Lit & Phil

Friday 14 December

Today sees me begin the UK leg of my Christmas Carol tour and takes me up the spine of the country to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the far north east of England.

My flight home from Philadelphia last week was a relaxing one, as I had three seats to myself, even though the flight was very busy.  I watched dear old ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, for the millionth time, and then ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ which is back-lit, soft focus British filmmaking at its best!

My first job was to get all of my costumes dry cleaned before the next set of performances, and I had to give strict instructions that the trousers were to pressed with no creases at the front.  One of the reasons for sourcing new grey trousers this year was so that they would be more authentically Victorian in style, and my costume guru David has stressed to me throughout the year that I must NOT have sharp creases in them.  I was relieved when I picked them up that they had been pressed correctly.

At 11 am I say goodbye to Liz once more, the children being at school, and start a 5 hour drive.  I still have the remnants of an Inspector Morse novel on my phone and he keeps me company as I make my way through the Midlands and into the North, basically following the route that the Roman armies took until they reached Hadrian’s wall running across the country at the Scottish border.

After a long and tiring drive I am welcomed to Tyneside by the open wings of the magnificent Angle of the North and soon am descending the hill into Newcastle and crossing the mighty Tyne by one of the many bridges which the city boasts.

My venue tonight is the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, or the Lit&Phil as it is now known.  I have performed here for the last two years and it is a great venue in a great city.  Housed in a splendidly imposing building near to the main railway station in the City, the Lit and Phil can proudly boast the fact that it is the largest independent library outside London (a fact which must stick in the craw of those goodly folk who run the Bodleian Library in my home city of Oxford).

The City is bustling and busy but remarkably I am able to find a parking space right outside the building and the unloading of my furniture and props is the work of but a few moments.

I am greeted by Kay who organises my performances here (this will be my third appearance) and various other staff and volunteers as I set up the room for my show.  The actual venue for my performance is a fairly bland room at the rear of the building, but we have a sell out audience tonight and I know from past experience that the atmosphere can be electric in here.

Once I have carefully arranged my chair, cloth, table, hat stand and stool (it is not a difficult get-in, it must be said), I descend to my dressing room which is maybe the most impressive that I have on tour, for I am in the oak-shelved, dusty book-lined Reference and Silence Room, where a clock loudly ticks the seconds and minutes.  I have been told in past years that the room is haunted but as yet no spirits have come to visit me.

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I change into my crisp, clean costume, and then sit and relax as the audience builds upstairs.  Last year I performed the Carol at the very start of my tour, and I remember pacing around going over lines to myself.  Tonight I can slip on the script with the same ease that I slip on my frock coat, and I am much more relaxed, indeed I even find myself practicing my golf swing with the gnarled cane that in an hours’ time will become Tiny Tim’s active little crutch.

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The buzz of anticipation from the audience is a lovely sound and I wait just outside the door until I get the nod from Kay who then presses play on an impressive CD machine, thereby launching another performance.

The audience is restrained, as English audiences tend to be, but hang on every line of the script with the intensity you would expect from a Literary and Philosophical crowd. With such a crowd there is always a decision to be made regarding the audience participation elements of my show, which can just fall flat and lie as dead as a doornail if there is no response forthcoming.  Tonight I decide to go for it and everyone dutifully joins in, which breaks the tension a little.

The applause at the end is remarkable in its intensity and length and I am called back for a second curtain call, which is very special indeed.  Back in my Reference and Silence Room I change shirt, waistcoat and frock coat before going to mingle and chat with the audience.

Ian and I have decided to donate the profits from any souvenir programme sales made in the UK over the next couple of weeks to the Dickens Museum appeal to help buy the Lost Portrait of Dickens.  If you missed my blog about this amazing story then it can be viewed at https://wordpress.com/post/geralddickens.wordpress.com/7351

Sales of programmes ad CDs go quite well and it is fun to chat and sign in such a relaxed way, rather than sitting at a desk with a long queue of people waiting patiently, as been the case in America over the last couple of weeks

The audience gradually drift away into the cold night and I return to the tick tock of my clock to change once more.  By the time I remerge all of my furniture has been taken to the front door of the building and in a few minutes it is safely loaded up into the car.  I say good bye to me good friends and head off to search for food.

Newcastle is a university city and on a Friday night in the week leading up to Christmas it is packed.  After a few unsuccessful attempts to get into restaurants I go back to my little hotel and order a takeaway meal which is duly delivered to the front desk.  I sit in my room watching TV whilst I eat.

It has been a long day, with a lot of driving, and I am certainly tired and ready for my bed.  Tomorrow I start south again and will be performing at a new venue for me, in the beautiful Peak District town of Buxton.  There is bad winter weather forecast for this weekend, and my drive could be a difficult one so I will need to be on the road good and early, just in case.

I shall see you there.

 

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A Civilised Finale in Burlington

With apologies for the delay in posting, this is my account of the final day in the USA

 

And so I wake for my last morning in America for this year. I am meeting Bob for breakfast at 8.30, or is it 8? I can’t remember what we agreed, except we are both early morning people. To be on the safe side I will go to the restaurant at 8.15!
I write my blog post and pack as much as I can, although I still need costumes for my show this afternoon, so I make sure that my roller bag is packed with 2 clean shirts, some socks, black shoes, the red cloth and the two little mice for the stage. I make sure I have the USB drive as well as a CD with the sound cues and pens for signing.
After a shower (a very good one, but not up to Press Hotel standard, which therefore takes the award for best shower of the year award), I take my two costumes to hang in the car and take a pile of souvenir programmes which have been in my car since the signing in the bookstore and need returning to Bob, and walk to breakfast.
Bob is not there, and nor is anyone else as a matter of fact, and the staff are a rather nonplussed. I grab an orange juice and a coffee and read a little more of Hidden Figures while I wait. One of the servers sees the pile of programmes on the table and asks me about them and when I explain about the show she beams: ‘Oh! I’ve had guests here who went to that and said it was awesome!’, which is good to hear.
Bob arrives bang on the dot of 8.30 (so, I was right first time) and soon we both have platefuls of breakfast in front of us as we chat about this year’s tour, how it has worked, is there anything we can learn for the future. It is too early to start talking about future visits, as I need to talk to Liz about how this year worked for her at home alone with the girls before committing to anything.
From the tour our conversation moves on to travelling in general and various other things until it is time for Bob to leave. It is strange to think that I have another performance today, and I have to make sure that I am in performance mode, rather than travelling mode.
I return to my room and watch a bit of TV until 11 o’clock when it is time to check out, I return my key to the front desk where still no mention is made yesterday’s events. I am sure that Bob will mention it to the management, as Byers’ Choice are good, very good, customers of the Joseph Ambler Inn.
My drive this morning is not a long one, less than an hour in fact, but takes me across another state line into New Jersey. I refill with fuel on the way and buy a sandwich for an early lunch, which I eat in the car before heading to the Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington NJ. This is another venue where I have many friends and also a venue where I have many friends and it will great to finish up the tour here.
I park outside the church and get not only my 2 costume, roller bag, hat and cane out, but also my large suitcase as I will need to pack straight after the show. As I make my rather precarious way to the door two young guys call out ‘Hey dude, are you a magician? Can you do a trick now? C’mon man, just one trick!?’ Getting up the two steps to the door without dropping everything will be trick enough!
As soon as I am in I am greeted by Laura, who organises this event, her husband Joe and all the rest of the team – I get well and truly hugged, for they are a huggy bunch at The Broad Street United Methodist Church. I usually do two shows here but as I have to be at the airport by 7 tonight there is only the 2pm matinee, which has resulted in a huge turnout expected – around 350. The minister of the church jokes that he is going to take a picture of them all packed in and then post it on the Facebook page as an indication of the popularity of his sermons.
I get myself settled in usual dressing room, under the stage, and then go upstairs to make sure everything is where is needs to be. In years past we have had to improvise with the music cue as there was no CD system and poor Joe had to squat holding a microphone to the speakers of a boom box back stage; he couldn’t see what was happening and there was more than an element of guess work involved. This year however there is a new sound system but sadly at the moment it can only play a CD, so the new effects, which are only on my USB stick, will not have another outing: Mr Fezziwig must dance in silence again.
Having completed the sound check I go back to my dressing room to get ready and with half an hour to I make my way to the kitchen and get a nice cup of black tea. A number of volunteers are there busily preparing cookies and cakes which will be served to the guests during the signing session.

