back to my room to eat while I watch some golf from the Bahamas.  I have plenty of time, as there is a full tea service before my actual show starts.  The guests will arrive at around 2.45. and my performance will begin an hour after that. I usually am in costume early to greet the audience, but today I don’t want to talk, so that I can protect my voice for as long as possible:  golf it is.

Finally, I get into costume, and go to the lobby at 3.30, and sure enough people want to talk and have pictures taken: the most important of these is young Derek, ten years old now, who comes to the show every year.  He is very smart in a jacket, and respectfully shakes me by the hand.  His grandparents bring him to the show, and it has become a tradition that they present me with a dozen bottles of beer (in honour of the line describing Fezziwig’s party).  This year there is another gift too: after reading my blog and my musings about my favourite film version of A Christmas Carol, Derek and his grandparents have presented me with their favourite – Mr Magoo!

It is time to start.  I get the nod from Kristy, who is running the tea service, and all of the servers leave the scene.  It is a strange thing at Hershey that nobody is ever on hand to introduce me, so I am in the strange position of welcoming myself to the Hotel.  What this does mean, however, is that I get to promote the souvenir programme.  I have a copy in my hand and lay it on thick: ‘your chance to own a Dickens first edition’, ‘The first in a highly collectable series’ and the like.  With the promo done I lay the programme on a table and start the show. 

The Fountain Lobby is an odd venue, in that there is no stage, or focal point, and I have to weave a constant path among tea tables to make sure that everyone feels included in the show.  As I get to the line ‘Scrooge took his usual melancholy dinner, in his usual melancholy tavern’ I find myself right by the table where I left the brochure.  It is too good an opportunity to miss, so as I say ‘he read all of the newspapers’ I pick the programme up and study it intently, muttering ‘this is VERY interesting’ and them, as an aside to the audience: ‘we call it product placement!’  Everyone laughs and the existence of the programme is sealed in all of their minds.

Usually I find the Fountain Lobby a difficult show to do, but today it is exactly what I need after last night’s disappointing performance.  A complete change is good, and I can just concentrate in the vocal performance, without worrying about staging or blocking.  As I suspected the microphone levels are good, and I don’t have to project.  Occasionally I feel myself losing self-control and starting to overdo it, but unlike last night I am able to rein myself in and regain control.

The audience listen intently, appreciating that the words, rather than the movements, are the most important thing.  I get to the end and everyone stands as I bow to all four corners of the room.

There is a signing table set up and I go and sit there, as people bring their books and things up: books, tickets, fliers but hardly any programmes.  Oh, here is one, and another, and this group have five.  The gift shop which is selling the programme is downstairs in the main hotel lobby, so everyone who wanted one has had to run downstairs, and then come back up to have it signed.  My shameless self-promotion worked well, as I sign plenty of them.

There is not a great deal of time between the afternoon tea and the dinner show, so I get back to my room and run a nice deep, hot bath, which feels luxurious and very comforting.  When I get out I pad around the room in a fluffy dressing gown, and feel as if I could just lay on the bed and go to sleep for the night, but there is more work to be done.

I get robed up and go to the Castilian Room to do another sound check before the guests arrive, although some are already hovering outside the room, waiting for it to be opened.  My voice is still raspy and croaky (the 8th and 9th of Snow White’s dwarfs), and I am a little worried about the show.  Should I say something to the audience at the outset, make my excuses early?  I will see how I feel when the time comes.

With the sound check completed the doors are opened and the guests begin to take their seats.  I recognise almost everyone there, but most especially my dear friends David and Teresa (David is the actor who performs as Edgar Allan Poe, and they always come to see me at Hershey). 

I have brought along a copy of my programme so I can promote it again, and one lady tells me that she had tried to buy one downstairs but the shop had sold out.  I do have a stock of spare copies in my room, but am not sure  what the contractual ramifications of cash sales in the hotel will be.  Fortunately, the answer to that question is sitting two seats from me:  I am at a large table, and have the Hotel’s general manager, Brian O’Day for company.  Brian assures me that selling the programmes will be fine and he is just sorry that the hotel didn’t order more.

When all of the drinks orders have been taken and everyone is settled in, it is time to begin.  As with afternoon tea, the dinner at Hershey isn’t a theatre performance in the conventional sense, although I do have a stage which is in the middle of the room.  I perform each chapter of A Christmas Carol between the courses, ringing a bell at the end of each one to bring forth the next stage of the meal.

After Brian has said a few words of welcome I take to the stage and begin the show.  The voice, although tender, feels ok, so I don’t mention anything in my introductory remarks.  I do, however promote the programme again and say ‘unfortunately there are no more left in the store, so if you want one you want be able to buy one.’ A satisfying groan of disappointment rises from the audience, before I add, ‘although I have plenty in my room, so you can purchase one of those instead!’ and that gets a relieved round of applause.

The dinner and the performances run smoothly, although the final two chapters, which are run together, begin to take a toll on my voice.  It has been a fun evening, with everyone joining in and laughing along the way. 

I take my bows and return to my table, where a line quickly forms, with people desperate to get their hands on the programmes.  $20 bills flutter onto the table in a somewhat unseemly, but very decadent way, creating quite a pile.  By the end of the night I have sold an extra 15 copies, over and above those originally ordered by the hotel, making Hershey by far the best sales-to-audience ratio of the trip.

I pose for a few final photos and chat to a few final people, but my voice has really given up the ghost now and I can hardly speak.  I should just retire to my room and rest, but I very much want to meet up with David and Teresa in the bar, as I haven’t had time to chat properly with them this evening.

I change quickly and go back to the bar where they are waiting for me, and so we settle into to chat about our respective careers, life on the road and things in general.  David and Teresa are such easy company and as is always the way we are the last people in the bar when the lights are flashed on to encourage us out.  I croak my goodbyes and return to my room.

Today was all about starting again, and rebuilding the show, in which I succeeded I think.  Tomorrow I have a day off in which to fully relax and recuperate, before starting the final leg which will take me to the end of this years’ trip.

 

Feeling the Strain

I wake up this morning and straight away it is clear that the cold is taking hold a little more aggressively, which I could do without really.

Fortunately, I have the large part of the day to myself, as I do not have a sound check until 3 this afternoon, so I can just stay in my room and rest.  Even if the cold doesn’t go away at least I can find recharge the batteries a bit.

I go to the lobby for breakfast, and treat myself to some oatmeal which seems like a good a good hearty thing to have.  The room is full with a girls’ basketball team, and their attendant entourage, and it is very noisy.  They obviously have healthy appetites because everything keeps running out and the poor server is running here and there trying to keep it all stocked up.

I finish my meal and return to the room, where I potter about for a while before undertaking the most exciting part of my morning, driving to a nearby Wal-Mart where I stock up with a wide selection of cold remedies, lozenges and vapour-rub. 

Back at the hotel I buy a little pot of chicken noodle soup that I can heat in my room, and then return upstairs and to bed.

That, faithful reader, is about it for the next few hours.  I watch some TV, I write some emails and I sleep.  Not the most exciting blog passage that I have ever written, or that you have ever read, I suspect!

At 2 o’clock it is time to gather my things and get ready:  I shower again, and carefully hang up the 2 suits, with shirts, making sure I have my watch, fountain pen, shoes and cufflinks (my hat and cane are still in the car).  With everything assembled I set the SatNav for Langhorne, PA and start the 10 minute drive to my second United Methodist Church in 2 days (they are like London busses: you wait for a year and then two come a long at once).

When I arrive at the impressive building my first thought is that I have got my times all wrong, for there is a huge crowd at the front and the car park is completely full.  I find one space, and before leaving the car I check my schedule just to confirm that I should be here now, and not 2 hours ago –  no, definitely 3 ‘o’clock sound check: curious.

There is a door open into the main sanctuary, and I go in and am met by a very hassled pastor John, who greets me apologetically.  This has been a huge wedding which, as he explained, they have had to ‘hurry through’.  As the guests leave the church, so John starts to fetch furniture for my set, which includes a huge fireplace, which we lift into place together.  He tells me that Linda, who is the driving force behind my appearances here, is waiting for me at the front, so I walk towards the main door, and briefly find myself in the line of guests who are kissing the bride and shaking the groom’s hand.  Fortunately, I manage to escape the tide, before things become awkward.

Linda spies me, and welcomes me, with the same sense of panic as John had.  And then she tells the whole story:  The wedding has been booked for months, of course, and was supposed to be finished 2 hours before I was due to arrive; however, the bride printed the wrong time on the invitations and only realised on Friday, by which time it was too late to change anything. 

Even as we sit in the pews, the whole bridal party come back in for the inevitable photo session, so our preparations are once more put on hold.

Linda shows me to my dressing room, a small office, and points out that they have learned some lessons from last year’s event (my blog is a powerful tool), and hung curtains up, so that the arriving guests don’t get an unexpected free show!

Back in the church and the photography is still going on, so I wait patiently at the back with Tim, who will be looking after the sound, ready to do a microphone check.  Last year I felt the levels were slightly too high and the result was a distorted sound, but this time Tim adjusts things much more naturally and it sounds good.

I go back to my office and start to change, before discovering that I didn’t bring any black socks with me and only have the rather rakish duck-egg blue ones which I have been wearing.  A somewhat red-faced request, and pastor John produces a freshly-laundered pair of black socks for me.  I feel complete again.