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20 minutes. 15 minutes. 10. Laura, Joe and I chat and then at 2pm I go to the back of the hall, whilst Laura takes to the stage to welcome the audience. As I stand waiting at the back of the sanctuary I get a big wave of the hand from Kevin Quinn and Herb Moskovitz, both members of the Dickens Fellowship, who have travelled from New York and Philadelphia respectively to see the show. I have known them both for many years and it is very generous of them to make their journeys.
Laura finishes her intro and I make my slow way to the ‘stage’ (the alter rail has been removed, as has the table to give me as much space as possible to perform on). The hall is indeed packed on floor level and in the balcony and there is definitely a good atmosphere in here.

 

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I try to use the various different levels as much as possible to suggest different scenes, especially those in the streets of London. The audience get fully involved and as many of them have attended multiple times they know the score. Bob asked the other day why people who have seen the show so often don’t gasp in delight at the turkey, when they know I am going to feign frustration at their lack of participation. I have noticed over the years that I return to a venue about four times regular attendees DO gasp on cue, but then they begin to realise that the joke is better when they don’t make a sound so dutifully remain silent in subsequent years.
About half way through the show I am aware of a loose shirt cuff, which always seems to happen here, I ascertain that the cufflink hasn’t broken, just come out of the button hole, I make a couple of attempts to re-fasten it but am not successful and end up leaving it to flap.
The performance is a very emotional and intense one, which holds the audience’s attention fully. The comedy gets laughs, the pathos is received with concentrated silence. It is a good way to sign off.
‘God Bless Us, Every One’ for the last time in the USA and the whole audience rise to their feet and make a lot of noise (I wonder if the minister is filming this!). I take my bows and linger a little longer than usual on stage before retiring to my dressing room, where I change out of my rather damp costume, which I hope might dry a little before it needs packing in an hour or so’s time.
The line for the signing line is very long and backs right up into the narrow walkway which also serves as a second hand book store. I have to ‘excuse’ my way to the front before I can get to my seat and begin signing.
Kevin from New York has managed to get right to the front of the queue and after shaking hands he gives me a little gift – a new set of Dickens Fellowship geranium cufflinks, as over the years he knows that I have often broken pairs thanks to the rigours of performance. It is strange that today is the only show on this year’s tour where I have suffered a cufflink malfunction – maybe it is the spirits reaching out to us!

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The signing line is full of families who have attended the shows for multiple years and one such present me with a framed picture featuring our portraits over 6 years, which is incredibly moving.
As I sign and chat, I sip a lovely cup of tea, poured from a bone china pot, into a bone china cup which sits on a bone china saucer – things are very civilised in Burlington.
Quite apart from the long signing line, the room is full of people sat at tables enjoying their own tea and cookies, which means that just when I think the signing is coming to an end someone else gets up to come to my table, but everyone is in high good spirits and there is a lovely atmosphere.

 
When the signing does finally end I go back to the dressing room and start the business of cramming everything into my suitcases for the first time in two weeks. Socks get packed in my hat and the thick woollen scarf is wound around it. Both costumes (2 times grey trousers, 2 times red and gold waistcoats, 2 times burgundy cravats, 2 times black frock coats) are folded and packed into my little roller case.

 
It seems strange to be leaving so soon, as usually the whole team go out together for dinner at a local restaurant, before putting on an evening show. Today, even though the others are dining and have invited me to join them, I need to drive to the Philadelphia International airport, where I have a date with a British Airways 747. I am sent on my way with two sandwiches that Marcia has kindly bought for me, and after being well and truly hugged once more I am on my way.

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So the USA tour comes to an end (although my Christmas season will continue in the UK next week) and as I sit in the departure lounge awaiting Zone 5 to be called I can reflect on a very successful series of performances during which the show has progressed once again. I have been very happy with the new scene involving Bob Cratchit mourning Tiny Time, and I am very happy with the use of the cloth throughout the performance.
But you don’t want to hear about my thoughts on the play for I know that there is one pressing question to which you are desperate to know the answer:

 
The Best Breakfast of the Tour Award! On reflection, taking everything into consideration, weighing up all the pros and cons, I think that the short list boils down to:
The Beechwood Hotel, in Worcester Mass
The Press Hotel in Portland
The Fairville Inn at Winterthur
The Joseph Ambler Inn at Byers’ Choice

And the winner is: The Press Hotel in Portland!

I will continue to write through the rest of my tour, and the nest performance is in the beautiful city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne next weekend. I shall see you there.

Pause Before You Snore…..

Although the Joseph Amble Inn presents a fine breakfast buffet I am forgoing its delights this morning as I  have arranged to drive to my cousin Rowland’s hotel to spend a little time with him and his family. Usually Rowly  drives up from NJ for the show and goes straight home on the same night, meaning that we rarely get to talk at length, but this year they have decided to stay.

The Staybridge Suites Hotel is but a 4 minute drive, and I find Rowly in the lobby wrapped up preparing to huddle outside in the cold for a cigarette.  I grab a coffee and go and sit with him on a bench under the main entrance canopy.  As we talk Rowly notices that directly above the ‘Smokers Outpost’ stand provided for people to stub their cigarettes out on, is a ‘No Smoking’ notice.

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After a few minutes Rowly’s middle son Toby comes out to announce that the rest of the family are ready for breakfast, and in we go.  It is a lovely family time  with Rowly’s wife Andrea (Andi), eldest son Sam, Toby and Rafe.

Sam takes on the duty of chief waffle maker and soon places a stack that resembles the leaning tower of Pisa on the table.  We all tuck in as we talk.

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Toby in particular is developing a keen interest in the stage and has already appeared in a number of productions.  He asks me all sorts of questions about my show, including ‘what are you thinking about when you are doing it?’  Interesting!  When I am performing I have various different thought processes going on, at different levels.  The basic level is to think whatever the character I am portraying is thinking – not pretending, but actually thinking it.  If Scrooge is angry, so I am angry.  If Cratchit is distraught with grief, them I am distraught with grief.  On another level my brain is working on a practical level – oh, the scarf has fallen off the stage and I need it for a scene at the end of the play, how best can I retrieve it without it being too obvious?  I am also watching and listening to the audience to try and gauge their reactions so that I can tailor the show to this particular group – make it darker or funnier or develop the pathos more.

While Toby has an interest in the stage, then young Rafe has a fascination in cars, which I equally enjoy talking about, and I get pictures of my old Lotus which I hope will impress him, however his passions lay in huge monster trucks with tyres the size of Rhode Island!

Sam is currently learning to drive so once again we can chat easily, as I used to be a driving instructor.  It is fascinating to hear about the American system for obtaining a drivers licence, and it seems a lot more comprehensive and sensible than the UK one.  There are nigh time curfews in place for young drivers, and limits on how many passengers they can carry.  However the system is flexible enough so that if a young driver works at night, so a dispensation can be granted for him to drive to his home from his place of  work.

Rowly has worked in New York City for goodness knows how many years (20 or so I believe) and whilst he and Andy are still very much Brits abroad, their accents are holding up well, all three boys were born here and are very much American kids, albeit with a very British heritage.

This morning is the first time I have ever got to spend much time with them and it is a delight.  Rowly and Andi are great company and they should both be proud of their three fine sons.

As the family has to drive back to New Jersey and I have a little work to do back at the hotel it is soon time to hug our goodbyes and I drive back to the Ambler Inn.  My first show today is at 1, so I need to back at Byers Choice before 12 to make sure that everything is in the right place and ready.

There is another lovely deep bath in my room, and I decide that I shall have a long hot relaxing soak before I go out, so I start to run the water, and lay on the bed with the TV on as I wait for the tub to fill.