As I am changing there is a knock at my door, and when I answer it I am greeted by the smiling, cheerful face of Pam Byers, who puts the whole tour together for me each year.  Pam does an incredible job with scheduling and this year has created a tour that works so well geographically.  After some near-misses with flights last year, it was decided to try and restrict the need to fly, and the result is an amazing 2016 tour, in which I am free to drive from venue to venue most of the time: a brilliant job by Pam.

The rest of audience are gathering (actually most of them have been here for quite a while enjoying a turkey dinner served by members of the church.), but the start time of 4.30 is still some 20 minutes away, and I stand at the back with Tim, waiting for the cue to start.  Linda goes up to the pulpit very early and watches as the last members of the audience arrive, before reading the introduction and welcoming me to the stage.  Tim hits the play button, and I start my long walk down the aisle (the second person to have done that in the space of two hours).

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The show goes fairly well, considering how I am feeling and the audience seem to enjoy it.  I make sure that I rely on the microphone, without overdoing things, and concentrate on moving effectively around the space, which has various different levels and rails for me to play with.  In the last quarter of the show I can feel those energy levels dropping again, but I get to the end successfully and am very relieved.

I change in my little office and then sit in a large parlour to meet the audience and sign their books and programmes. The cold is overwhelming me again. I can feel my head becoming congested, and the heat of a slight fever.  I drink water, suck lozenges and keep going.

Between shows I join the second audience for the turkey dinner, and think of the Cratchits as the mashed potato and apple sauced are spooned onto my plate.  I chose a seat alone, so as not to talk too much, and then retire to my dressing room again, where I lay a towel on the floor and try to rest.

I don’t have long, and soon it is time to get ready for the second performance.  I don’t feel good.  I feel hot and heavy. More water, and one of Marcia’s vitamin C mixes and it is time to do the best I can once more.

You would have thought that with a heavy cold, an inability to breathe effectively, and a strained throat, the one thing I would make sure of would be that my microphone was switched on.  You would have thought.  No.  As soon as I say Marley was Dead, I realise that nothing is being amplified.

Now, usually tis wouldn’t be a problem, as the hall has wonderful acoustics and I can project my voice well, but today it is a disaster.  I panic and try too hard and instantly start to strain my voice, and I know there will be no way back from here.  I fumble in my pocket, find a switch and click it.  Still nothing.  Straining more.  No response from the audience, try harder, strain more.  I have forgotten one of my golden rules, which is never to strain and try too hard, and I am suffering for it.

After what seems to be an age I (Scrooge) fall asleep in the chair, and I am able to get the microphone pack from my pocket and study it:  I turn the power switch on, and snore: nothing amplified.  Ah, the first switch I clicked earlier was the mute switch: click, snore: yes! I am online again.

Of course, the rest of the show is better and the audience start to respond more, but the damage has been done and it is a very wheezy performance that is greeted by polite applause, nothing more.

I am so angry with myself!  I knew it was going to be difficult, but as soon as I strain I will lose control and strain I did.

As I change I give myself a good, raspy, talking-to.  It is probably just as well that I am in a Church, for the language with which I berate myself could have been a great deal worse.

I assume that there won’t be much of a signing line, but actually it is quite long, and everybody has lovely things to say, which is very kind of them.  I am trying not to speak too much, and hope I don’t come across as aloof as I sign and pose.  Finally, Linda produces a small pile of books that people had pre-ordered but not collected, before having her own book and programme signed, and that is the end.

I change and collect all of my things together (remembering to leave the pastor’s socks), and whisper good bye to everyone.  I drive straight back to the hotel and collapse into bed.  I have one more day of performances before I have a day off, and I so want to do a better job tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get Me to the Church on Time

Where am I?  It has been that kind of week.  I wake completely unaware of the layout of the hotel room (and stub my toe on my suitcase as I stumble to the bathroom to prove it).  I don’t know what city, or even what State I am in.  Slowly I come to my senses, and remember that I am in the Marriott hotel in Connecticut, and this morning I have a drive to New Jersey for two shows at the Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington.

I write the blog, and make coffee.  I am feeling a little under the weather; it feels as if a cold is beginning to take grip, and I’m feeling very tired.  I make sure that all of my costumes are hung up, so that I can take them to the car before having breakfast. 

The Marriott lift is up to its tricks and I have to travel to floor 5 before being allowed to the lobby (maybe once you could say that I had got into a lift that was already called going up, but this is 6 times now:  I push the ‘down’ call button, and the ‘1’ button, and sure enough it goes to 5.)

In the restaurant, there are people scattered about at various tables, and I head for one near the wall that has a knife and fork rolled into a linen napkin.  Immediately the server is by my side asking if I’d like juice or coffee, and then asks me if I am a priority of gold medallion member.  Apparently the rolled napkin is the hotel equivalent to the little curtain on regional jets, which separates first class from rabble.  I obviously look respectable, because I am allowed to stay even though I don’t belong to those august orders. I can look pityingly at the less-fortunate diners who have to make do with paper napkins.  As far as breakfast itself is concerned there is no advantage and I queue up for a fairly average buffet (although they do have a bowl of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, as well as the usual melon chunks.)

I finish and return to my room, ready to get on the road as early as I can.  My phone map app tells me that the journey to Burlington should be 2 hours and 44 minutes, but I know that I have to cross the George Washington Bridge, and that could double the journey time in itself.  The weather is bright and crisp, and I am soon on the road as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service reaches its climax.

The SatNav still says that my time of arrival will be at 9.44 (I don’t have a sound check until 12), so I may go via the hotel and see if I can check in there, before going on to the church itself.  As I drive on, so the blue and white licence plates of Connecticut are replaced by the blue and yellow of New York, and still I am making good progress.  I pass a sign to Rye, where I performed for the Golden Glow conference back in the summer, and smile at the memories that had been hidden in my mind until this moment.

And then it happens:  twenty miles before reaching the George Washington Bridge I hit traffic. Lots of traffic, slow, crawling, lane-changing traffic.  I am surrounded by huge trucks belching out fumes. 

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Fumes

For a while the slow pace keeps up with the distance remaining and my time of arrival stays at two hours, but as I get closer to New York itself so the optimistic arrival time begins to slip back.

Eventually I get to the bridge, and have my first glimpses of the Manhattan skyline, although I am trying to concentrate on being in the correct lane, so can’t admire it much. 

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Glimpses of NYC

The GW Bridge has two tiers: the lower one of cars only, the top for trucks too.  I want to be on the bottom, but being hemmed in by 18-wheelers means I am unable to get over to the right, and I am funnelled up with the big boys.  As I finally clear the bridge (all of the trouble seems to have stemmed from a broken down truck being towed slowly), my time of arrival has changed from 9.44, to 12.10:  VW –  Get me to the church on time.

I am on familiar a roads now: the New Jersey Turnpike, and the view of New York City on this clear and bright morning is magnificent.  I make up a little time, but am dismayed when an electronic sign flashes up the message: ‘FIRE AHEAD. ROAD MAY BE BLOCKED.   As it happens the road is empty, but I do flash past the completely burnt out shell of a car being loaded onto a truck:  that must have been frightening. 

My journey continues unhindered and in the end I pull up outside the Church at exactly 12 o’clock (a journey of four hours and fifteen minutes)

I am welcomed at the door by the event organiser, and good friend Laura, and we go up into the gorgeous, historic sanctuary to check the microphone.  There are two things to mention about this sound check:  firstly for many years the sound was looked after by Bob, who set up the church’s microphone system and understood it like nobody else.  He would sit on the balcony and play with the levels until it was perfect.  Very sadly Bob died last year and we will be doing the show without him – we all hope that his spirit is looking down on us and guiding us!

The second issue is the clip: the little lapel mic has no clip, so Laura ha thoughtfully provided three bulldog clips for me to attach the wire to my costume (I imagine that bulldog clips are not called bulldog clips in the USA, so any translation will be gratefully received).  I select three small clips, and clamp the wire to my shirt, which should do the job.

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Laura and I (with Bob’s help) do the sound check, and everything seems to be fine.  I am worried by the effect of the cold on my voice, and to be honest am not feeling 100%

The audience start to arrive, so I take myself to my little dressing room beneath the stage and relax as the plumbing gurgles and rattles around me.  The Broad Street United Methodist Church was built in 1854, and is a quirky old girl, to be sure: beautiful, but quirky!

The show is due to begin at 1pm, and shortly before ‘curtain-up’ Laura and her husband Joe come to the dressing room, so that we can co-ordinate the opening.  Laura will make the introductory speech, I will be at the back of the hall, and Joe will be back stage with a CD player, ready to play the music.

Laura begins by asking how many people have seen my show before, and a forest of hands go up, well over half the audience.  That’s nice.  Then she asks how many people have NOT seen me before, and a forest of hands go up, well over half the audience – that’s confusing!  She plugs the souvenir programme, and makes all the necessary pleas for the turning off of cell phones, and then it is time to start.  Joe hits his cue, and the music accompanies me down the aisle and onto the stage.

As I feared, I am not in particularly good form during this first show.  I just feel lethargic and my movements are heavy and ponderous.  I struggle to get long sentences out in one breath (something of a disadvantage, when your script writer is Charles Dickens), and really don’t do myself any credit.