Suddenly there is the sound of a key in the lock which I assume is housekeeping, despite the fact that I had put the privacy please sign on my door, but it is not: a lady, presumably a hotel employee as she has the key, is bringing an entire group in to look at the room!  Not only has she ignored the Privacy sign, but obviously feels that it is OK to look around an occupied room filled with the resident’s belongings and papers even if he is absent.  She mutters a rather inadequate apology and leaves.  Fortunately I was not actually ready for my bath, if you get my drift, but it is not an impressive moment for the Joseph Ambler Inn.

I put the chain on the door and have my bath which is indeed relaxing and luxurious.

Most of my belongings are still at Byers Choice, so all I need to take is an extra shirt and a pair of black socks (making sure I haven’t picked up the rhinestone teacup ones from Lenox).

Before I leave I stop by the front desk to mention the issue of the intrusion this morning, not to complain, just to let them know it happened and that it wasn’t really good enough.  The lady behind the desk says ‘Oh, that’s bad’ but doesn’t actually apologise.  Maybe she will mention it to the manager and he will deal with it later.

As I arrive at Byers’ Choice I drive to my usual car parking spot, but it is filled, I go to another lot at the front of the building, also filled.  Eventually I am directed to the loading bays outside the shipping department and am let in a back door.  The Saturday afternoon audience are arriving so early that not even the performer can park!

In the empty theatre I chat with Bob, as is our custom, and I set the stage for the start of the show, making sure that the stool and the cloth are where they should be.  As I am bumbling about a group of very young children, probably 3 years old I would think, come in with their mothers, or nursery school carers, I am not sure which.  They are all dressed smartly and Dave asks me if I wouldn’t mind saying hello which I am happy to do.  Each one shyly shakes hands, and then they all present me with plaster ornaments that they have made and coloured, as well as beautiful cards with pictures of carefully drawn Christmas trees.  It is a beautiful moment and makes me think of home.

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The rest of the audience are ready to be let in, so I go to my dressing room to change.  The 1 o’clock show is the biggest of the tour and their will be a capacity house of around 700, which is an exciting prospect.  As usual I return to the auditorium with about 20 minutes to go and watch the seats fill up.  We wait for the last shuttle bus to bring the last guests from the furthest car park, and it is a little after 1 when Bob and I make our way backstage to thank the choir once more and start the show

As you would expect with such a big crowd it is a wonderful show and I work hard.  About half way through though I begin to feel slightly light-headed as though I need a sugar hit, but theres nothing I can do about it.  I work through it and keep going.

A slight change today is to develop Mr Fezziwig’s dancing a little.  Up to now the new musical cue has come in, and I have simply carried on the narrative but today I choreograph a little country dance for Mr F to perform.  It is rather jolly!  I am not happy with Mrs F’s role in the proceedings however and I must give her something better to do than the current manic twirling finale.

It is a good feeling to stand on stage bowing to 700 people who are on their feet clapping and shouting and making strange whooping noises.  Oh yes, it is a good feeling!

The show has been very good, and now it is time for my backstage sprint to prepare myself for the signing.  Having read yesterday’s blog post Bob talks for a little longer on stage, allowing me more leeway to get back to the board room.

When I arrive at my signing table the whole crowd, orchestrated by Pam, breaks out into a loud rendition of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow!’, which is terribly embarrassing but also rather nice.

The signing is long.  Oh it lasts a long time but everyone in the line is so patient.  I am sat in the centre of the visitor centre’s Nativity room where the queue of people ends at my desk; from there the serpentine line winds back around the perimeter of the room and out into the museum section of the building, meaning that I have guests on all sides of me.

As ever Pam is on duty at the head of the queue, chatting and taking people’s phones or cameras to perform photographic duties.  She is superb in this role and has such a great rapport with all of the guests that I am sure every one of them feels as if she is their new best friend by the time they leave.

There is a jolly atmosphere in the room and I make sure that I put just as much energy into being cheerful and approachable as I do into my performance on stage.  It seems as if this session will never end, and I rather think that some of the audience for my second show have taken the opportunity to join the end of the line, so that they don’t have to wait later, however I am wrong for every guest, right to the very end, mentions how much they enjoyed my performance.

One gentleman who has come for multiple years asks me if I felt a little too rushed today?  ‘I don’t want to criticise, but I felt you were a bit too hurried.  In particular the snoring.  Usually you pause before you snore, but today you went straight into it!’  Wow, I knew I’d tried to cut down on some of the pauses, but I’d never realised that the snoring one was something to be considered!  It is amazing the changes that regular attendees notice.

At last the final signing is done and I have a 90 minute break before I am back on duty again for show number 2.

I go back the stage and re set everything and chat briefly to Bob about the changes for this year, especially the sound effects.  He said he was sceptical at first because he felt that too much intrusion might take away the simplicity of the storytelling, but in fact thinks they work well.

Here are the sound effects I have introduced, and the reasons for including them:

1:  The opening music has been a feature of the show for a few years now and creates a good mournful atmosphere leading to the sombre opening line: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’

2:  Sir Roger de Coverley at Fezziwig’s party:  I have wanted a greater sense of celebration and party in this scene and recently found a lovely recording of a single violin playing the old English country dance.  It is a jolly tune and just underscores the whole passage, without being intrusive.  It has also enabled me to dance a little on stage, and that is something I never thought I would write!

3: A church clock striking three-quarters:  After Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present have been on the worldwide adventures Ebenezer notices that the spirit is ageing. ‘My time on this globe is very brief, it ends tonight.  Tonight at midnight’  and then suddenly he says ‘My time draws near’ before revealing Ignorance and Want.  In the book itself the narrative says ‘The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.’, and it is for this purpose that I wanted the chimes to sound, so that the ghost has a reason to speak.

4: the clock striking twelve: Having had the three quarters just a few lines earlier, it would seem odd to have no chiming bells when the narrative talks about the clock striking twelve, and the slow ponderous tolling adds to the sense of impending doom that comes with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come

5: Christmas morning Church bells pealing:  In the book when Scrooge realises that he is in his own room and that he is as light as a feather, as merry as a schoolboy and as giddy as a drunken man, he is drawn to the windows by the Church bells ringing, and it is such a joyous bit of writing:

‘He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell! Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash. Oh, glorious, glorious.’

In my original thoughts I had asked Dave to keep the church bells ringing throughout the whole time that Scrooge is in the streets, right up to the moment he finally leaves Church, but that proved to be too much and too intrusive, so at today’s performance Dave faded them gently out quite soon which worked much better.

Aware of my low sugar levels during the show I make a raid on the refreshment counter at the back of the hall, which has been manned throughout by Joyce Byers who created this entire company.  There are cookies there.  Lots of cookies.  Cookies on plates, cookies in boxes, cookies on racks.

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I fill my hat with a goodly selection and return to the boardroom where I eat a salad and some fruit, and just generally relax.  Even now there is a little work to be done as two large bags filled with books and carollers have been left for me to sign, which I do between bites of apple and cookie.

Also on the desk is the perfect display of Dave’s professionalism and care, for my microphone is laid out with a reassuring little note telling me that new batteries were put in at 3.30 pm

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With a little time to go I sit in a chair and begin to play Angry Birds on my phone, I get to a particularly tricky level and cant get the three-star score that I want.  I know there is a way of doing it, I just have to work out the correct order and strategy.  Over and over I fire the little birds into the air, and over and over I come up short.  There MUST be another way, and so it goes on over and over, until at last the last little green pig explodes and three yellow stars appear on my screen.  Phew!  Oh, I suppose I should check the time – ONLY FIFTEEN MINUTES TO THE SHOW!

I pin my microphone into place, make sure that I have everything that I need and go to the hall where another huge audience is gathering.  The routine is well set now and at 5.30 Bob and I go back stage to thank the choir (a different one this evening), and start things rolling for the final time.

This is the best show of the three in my opinion, it is strong and dramatic and pacey and there is a superb connection with the audience.  I also make sure that I pause properly before snoring!