The audience laugh and join in where necessary, and those loyal followers who have seen me multiple times are definitely helping me along.  The applause at the end is lovely, and they stand for me, but I am not happy at all.

I change from a particularly sodden costume, and go into the little room where the signing is taking place.  I am sat at a table with a china teapot, cup, saucer and a plate with Rich Tea biscuits.  Suddenly everything feels better again.  People say lovely things about the show, and I have to remember that I have particularly high standards for myself, and the occasional off-par performance is still greatly appreciated by those watching.  I shake myself out of my low spirits and smile and chat to the people that make my wonderful life possible.

It is a long session, as the church volunteers are serving coffee, tea, cookies and cakes, so everyone sits around chatting.

In the end, I am able to leave the little meeting room, get out of costume and back into my normal clothes.  It has become a tradition here that all of the volunteers go and have dinner between the two shows at Francesco’s Italian restaurant, just a couple of blocks away.  A straggling crocodile of men and women thus leave the church, cross the tram tracks and head to the eatery.

I am sat in the middle of the table, surrounded by twelve others (didn’t Leonardo DaVinci paint something similar?), but am not at my sparkling witty best.  Sat next to me is Marcia, who was married to Bob, the sound man.  She has had a very difficult year, and it has not been made any easier today by issues with her aged parents in North Carolina.  But very kindly, she fishes some packets of Vitamin C powders from her purse, and promises that they are very good at re-energising one.  I am so grateful to her for this act of kindness.

I eat a veal dish, cooked in a lemon sauce and served with pasta: it is delicious.  Another great act of kindness comes at the end of the meal, when Laura’s mother Phyllis picks up the bill for all thirteen of us, which is incredibly generous of her.

Back at the church there are almost two hours before the evening show, so I shut the door of my dressing room, lay down on the little couch and sleep.  It is a rest that I need, although I don’t feel particularly sprightly when I wake again.  I have a mug of Marcia’s orange drink, and try to move about a bit, to get some energy into my limbs, but I don’t feel great.

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I can hear the audience arriving, and get into costume, ready to put myself on show again.  It is a bigger crowd tonight, and as I stand at the back watching and listening, I begin to feel a surge of Doctor Theatre: it will all be OK!

And, indeed it is.  I start slowly, and try not to push too hard; the microphone is picking up my voice well (thank you Bob), and I don’t need to over-project. I concentrate on making my moves and positioning tight, and all of these little things creates a much better performance.  The final link in the chain is the audience, for they exude great energy and enthusiasm, and soon I am back to somewhere near my best. 

It is with relief and satisfaction that I take my bows at the end.  A better show provokes a longer signing line, and this is definitely the case here: people are buying the programme in good numbers, and patiently waiting in line to have it signed, which is how Ian and I imagined things working out all those months ago.

When the last of the coffee has been drunk, and the last cookie eaten, it is time to change and say good bye.  The people at The Broad Street Church are so kind and so generous, and I love coming back here each year.  I say good bye to the volunteers, hug Laura, Joe and Phyllis; but most particularly hug Marcia – she is so strong, but it is obvious that she feels the loss of Bob very deeply.

My hotel for the night is about 6 miles away, and I arrive there at around 10pm.  It is a nice anonymous Hampton Inn and I haul my bags to the counter and wearily check in.  Anonymous?  No, for the clerk says ‘there is a note on the computer saying you are related to Charles Dickens, wow, that is cool.  Tell me what is your favourite movie version of the story?’  And once more I am on show.

I am glad to get to my room on the third floor, which is a little suite, with kitchen, sofa, desk.  I will actually be here for two nights, and instantly it feels like home.  It has been a long, tiring, difficult day, and I am grateful to get to bed in the knowledge that I do not have to drive anywhere tomorrow morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Princes of Humbug

Today I have a longer drive, so I have to make sure that I am awake, showered, dressed and breakfasted by 8.  I achieve the first  goal and sit in bed writing the blog, which I post.   Almost instantly I receive an email from WordPress congratulating me on my 200th post – That is quite an extraordinary thought, and I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all of my regular readers.

I get up and makes sure that my two costumes are on their hangers, and ready to travel.  I take them both downstairs to my car, before having a simple breakfast in the Speakers Corner restaurant.

Back in my room I get packed (not that there is much to pack), and haul my cases out of the room, ready to continue my day-by-day New England tour.

I start the engine bang on 8am, and pull out into the Nashua traffic.  I have actually given myself plenty of time for the drive, and it is one of those curious situations whereby my journey would be quicker if I leave later, but I don’t want to risk it and prefer to be on the road.

David Tennant keeps me entertained with his reading of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as I make my way south towards Connecticut.  It is a fine morning, and the low sun is dazzling as I drive. 