At the start of the performance I was slightly worried about my voice and throat (too many cookies no doubt), but I hold back a little and everything is fine.

Once again the ovation at the end is amazing, and I have tears in my eyes as I bow.

Big audience and good show equals a long signing session, and I am feeling very tired by the end, but I love this interaction with the audiences and it would be much more worrying if nobody stood in line afterwards.  Pam does her usual sterling job, and Bob offers cups of water to those waiting patiently.

And at around 8.15 my duties at Byers’ Choice end for another year.  Bob accompanies me back to board room, lest I should be accosted and waylaid by any other audience members and I start to change and pack.  I seemed to have accumulated a lot of stuff in the board room including various gifts to take home, not to mention the clean shirts that Pam has laundered for me and it takes quite a feat of balancing to carry everything back to the car.

The theatre is a theatre no more, for the stage has gone, the lights are down and all of the work stations are being wheeled back into place ready for production of the carollers to recommence tomorrow.  In A Christmas Carol we read about young Ebenezer and Dick Wilkins clearing Fezziwig’s warehouse ready for the ball, but we never hear about them putting it back together again.  Here in the 21st century version everyone is involved: Bob and Jeff Byers, the finance director Joe, all of the guys who have been ushering and manning the carparks, they are all rebuilding Byers’ Choice.

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I say my goodbyes, putting down my hat and scarf to do so, before letting myself out of the back door and going to the car.  Instantly I realise that I have left my hat inside, but I cant get back in without a key.  I have been very proud that I haven’t lost or left anything anywhere  throughout the whole trip, so this is rather annoying, but it is not an issue as I am meeting Bob for breakfast I the morning and I send him a message asking him to bring the two items with him then.

Back at the Ambler Inn hang up my damp shirt to dry.  I was wondering if there may have been a note under the door, or a message on my phone regarding the events of this morning, but there is nothing.  I am very hungry after an very active and intense day so I go to the bar and order a steak and brulee, which proves to be a perfect end to a very good day.

Tomorrow I have one more show to perform, before driving to the airport and getting in a plane to take me home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Work With the Fezziwigs

Today it is time to move on to my last hotel of the tour, but there is no great rush.  I go to the main house of the Fairville Inn for breakfast at 8am, and have one of Rick’s superb French Toast Soufflés which is absolutely delicious.

Back in my room I get the cases sorted out, thinking ahead as to how I am going to pack for the flight home in a couple of days time.  After finishing the packing I do a little work on the computer, finding another sound effect to complete the set for my theatre version of the show.

I download and save all of the effects onto a USB drive, as well as onto my computer, update the script and email the whole lot to Dave at Byers’ Choice who will be running my show later today, and who is always keen to try out new ideas.

Having completed the work I put the cases in the car, drop the key off to Laura in the office, say good bye and get on the road.  The day is bright and sunny and although there is plenty of traffic, the drive is very straightforward and doesn’t take much longer than an hour.

I am driving to Byers’ Choice in Chalfont PA and in a sense it is a homecoming as it is the Byers’ family who organise my entire tour, as well as being very good friends.  Bob and Pam actually us in Oxford earlier in the year and it will be great to meet up again today.

My route takes me across the Pearl Harbour Memorial Bridge and I realise that it is actually the anniversary of the attack today.  As I motor slowly across the bridge my thoughts are on all of those who were involved during those terrible hours.  In the peace and tranquillity of a sunny winter’s day in PA it is difficult to imagine the terror that rained from the skies in Hawaii.

I am due at Byers’ Choice at midday for an early soundcheck, but I have made such good time I am very early, so I pull into a Wawa petrol station and get a coffee and a delicious cinnamon roll, which I eat in the car park, before continuing my journey.

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I pull up in the car park and unload all of my things, leaving one complete costume in the car and go into the offices that I know so well (I have been performing here for about 15 years or so now.)  I am greeted by all of the staff as I go to the large boardroom which will be my dressing room for the next two days.

Having laid all of my costumes out I walk towards the theatre (actually the manufacturing warehouse that has been completely cleared for the event) and find Bob and his mother Joyce, who founded the company, putting the final touches to the merchandise table.  As we talk so Bob’s brother Jeff arrives and joins in the chat.  The auditorium looks spectacular with around 700 chairs laid out in front of the high stage.  This is the largest venue that I play on tour.

Bob delights in comparing himself to Mr Fezziwig as the warehouse is cleared away and turned into a place of joyousness and entertainment.

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Dave is already at the sound desk so I leave Bob and Joyce to continue their preparations whilst I get on with the soundcheck.  This year, as I mentioned earlier, I have sent Dave a whole collection of new sound effects, so as well as checking the microphone levels, we also run through all of the cues making sure he knows exactly when to bring the sound in and when to fade it again – I think it will all work very well and I know I have a safe pair of hands on the faders.

Having completed the sound check I need to get back in the car as I am due to meet Pam, Bob’s wife, for lunch prior to an appearance this afternoon.  We are meeting at Lilly’s Café and after a hug of greeting we order our lunch – huge filled wraps that are amazingly difficult to eat and amazingly tasty.

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After lunch we drive in my car back to Bob and Pam’s house where I change into my costume, and meet their latest addition, a Boston Terrier puppy called Calvin Timothy (the second name because he is so Tiny….).  Calvin is so energetic and excited, he licks, and he bites, and he chews, and he pants, and he runs.  Pam wants a picture of Calvin and I, so I pick him up and he develops a fascination for my head and gives it a good wash!

 

Soon it is time to leave this bundle of energy and drive back into town to the Doylestown Book Store where I am do a signing session.  Bob and Pam were not sure how successful the event would be, and if anyone would turn up, but thought it worth trying.  When we walk in all such fears are dispelled there are plenty of chairs laid out and a goodly crowd gathering.  It is apparent that I will be required to talk before any signing takes place, so I dive in with all of the good old anecdotes about my career, and then about A Christmas Caro.  When I have finished I ask if anyone has questions, and lots of hands go up.

We chat as a group for around 20 minutes and then the actual signing begins.  There is an English class from the Lenape School where I spoke last year, and they all have their copies of A Christmas Carol signed and pose for selfies.

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The event has been a great success but it is now time to wrap up and get ready for the evening’s performance.  I drive in costume to the Joseph Ambler Inn and am soon checking in.  The girl behind the desk tells me that my room is on the first floor of one of the cottages on site, and I roll my cases to it.  Now I fall foul of a UK/USA language confusion – in England the floor at ground level is known as the ground floor, and the next one up is the first floor, so I lug my heavy case up the narrow wooden staircase only to discover that my room is not on that floor, it is below: in America the first floor is the first floor of the house.  I lug my cases down again and eventually get into a beautiful room with a fireplace and a coffee maker!  I think this may be a first at the Ambler Inn, for in years past if I wanted an early coffee it meant a trip to the reception building and using the machine there.  I am a happy boy.

I have a little under an hour before I need to drive back to Byers’ Choice and I decide just to remain in my costume, my regular clothes are still hanging up in the car.  At 5.30 I leave the Inn and make the short journey into Chalfont and back to BC HQ.

I make sure that the stage is correctly set and then go back to the board room to relax while the huge audience is let in.  My cousin Rowland, who works in New York, is coming to see the show with his family, and I have reserved a few seats for them in the very middle of the auditorium.  Jeff’s wife Dawn, who is a Rottweiler when it comes to seating the audience (the most cheerful and likeable Rottweiler you could ever wish to meet) , promises to protect their seats for me.

With about 20 minutes to go I walk through the offices and into the theatre where I stand at the back and watch, which is always fun to do.  Various people come up and shake my hand and tell me how much they are looking forward to the show, and proudly announce how many times they have see the show!

Show time is approaching, and still no Rowland.  Unfortunately he and the family will not be able to get into the middle of the row whilst the performance is going on and they will have to find seats where they can.

Rowland, or more specifically his father Claud plays an important part in this story, as it was he who first read A Christmas Carol to me one Christmas eve.  The memory has never left me and I can still remember being astounded to discover that the spirits had done it all in one night.  At that moment, when I was 5 or so, the seeds of my career were sown.