My route takes me past some familiar names: Marlborough, Worcester and Providence from this tour, as well as a few from home: Glastonbury and Wallingford in particular.  I am feeling very tired this morning, and I am struggling to keep my eyes open on some stretches of road; this isn’t helped by the passage in the novel in which Ernst Stavro Bloefeld hypnotises the ten girls in his allergy clinic.  David Tennant does a superb job with the slow monotonous dialogue and I can feel myself going.  I have to stop and drink coffee to wake me up again.

I am heading for the Black Rock Church in Fairfield, CT and when I pull up in front of it, it is an impressive sight indeed.  A large glass front wall casts light into an impressive lobby, which was the main sanctuary until two years ago when the whole building was renovated.

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Gary and Jennifer Bean from the Historical Christmas Barn are waiting for me to arrive and welcome me in the cavernous space.  I have worked with Gary and Jennifer for five years, but this is our first time to perform in this venue.  Gary gives me a quick tour, which includes the huge and truly amazing auditorium.   The black seating is arranged almost in the round, with the centre being the semi-circular white stage.  Viewed from the very back the whole room looks like a vinyl disk from my childhood.

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I do not have much time to admire the view, as we are immediately heading off to the nearby town of Bridgeport, to read to some young students.  Today’s event is entirely to benefit the Urban Impact organisation, which provides support and education for under privileged kids, who are housed in apartments run by the PT Barnum schools. Barnum came from Bridgeport, and I love the fact that these two great Victorian showmen are coming together today, to provide help in this way.  Dickens cared passionately about the welfare of children, and indeed that issue was his inspiration to write A Christmas Carol.  Barnum styled himself the Prince of Humbug, and Charles Dickens popularised that phrase through the lips of Mr Scrooge; and so is it apt that these two Princes of Humbug should unite today.

We are taken to one of the little schools by Chris, who heads up Urban Impact.  I am in full Victorian garb, so attract plenty of attention as soon as I walk in.  We are issued with bright green visitor stickers, and I attach mine to my top hat.

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We are shown into a dining hall, where I will read a children’s version of A Christmas Carol to a group of 1st and 2nd grade children, each of whom will be given a copy of the book afterwards.  Before the kids arrive, I sit at a low lunch table and sign all of the books, to save time later.

Although this is a children’s version, it is quite wordy, and I hope it won’t prove too long or difficult for them – Gary, Jennifer and Chris all have the same concerns, but we agree to play it by ear, and see what happens.

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Discussing the book with Chris

At 1.15 the students are shown in, and their various teachers offer various threats to keep them quiet.  Chris introduces me, and it is time to read.  ‘Marley was DEAD to begin with!’  That gets their attention!  I read on, through the story and make the most of Scrooge snoring, which they like (as Gary pointed out, all bodily sounds are good for young kids!)

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The reading goes by quickly, and the children are remarkably quiet and attentive.  A few squirm and wriggle, but I am very pleased with the way it all goes.  When the story is finished, we hand out the books and pose for a big group photograph, and the room is filled with sheer happiness.

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Before we leave the Principal of the school asks f we could just say hi to the Kindergarten glass as well.  I have no idea what to say to them, but end up letting each child wear my hat and scarf – that makes them happy!

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We leave the school, and return to the Church where I change back into my regular clothes. I have a few hours now before the evening show, which gives me time to check into yet another hotel and get some much-needed rest.  Before leaving I have a chat with the sound and lighting guy, who will be looking after the show.  He can give me lots of different colours: chill, spooky blue for the churchyard scenes and rosy warm red for the Fezziwig party.  Whey, there is even a fog machine to play with!

Gary leads me to the large Marriott Hotel, where I check in and go up to my room on the 3rd floor.  I am delighted to find that the hotel has a guest laundry, and take the opportunity to bag up a load of costume shirts. I go to the lift and hit the down arrow, but as the doors close I am whisked up to the 5th floor, where nobody gets in.  Oh, well.  Back down to 1 again.  I set the machine running and return to my room on the 3rd.  Liz is online again, and we chat for a while, before I have to go and move the laundered shirts into the drier.  Back at the lift, press down, and get taken to 5 again.  Very curious.

Having set the drier, I go to the bar and order a crab cake sandwich, which is delicious and much needed.

I have to be back at the theatre by 5 for a sound check, so I get back to my room and have a shower to wake myself up (a good James Bond shower – hot first followed by very cold.) 

I am now resigned to travelling to the lobby via the 5th floor, and the lift doesn’t disappoint, taking me to the heights, before dropping me down again.