Back in the present we cant wait any longer and Bob and I go back stage where we thank the brilliant High School choir who always entertain the audience prior to my shows here.

After the Professor Ort the choirmaster has taken the annual photo of us with his students Bob takes to the stage and greets the assemblage in his usual modest and generous manner.  Having warned them about cell phones, and alerted them about emergency exits, and told them that I will be available for signing and photographs after the show, he says ‘please welcome Gerald Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.  At the back of the hall Dave fades the lights to an eerie blue, and brings the first music cue up.

It is an interesting show in many ways, for the audience are quite restrained and quiet, although attentive.  The extra sound cues work extremely well and Dave’s timing is impeccable.  I am giving it everything, and I am extremely pleased with how it all goes.  Once again this is a large stage giving me lots of space to express myself and I thoroughly enjoy the whole 90 minutes on stage.

Although the show itself is exhausting, it is the few minutes immediately following it that really test my stamina, for I have to get from the stage to the very farthest corner of the building to change, before the audience start to pour out into the corridors thereby blocking my route.  Having taken the bows I exit into the shipping department, whilst Bob buys me a little time by addressing the audience once more, which ensures that they all resume their seats once more.  Behind the scenes I run flat out through the piles of  boxes waiting to be dispatched across America, then through the back of the production floor, past the headless torsos waiting to be turned into the beautiful carollers, and the clay heads waiting to be fixed atop them,  I just make it into the staff canteen before the flow of humanity begins.

I take a while to calm down and change, before making my way to the room in the visitor centre where my signing table is.  The line of people circles the room and back out of the door, and I receive a round of applause as I enter.  For the next hour, or so, I work my way through the line, taking care to give everyone as much attention and time as they need.

At the very end of the line is Rowly, his wife Andi and their three sons Sam, Toby and Rafe.  We pose for pictures and have a brief chat, and Rowly and I arrange to meet up later for a drink back at the Ambler Inn.

It is 9.30 when the last signature is signed and I change back into my normal clothes for the first time since lunchtime.  Bob is trying to secure dinner for me back at the Inn but apparently the kitchen has already closed for the night, which is a shame.

Inspector Morse keeps me company on the short drive back and when I reach the Inn I go straight to the bar – there is no hot food available, although they are still serving desert and I order a delicious spiced pear bread pudding which fills a hole perfectly.

Rowly duly arrives and we sit at the bar reminiscing and catching up – he explains that the reason they were late for the show, apart from heavy traffic on the road from New Jersey, was that they had thought that it began at 7.30, so as I was beginning my stuff on stage they were munching sandwiches at a nearby restaurant!

Time passes and we chat until the bar tender suggests to all present that it is time to leave – the good ol’ Dickens boys close another bar!

I go back to my room and consider watching TV, but decide against it.  I consider reading, but decide against it.

I consider sleeping.  I do it.

 

 

Too Funny

When I wake I know it is cold.  It is very nice to be in a building old enough to allow a connection with the world outside, rather than a hermetically sealed modern concrete hotel, and Spring House at the Fairville Inn is shivering with the rest of the world this morning.  I turn the little heater on, snuggle back under the blankets and start to recall the events of yesterday.  One little quibble about staying in an historic B&B is that there is no coffee machine, so at 7am (when I think the main house will be stirring) I go over to the kitchen where I find both Rick and Laura starting the preparations for breakfast

We chat for a while and then I return to my room with a large cup of steaming coffee and resume my morning’s work. Liz is having a difficult day at home, as one of our cars has to be taken to a garage for its annual MOT safety test, whereas the other is currently off the road due to a manufacturer’s recall.  We have been warned by Mazda that there could be a fault in the front seat catch which may lead to the seat becoming unattached during driving.  DONT DRIVE! they say.  IT IS DANGEROUS! they say.  IT IS ILLEGAL! They say.  Oh, and we cant actually look at it for another three weeks, they say.  Not good enough Mazda, and then to add to the fun a second recall notice has arrived regarding the passenger airbag but the service centre wont do the work on both fixes at the same time, rendering the car hors de combat for a further week.  We are not impressed.

The upshot to all of this is that Liz doesn’t have a car today and has two boisterous girls in the house, one of whom has just been told that she can’t go to her trampoline class – it is not a good day back in Oxfordshire.

As I carry on working at the computer I discover that my new website is up at last.  It needs a little tweaking over the coming weeks, but there it is at http://www.geralddickens.com.

David, Teresa and I have all booked our breakfast at 9am and at that hour we emerge onto the little landing that separates our rooms.  I have a scarf to protect my throat whereas the others have gone one step further and are wrapped up in overcoats and hats for the short walk to the main house.  Teresa has brought a folder of notes from a conference of theatre producers that she recently attended and thought I may be interested in, and also a little video camera so that she can show me some footage of David performing at Winterthur.  I take the black folder and we walk across the car park, which has been dusted with snow in the night.  Most of the cars are frozen but one is clear and has its engine running, as we walk past the driver lowers the window and calls to us ‘are you folks here to make the inspection?’  ‘No, we are going to breakfast’.  ‘Oh, you kinda looked official, what with your folder, camera and coats I assumed you were here for the inspection, but have a nice breakfast!’  He has a point.

The breakfast room is busy but Laura has saved a nice table for us, and soon we are drinking orange juice and coffee (Teresa had also made a raid on the kitchen for early morning coffee), I order pancakes and scrambled egg, whilst David and Teresa both tuck into one of Rick’s famous frittatas.

When we have finished eating we repair to the lounge by the fire and I watch some footage of David doing his thing, which is fantastic to see.  I don’t have time to watch the whole show, but they say that they will save the file in an MP4 format and send it to me.  Teresa then runs through the folder of papers for me, suggesting that some of the producers that she met may be perfect people to talk to regarding a run of my show in a single theatre some day.  Much as I adore touring, it is a lovely thought.

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The party is broken up as the morning moves on, for I have to be at Winterthur by 11 and the Keltz’s need to be on the road home to Baltimore.  I get a few things sorted out in my room and then get into the car and when the ice has cleared start to drive back into Delaware once more.  Half way to Winterthur I realise that I don’t have any shirts for my costume and have to turn around and return to the Inn, before starting the journey anew.

As I drive I notice that the legend on Delaware licence plates is ‘Delaware The First State’  and I realise how unintentionally clever yesterday’s blog post title was.

Crowds are already milling at the visitor centre when I arrive and I recognise a few faces from years past.  I recover my costumes from the auditorium, where they have been hanging on the coat check rack, and get changed.  Winterthur offer a special brunch and show package for the Thursday morning show and part of the deal is that I will meander and chat to the guests so I need to be ready and on show good and early.

I spend 30 minutes or so chatting and signing things, as well as posing for photographs and it is a very nice way of becoming more involved with my audience which is a privilege that not many performers get to enjoy.  When I have finished I return to the store where Ellen is waiting with Lois, a colleague of hers, who is going through the adoption process and is soon to welcome two boys into her house.  She is keen to chat to me about our experiences and I am very happy to do that.

We sit in the auditorium and we talk about everything, about the process, about our frustrations with the system, about fears and insecurities, about the joys and rewards.  I am astounded by how similar her experiences have been to ours and I hope that I am able to reassure her.  We could have talked for hours, but Ellen gently reminds us that we need to do a show and that the audience are starting to gather.

Liz and I know how important it has been to have people who understand the raw emotions that we can talk to and I hope that Lois will stay in touch and use us as buddies.

But now to the show, it is another good audience and there is a great buzz of anticipation in the room.  Back in the store Ellen tells me that Carol is once again in a meeting and wont be here in time to do the intro, and that Jeff is officially on duty.  I ask if he can mention my website and blog, and a few notes are scribbled on the script to that effect.

Not only can’t Carol make it, but Dennis, who operates the sound, is also busy so I may not have a music cue to open the show today.  Dennis is a volunteer fire fighter and the designated first aider, there has been a medical emergency on one of the shuttle busses that take people to the main house, and he is dealing with that, which is rather more important than pressing the PLAY button on his sound equipment.