Back at Black Rock I get fitted with the microphone and perform a few lines until the levels are set, and then retreat into my little dressing room (a family room off the main foyer space, where I can spread out and be alone).  The time passes slowly, and I listen to Christmas music to get me in the mood.  I am still feeling tired, and my throat feels tight: this week of constant travel is beginning to take its toll.  As I am relaxing I hear the very sad news that the actor Andrew Sachs has died.  Sachs created the brilliant character of Manuel in Fawlty Towers, and generations of British viewers delighted in his performances: Any laughs I may get tonight are in his honour.

7 o’ clock comes round, and I make my way back stage (this may be a Church, but it is laid out as a theatre, and a truly impressive one at that.)  Firstly Chris welcomes the audience and says a little about Urban Impact, and then Jennifer comes to the stage to welcome me.  The music plays and I make my way through a forest of Christmas trees, which mark the back of the set, and into the show.

Despite the circular embrace of the audience, it is actually quite difficult to gauge the feedback and I am rather worried that I am not connecting with them.  I am very happy with my performance, which is highly committed and strong, but just somehow things don’t feel quite right.  However, my fears are swept away with the ovation at the end which is amazing.  I take my bows as cheers and whoops greet me.

There is a long signing line in the foyer and everybody is so enthusiastic and kind about the show, which is such a relief.  Even after all these years, the fear of failure is paramount in my mind every time I step out to perform: we are a fragile and delicate breed, us actors.

When the guests have left, I get changed and pack all of my things into the car, before saying another goodbye to Gary, Jennifer, Chris and everyone who has helped to make the event so successful.

Back at the hotel I take the costumes to my room to air, before returning to the bar (via the 5th floor, of course), for some dessert.

Tomorrow morning I have another longish drive, so having finished a delicious apple cobbler with ice cream, I return to me room, get into bed, set the alarm and let sleep consume me.

When Money Talks, Nobody Checks the Grammar!

My tenure of room 301 in the Fairfield Inn Sudbury is brief indeed, as I move on to Nashua New Hampshire today:  I have hardly had time to unpack anything, so re-packing is easy.  The breakfast room is a fairly typical one, with cereal, a waffle maker, some pastries and fruit juice from a machine.

On the large TV CNN is gritting its teeth to report the continuing process of forming the new cabinet, and it strikes me that it seems to be taking for ages.  This is a major difference between the systems in America and England: back home when a new leader is voted in, then they take power that very day, meaning that forming a cabinet is necessarily a rapid process.  TV cameras watch as various politicians visit number ten Downing Street to be told that they have been hired, or fired (interesting idea for a reality TV show, there?).  In America the President Elect has plenty of time to build a team, as the inauguration is not until January.  One lady watches in disdain before saying ‘Ahhhh, change the channel.  Put the cartoons on.  They make more sense!’ before flouncing out of the room.

The other news currently, which is more disturbing to me, is of raging forest fires in Tennessee, affecting the towns of dear old Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg.  I write an email to Kristy Elder at the Inn at Christmas Place, checking that they are safe, and sending good wishes to all of my friends.

I can feel that my throat is slightly tender today, so I cover it carefully with the beautiful scarf that Liz bought me for Christmas last year: it’s a proper actor’s scarf and I adore it!

The drive to Nashua is just over an hour, but skirts Boston, so I leave a little extra time to complete the journey, in case of traffic.  The day is dull and cold, but it does not actually rain while I am driving.  Mr Bond helps to pass the time, and is just meeting Marc Ange Draco as I arrive in Nashua.

My first performance today is at the Nashua Senior Center, where I am to perform The Signalman, which is still fresh in my memory from Sunday night’s show in Sutton.  This will be my fourth visit to the Senior Center, and in the past I have performed ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’, ‘Mr Dickens is Coming’ and ‘Doctor Marigold’; I hope that they will like the much darker and more sombre ghost story.

I pull up in the car park at exactly the same time as Jill Gage arrives, from the Fortin Gage flower and gift shop who sponsor my visits to Nashua.  It is beginning to rain now, so we have the briefest of hugs, before scurrying inside, where we are met by Judy who runs our event.  For some unknown reason Judy has taken to calling me Gerry over the years, and thus greets me, welcoming me back.

The room is laid out with lots of chairs, ready for the show, and Judy asks me what I need for the set.  As I am performing on floor level there is not a lot of point doing too much, as most people in the audience will not be able to see, so I ask simply for a plain chair and table.  Before looking for them Judy shows me into one of the administrative offices, which will be my dressing room.  On the desk paper doyleys have been laid out, with a platter of fruit and cheese for me.  It is so thoughtful.  Unfortunately, I can’t eat any diary product before a show, as it closes my throat making projection impossible.  It is a shame, because the plate looks most appealing.

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Jill has brought along a cup of chicken rice soup, which is perfect, and I consume that gratefully, before eating the fruit from my plate.