As 1 pm approaches Jeff is ready for his big moment, and Ellen brings me the glad tidings that Dennis is back and has the resuscitation kit with him, so that if I was thinking of collapsing during any show, this would be a good one to choose.  With that happy thought in my head I get ready to perform.

Jeff makes a nice introduction and says wonderful things about my blog, although he directs people to charlesdickens.com, rather than geralddickens.com, but that’s fine.  The audience clap, the music starts and I slowly walk to the stage to begin.

The matinee crowd are a lively bunch and love the show, they laugh and clap and participate as required and of course I respond to that.  However the highlight of the show comes when Scrooge gets dressed all in his best and flips the hat into the air, it turns over and over and over, reaches its apogee, continues turning over and over during its descent and lands squarely on top of my head! YAY!  The cheer from the crowd is amazing, and I am momentarily stunned as this is only the third time it has ever worked.

With the show finished and bows taken I go through the process of changing into a fresh shirt and costume before sitting and signing as usual.  my signing table is to one side in the cafeteria and I am aware that it is soon to close, so as soon as the last book has been signed I grab a salad to take back to the Inn for my lunch.

I have about two hours to relax and soon I am sat in my room, with the fire blazing and my salad on a table in front of me.  Liz calls and we spend a long time going through the rigours of her day, which has not got any better for her.

All too soon it is time for us to part again and I get ready to return to Winterthur for my evening show,  my last here this year which is always sad.

I get into costume, make some tea and honey (my throat is fine, but its a rather nice way to relax and prepare) and stand with Ellen in the shop as the audience continues to build.  She tells me that is a strange thing but a lady who came to yesterday’s show had told her that she was disappointed in it and on being asked why had replied ‘It was too funny, it was not serious enough’.  Ellen tells me this with a ‘why would anyone think that the show was too funny?’ tone, but to me I only hear the word ‘disappointed’  I hate it when anyone doesn’t like what I do (and of course I know that you cant please all of the people all of the time, and the audiences here this year have particularly responded to the humour in the show).  As the start time comes closer I reflect on my performances, and wonder if I have unintentionally slipped away from the drama of the piece.  I have been trying to keep the pace up this year and have cut out a lot of the ponderous pauses, but maybe this has lost some of the gravitas of years past.

Carol is here this evening and apologises for her absence this afternoon, before sweeping onto the stage and making another eloquent introduction.

With negative thoughts in my head the show is a little bit caught in the middle tonight, as I am trying to reintroduce some of the darkness to the tale, even though the audience once again are a lively humorous bunch who want to laugh: eventually I give them what they want and it becomes a very successful evening.  The lady in the front row who is the object of Topper’s affections gets particularly giggly and blushes superbly on cue.

What are the chances of me pulling off the hat trick twice in one day?  Nil, and it bounces off my shining pate and onto the ground – everything is back to usual.

The signing line tonight is very long, and it is so nice that a lot of people who wait patiently don’t have a book to be signed and don’t have a camera to take pictures with,  they just want to shake my hand and say thank you, which is so generous and thoughtful.

In time the people all leave and it is just Ellen, Barbara and me left in the visitor centre.  I change and make sure that I have all of my belongings, especially the two little toys who have watched my shows from the mantelpiece, pack it all into the roller case and leave Barbara’s office to her once more

We chat for a while and Ellen reassures me that she thinks that this has been one of the best shows during my time at Winterthur which is kind of her, although she then adds ‘I’ve never seen it so funny!’, which slightly sets my insecurities aflame again: bloody sensitive actors!

We say our goodbyes and I walk through the darkness back to the car.  Dinner is at Buckley’s tavern again where I have a plate of lasagne and garlic bread, before returning to the Inn where I am delighted to find ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ playing for the first time this season.

It has been a long day and soon I am in bed and dozing.

 

 

 

The Sixth State

I have a quite an early start this morning as I have a three hour drive ahead of me culminating in a sound check at 11.30.

The first job is collect the load of laundry that sat in the drier overnight, and set another load going.  Back in my room I carefully fold and pack, and then try to collate all of the generous gifts into one bag to take with me on the road.

I go to the lobby for breakfast where I join a few other early risers.  A local network is broadcasting on the television and a very enthusiastic meteorologist informs us that it is ‘A GREAT day to be alive!’ He even has a graphic conforming his statement. The assertion of the day’s greatness is based purely on the fact that its going to very cold and clear all day.

Having finished breakfast I go and retrieve the final load from the laundry and finish my packing and leave the hotel at 8am.  The car is under a shroud of ice and it takes quite a while until the windows are clear enough for safe driving.  I set my SatNav for Delaware (my sixth state since arriving on Black Friday, which isn’t bad going) and also an alarm for 9am, as I have to stop on route to conduct a live radio interview at 9.10 and it would be all too easy to forget.

A new Morse novel, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn is my companion and soon I am driving down route 15 towards Harrisburg.  As ever on this road the advertisements  are a strange mix, from the gaudy and expensive billboards proclaiming the services of realtors or lawyers, to a chalked notice on a rough patch of ground which leaves no doubt as to what the vendor is offering: ‘Dirt Cheap Cars!’  If I was so disposed, and had our cat Ruby with me, I could even attend the special event this weekend – ‘Pet Photos With Santa.’

Traffic is fairly light and the sky is absolutely beautiful this morning, a few wispy high level clouds decorating the Wedgewood blue.

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When my 9am alarm sounds I am close to Harrisburg and find a car park to pull into ready for my interview.  Soon I am chatting to Warren Lawrence on a New York station, and as we have spoken before  the interview is much more relaxed than some.  I sit in my car with the mini Statue of Liberty behind me, standing proudly on the parapet of a long demolished bridge in the middle of the Susquehanna.

I skirt Harrisburg, entering Lancaster County and Amish country, where the sight of horse-drawn gigs is no longer a novelty, but quite natural.  Today is the day of President Bush’s funeral and I notice that the large majority of the huge American flags hanging at half mast seem to be very new and bright, and I wonder if businesses keep a ‘special’ flag in storage for such occasions.

A shining chromium diner in Soudersburg proudly states that they serve ‘Food like Grandmas!’ and I try to remember what my Grandmother’s food was like and realise with sadness that I can’t  actually remember her cooking at all.

There are a few snow flurries in the air as I pass the Fairville Inn, which will be my temporary home tonight, and drive on towards the magnificent Winterthur Estate.  Winterthur was one of the great homes belonging to the DuPont family and I have been performing in the visitor centre here for 8 years or so.

My journey comes to an end in the car park and I carry my costumes and roll my roller down the slope and into the gift shop where I am welcomed by Barbara who is charge of retail here.  The routine is a familiar one and soon I am established in Barbara’s office which serves as my dressing room.  There is a large bowl of fruit on the desk, as well as a mug and a selection of teas, not to mention a squeezy bottle of honey.

In no time we are joined by Ellen who is responsible for staging my events at Winterthur and we go into the auditorium where I set the stage so that it is ready for the show.  The Copeland Hall is basically a lecture hall but a couple of years ago Ellen had a stage set built for me, meaning that I was not on an empty stage in front of a curtain.  The ‘walls’ are painted a gorgeous Georgian blue and are hung with paintings, giving a real sense of permanency and solidity.  Green garlands and Poinsettias give the whole set a festive feel.

Ellen and I chat about the year’s events and she is so excited to hear our news.

But outside the audience is already gathering and are getting restless (there is an hour to go before showtime), so I return to my dressing room and Ellen opens the sluice gates!

As I sit I check my phone and notice that there are two very lovely comments on my blog site from audience members who had attended the shows in Lewisburg.  Thank you for taking the time to write, and I am delighted that you enjoyed the show so much.  I sip tea as I wait.