The audience are starting to arrive, and I get into the sombre all black costume of The Signalman, before going to the function room to wait for the 12.30 start time.  One gentleman comes to introduce himself and chat: he is an ordained minister who visits inmates in prison, and uses the story of A Christmas Carol to teach life lessons.  He has seen an article about the original hand-written manuscript of A Christmas Carol, which is held at the J Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, and wants to know if they have published it.  I am happy to tell him that the facsimile is indeed available.  As we talk I mention that I am not sure how the manuscript ended up in New York, to which he replies ‘Money talks; and when money talks nobody checks the grammar!’

More familiar faces take their seats, and at half past twelve Judy stands up to introduce me: ‘We are so happy that Gerry is coming back here again to perform for the fourth time….’  And then ‘so, please welcome Gerry!’  It feels very odd, as only my family have ever called me Gerry.

As I start the performance, the atmosphere in the room is electric, and everyone is hanging onto the words.  So much for worrying that they wouldn’t like it because it isn’t funny!  There is a loud gasp as the rail worker says ‘Signalman, killed this morning’, and another as I sign off with the spooky coincidence of the Staplehurst rail crash and Dickens’ death.

I sit and sign for a while, before changing out of my costume and packing the black waistcoat for the final time on this trip: it is red and gold for the rest of the way.

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In black for the last time

I make sure that I haven’t left anything in the office and drive the short distance to the Crowne Plaza hotel, where I am staying, and will be performing this evening.  It is nice to have a couple of hours to rest, and I just lay on the bed watching TV, until Liz pops up on Facebook, and we are able to chat for a while about this and that – an especially about the arrangements for her coming to join me in just over a weeks’ time.

At 5pm Jill calls the room to tell me that the sound engineer is set up, and ready to do a check, so I gather all of my things and make the arduous journey from the 6th floor to the 1st.  The ballroom is laid out ready, and Chris, the AV engineer, is waiting for me.  He has done a lovely job lighting the stage this year, and there is even a lamppost on the set – I’m not sure what I will do with it in the show, but it looks impressive.

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With the sound check completed, I head to the restaurant where are old friend MarMar is hosting her traditional pre-show dinner.  MarMar and her husband Mike are Brits who have lived in America for many years, and surrounded themselves with a large group of loyal friends.  Every year MarMar invites a large group to my show, and generously buys everyone dinner; it is a great tradition and I always enjoy sharing a little time with them, before getting ready to perform.

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Fish and Chips: US-style

I eat a plate of fish and chips, which is delicious, and then leave the party to their conversation.  I have been given a boardroom to change in, which is very grand, and rather more impressive than the various restrooms I’ve experienced recently.

I get changed as I listen to Liz’s Scott Joplin tracks (The Magnetic Rag being my current favourite), and then sit at the head of the long table: the chairman of the board, to wait for the show.

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The hall is full and noisy when I go in, and there are hardly any seats to be had.  A few stragglers make their way in, and it is time to begin.  Jody Gage makes a great introduction, and really plugs the programme, before welcoming me to the stage.

It is nice to have plenty of room to move, and to be able to give a proper theatrical performance again. I even experiment with a few new moves as I go on: one is specific to this set, and sees me leaning against the mantelpiece at Fred’s party (it is a pose that brings Dad back to life, for he always stood leaning on our mantle at home).  The other thing I try is as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, making his first appearance.  I have always ‘drifted like a mist’ from the back of the stage to the front, and this time I made the same movement but walking backwards towards the audience, so all they see is the black back of my frock coat – just a little theatrical trick that I will persist with for a few performances, and see if it earns a permanent place in the show.

I finish the show and leave the stage and as I return to take my bows Chris plays the Trans Siberian Orchestra’s track in its entirety, which is nice to hear, and sends the audience on their way in festive mood.

I go back to the board room to change, before going into the ballroom lobby to sit and sign.  There has always been a very loyal crowd here, and as the time goes on, so my little stock of gifts gets larger: a carton of British Typhoo tea, a dried flower that comes to life when you put it in water, and then shrivels up when you dry it out again (perfect to take to hotel rooms on tour!), a little bag of homemade bookmarks in the shape of nightcaps and candlesticks, and most charmingly a button sewing kit from Ed and Rose Thorn, who always come to my shows.  They are avid followers of my blog, and have been worried that the thread I am using for my repairs isn’t up to the rigours of the show!  Thank you, Ed and Rose!

The signing finishes, and after a few photographs, it is time to get changed and meet Jill and the team in the bar for a wind-down drink.  In previous years I have been in Nashua for a few days, but this time it is in and out in one.  It is a nice wind-down to the day, but we are all tired, so everyone makes their way home, while I return to my room, hang my costumes to air, and then go straight to bed.