At 12.30 it is time to get into costume and when I am ready I go and join Ellen in the store and greet audience members as they arrive.  In particular I am looking out for two particular people and soon I spy David Keltz and his wife Teresa perusing the shelves and making a purchase.  As regular readers will know Davis is a fellow actor who portrays Edgar Allan Poe and it as with great pleasure that I was able to introduce him to Ellen last year which led to David performing at Winterthur this October.  David and Teresa have been such good supporters of mine of the years and is always a joy to see them.  A bonus this year is that they are also staying at the Fairville Inn, so we will have plenty of time to catch up later.

A major change in the organisation of Winterthur this year was the retirement of the director David Roselle, so my introduction to the stage will never again feature his favourite line that anyone seen using a cell phone would be removed to the catacombs!  Instead the new director Carol Cadou will introduce me, although Ellen is slightly concerned in that Carol is in a meeting and there is no sign of her, so just in case she puts Jeff, who has done the job before, on standby and we chat in the shop as he mentally prepares himself for what he is going to say.

With minutes to spare however Carol sweeps in and with a firm shake of the hand and a warm greeting she is ready to take to the stage.  Jeff is stood down and the adrenaline gently disperses.

I stand at the back of the hall as Carol speaks clearly and fluently, commanding attention from her audience, well most of them, for the lady I am standing next to is intently reading something on her phone which catches my eye: she is reading my blog!

With the introduction finished Dennis up in the lighting box plays my sound cue and I walk to the stage to begin.  The Copeland Hall is remarkable in its design in that it is a perfect sound chamber.  Although a long hall, the sound of a speaker’s voice is amplified naturally and no electronic enhancement is necessary .  No mic = nothing to go wrong, so why cant all halls be built like this?  What did architects know then that they don’t know now?

Actually the hall underwent a revamp this year, with new lighting, a new sound system and new seating, I was terrified that whatever they did might ruin the perfect acoustic, but no it is as good as ever.

The show is good and once again I have plenty of room to roam.  As ever when David is in the audience I become very aware of my technique and try to make all of the transitions between characters as perfect and crisp as possible.  The audience are a large and good group and as with many venues on tour, a loyal group too.

The new ‘dead Tiny Tim’ scene works very well, especially as Ellen had decorated the little table where I lay the cloth with silver candlesticks, meaning that it looks even more as if  the tiny body has been laid out prior to a meagre funeral.

The door to the hall is right at the back, there is no access to the shop or my dressing room from the stage itself , so after I have taken my bows I have to exit quickly to get changed or I get will caught up among everyone leaving. The effort is made more difficult as the audience are still all standing making their egress more easy and mine more tricky but I manage to make it back to the office before the bulk of the audience comes out  I gulp water, for it has been another energetic adventure and then change slowly, before heading to the cafeteria where a table and a line of people are waiting for me.  Ellen is marshalling the line and makes sure that she has people’s phones and cameras ready to take photos, as well as ensuring that books are open to the correct page to be signed.

People are so generous in their praise and it is lovely to chat to those who have attended before (again some people have come here from Hershey, and some from Virginia) and others nervously admit that this is their first time as if they are not sure how to behave now that they are members of this club!  One jocular gentleman says ‘if you don’t mind may I give you a piece of advice?  cant you get a little more energy into your presentation?!’

Last in line are David and Teresa and we arrange to meet up again when we are all at the Fairville.  I change and hang my costumes up before saying goodbye and getting into my car to make the short drive, across the state line back into PA, and the beautiful Inn.

I have my regular room, upstairs in Spring Cottage and once we are settled the three of us meet in the main building and enjoy tea and cookies in front of the fire.  We chat about our years, and I am delighted that David comments on my show, particularly the crisp transitions between characters!

Rick, who owns the Inn with his wife Laura, chats to us also but the happy ambience is broken slightly by another guest who arrives in the parlour and asks, no demands, of Rick ‘is the TV in here better than in our room?’

Rick is a little nonplussed: ‘I don’t know how to answer that.’

‘Is it better?’

‘I don’t know what you mean by better.’

‘Let me rephrase my question then.  Is it good?’

‘Well we have Comcast cable, they show movies and news and local’

‘We have that at home and I don’t like it!’

Sigh, it just seems so unnecessary.  If you want millions of fabulous channels to watch then don’t stay in a beautiful historic B&B, go to the local Holiday Inn, or somewhere, and don’t make such a vocal public fuss just to assert yourself.

I am meeting Ellen and Rob, the finance director of Winterthur, for dinner at 6 so David and Teresa and I finish our tea and cookies and go our separate ways for the evening.

Dinner is at Buckleys Tavern, a favourite old haunt, and it is packed with Christmas parties, meaning that we have to wait in the little entrance vestibule while an ever more harassed hostess tries to find tables for an ever growing crowd.  As we pass the time Ellen mentions the remarkable coincidence that for the corresponding performance last year we had an audience of 216, whereas this year we had 214.

Eventually a table is found for us and we settle down to a most enjoyable and convivial dinner.  I am hungry having not had lunch today, and I order a plate of good old bangers and mash to remind me of home.

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Our waitress is an older lady, rather slow on her feet but very friendly, chatty and efficient so it is with a sense of guilt that I can’t get the ‘Two Soups’ sketch featuring Victoria Wood and Julie Walters out of my mind.  If you don’t know it here is a link:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04zcmt2

We chat and we laugh and we eat and the evening is wonderful.

There is a positively festive feel as we emerge into the cold night.  The day’s dusting of snow and the beautiful Christmas lights which decorate so many houses make the scene almost unreal.

I get in my car and return to the Inn where I watch a little television (a Harry Potter film, I’m not even sure which one!) and then get ready for bed and sleep.

Tomorrow I will be back at Winterthur for two more shows.

 

 

Are the Lambs Screaming?

For the first time ever I have time to spare in Lewisburg.  Usually I drive here on the morning of the shows, arrive at 11, do a sound check and then the performances, before going to bed and leaving early the next morning.

This year however I have a morning to myself. After writing my blog post and availing myself of the breakfast I return to my room and spend an hour or so catching up on some work (sourcing both Christmas Presents and a few new sound affects taking most of my time).

After my time in front of the screen is done I put on my scarf, for it is very cold outside, and prepare to go out for the morning.  As I leave the room I find a letter on the floor telling me that the hotel is changing all of the locks during the day (I know that I am somewhat of a disruptive rock diva, but changing the locks while I am out seems a trifle unnecessary!).

I have decided to actually explore the town of Lewisburg today as I have never been there.  To me Lewisburg has always been a country store and a hotel next to a busy highway but over the years many people have told me what a beautiful historic downtown area there is and I am keen to explore.  Sure enough A short drive brings me in the centre of a most  beautiful town.

It seems to be predominantly Victorian and in a very good state of preservation.  The houses are sturdy brick built edifices and are painted in the most delicious array of colours, the Chrurches are tall and stately.

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Running past the town is the Susquehanna River, which brought life and commerce to all of the communities that nestled against its banks. A modern bridge carries traffic into the town, but just upstream is a fabulous rusting crossing, just a single track wide, that either provided a route for early automobiles or more likely a train service.

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The whole town reminds me of St Cloud in Minnesota, both in architecture and situation.

A further walk brings me to the ‘Famous Street of Shops’ which is s sort of an indoor flea market comprising hundreds of individual areas selling antiques or crafts.   I spend a long time mooching and surveying.

Eventually I return to my car and set to drive back to the hotel when I notice a sign directing me to an antiques centre set in a towering old mill building.  Liz and I love spending time in such places, and I still have plenty of time to spare, so antiques it is (I can never bring myself to use the word antiques as a verb, as the Americans do: I am British and do NOT go ‘antiquing’ any more than I ‘golf”

The antique centre is fabulous and alongside the inevitable small pieces of china, books, kitchenalia and toys there are copious amounts of snow shoes!

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I resist the urge to purchase, which is not easy, and spend a very happy forty minutes or so wallowing in American social history.

But work is calling and I return to the hotel in good time to prepare for my soundcheck at 11.30.  As I walk through the corridors I notice that each room has a little brown box next to the door which I assume are the new locks waiting to be fitted.  In my room I pack my roller bag up, and walk the very short distance around the ornamental pond to the Country Cupboard store where I will be performing twice today.  The room that I use as my green room is at the back of the building and I can see that the door is wedged open, so  I go in and find my dear friend KJ getting her equipment ready.  KJ is a singer who has always entertained the audiences here with a beautiful selection of carols and Christmas songs and we have become good friends over the years.  We have a big hug, and then I go into the main room itself, which is laid out theatre style, and where I find Missy who is our ‘boss’ here.  Missy also has become a good friend, and the three of us make a great team.

The stage is fabulous (larger than in previous years) and state of the art LED lights illuminate it very effectively.  Missy tells me that a new sound system was installed yesterday, and nervously listens as I d a sound check – it is fine and sounds great.  ‘Now,’ I ask, ‘about the music…’  and before I finish the sentence ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’ is playing throughout the room.  Missy still had the file carefully saved from last year.

And, other than hiding the two little toys in a spruce and candle decoration at the front of the stage and draping my red cloth over the arm of the chair, my preparations are done.

 

Missy, KJ and I sit on the front of the stage chatting about this and that, but the audience are already clamouring (apparently one member rather too energetically so) and it is time to get on.  Before I return to my room though KJ asks if I would meet her parents who are coming to see the show for the first time.  Both are in their 80s, and both are sprightly, most especially her father who is proud veteran of the Marine Corps.  We have a wonderful chat and pose for pictures before I tell them that I must go and change.  ‘Never change young man!’ is the advice that accompanies me out of the door.

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Walking back to my room I notice that some of the boxes by the door have been opened, and the tide of new locks is flowing  through the hotel with a slow but menacing progress.

At 12.30 I return to the main building and in my dressing room put my microphone on, and make sure that all is in order.  KJ is already on stage singing and encouraging the audience to join in, and they sound a pretty lively bunch.  When I am ready I wait for a gap between songs, and then slip into the room and make my way to the back to join Missy. There waiting for me is a tiny carafe of hot water, a tea bag and a pack of honey.  A few years ago I arrived at the Country Cupboard with a very sore throat and scratchy voice and told Missy that tea and honey was just the thing and ever since she has made sure that such a brew is available to me before the show.

It is a big crowd this afternoon, and most of them have come in Christmas attire meaning that the predominant colour in the auditorium is red.  KJ finishes her set with a special rendition of Jingle Bells accompanied by her father energetically jingling bells, which is very moving to watch.  The crowd applaud loudly and then the stage is mine.

Oh what fun I have!  All of that space on stage gives me full rein to perform the show as I want it to be performed, and the intimacy of the room, and the lights, and the sound system, and my day off, and my relaxing morning, and goodness knows what other influences, make this one of the best shows of the year so far.

The audience are fabulous and follow along attentively – in one case very attentively as there is a girl in the front row with her face buried in a copy of A Christmas Carol.  I remember her from last year and she must have remembered how I have edited the story for she is not phased as I skip the various passages in my adaptation.

The standing ovation at the end is a great reward for a job well done.  I am proud of myself this afternoon.

I go back to my room and change into my dry replacement costume and then go to the little signing table that has been set up at the back of the room.  There is a long line waiting and I sign and pose for photographs and chat.  There are two ladies in the line who have seen me previously at Hershey but due to my not performing there this year have tracked me down to Lewisburg.  They are astounded by what they have seen and couldn’t believe that it was the same show!  My performances at the Hotel Hershey are always somewhat compromised by the geography of the rooms, and the ladies say that here they fully appreciated all of the expressions and nuances that they had missed in years past.  They will be back here they exclaim.  I can see that Missy is rather pleased at that!  Later in the line there are more people that have come from Hershey and who share the same thoughts with me

And so the line continues, and I am given gifts.  Lots of generous gifts!  I am given home made pretzels and cards and candy canes, A Christmas Carol ornaments and a Christmas sweater!  Yes a sweater showing a field of sheep with the legend ‘BAAAA HUMBUG’ above them.  Even better than that when you push a button the sheep bleat to the accompaniment of Christmas music.  Actually the bleating has a rather sinister air to it and somewhere in the back of my mind Hannibal Lecter is saying ‘Well Clarice – have the lambs stopped screaming?

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When the line is finished KJ tells me that she thinks that that was the best performance I have done here, and I think she is right!

I go back to the hotel to change into my normal clothes and discover that the lava flow of lock replacement has reached my room, and there are two engineers attending to my door.  I hide in the little kitchenette alcove to change, continuing a conversation as I do so, and remerge from the room a 21st century being.

Between shows it has become a tradition that Missy, KJ and I have a quiet lunch/supper at the fabulous Country Cupboard buffet.  The choice is amazing, but I restrain myself to some chicken, vegetables and potatoes – avoiding anything dairy based.  I am envious of KJ’s plate of mac and cheese and wonder why her throat isn’t effected as mine is.

The three of us sit and chat and it is a wonderfully relaxing and gentle time, as it always is.  But time and tide wait for no man and soon the audience for the evening show is arriving and we must all get back on duty.  I return to the hotel once more, this time via the front desk as I need to get my new key, although I also have to keep my old one as the exterior doors to the hotel have yet to be changed.

I have about an hour to relax and so treat myself to another relaxing, yet energising, jacuzzi bath.  At 6.30 I get into costume once more and walk back to the room where, as this afternoon, KJ is already singing and chatting to the evening crowd.  I replace the battery in my microphone, clip it on and go to wait with Missy and my tea and the back of the room.

6.55. Missy signals to KJ to go into her final song.  Check my costume, check my microphone….AGGGHHHHH the clip has broken and the mic is dangling around.  I tell Missy who immediately signals to KJ to ‘keep singing’ and then we run through the kitchens to her office and frantically locate a little sprung file clip (which have come to my rescue many times over the years, and which I should really have in my roller bag as part of an emergency kit).  Our quest is successful and despite rather fumbling fingers I get the mic clipped onto my shirt and I am ready once more.

Back to the room, another signal to KJ, an answering nod, a final chorus of ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’ and I am on.

I am slightly worried that I will not recapture the energy and exuberance of this afternoon’s show, but I am wrong.  The audience this evening is even more vocal, especially one lady who laughs so loudly at every scene that I assume she must have seen the show before.  Her giggles in the Mrs Cratchit pudding scene are completely infectious and I have to struggle very hard not to ‘corpse’.  This lady is living proof of Dickens’s own line: ‘There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour’

It is another wonderful show, with another wonderful audience.  The signing line is even longer this evening, despite the crowd being smaller, and this time folk have driven from Virginia to see the show because I am not appearing in Williamsburg this year – that is a real double coup for Missy!  I meet the laughing lady and am astounded to discover that she had never seen the show before, but just loved every second!

And so the room that has been the vessel for so much laughter today falls silent once more and just Missy, KJ and I remain.  After posing for a picture of the three of us sat on the stage (we look rather like the three wise monkeys), we say our goodbyes for another year and go our separate ways.  Yup, we are a good team.

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Having changed I set a load of washing going  (this is the last hotel that has laundry facilities, although Pam is always very generous in taking bags back to chez Byers for me), and then return to Matty’s where Missy has sent word that dinner is on her, which is incredibly generous.  The bar is almost deserted when I go in, and completely deserted as I leave.

I stop by the laundry room, put my load of costume shirts into the drier and leave them overnight.  Tomorrow morning I have a fairly early start, so I get into bed and after reading about two lines of Hidden Figures I fall asleep.

 

 

A Day Of Rest On The Road

Today I have my only day off in this part of the tour, and although I have a five hour drive ahead of me there are no deadlines to meet.

A glance out of the window reveals another misty morning although not to the extent of yesterday and there is the hint that the sun may disperse the cloud when it feels like getting up.

At around 9 o’clock I walk to the main building which is devoid of other guests, so much so that the hotel maintenance crew has chosen this morning to redecorate the lobby, meaning that I have to navigate a maze of ladders and dust sheets before reaching the Bistro.

Even as I sit sipping orange juice and eating fresh fruit the view outside the window improves and it looks as if it will be a lovely day to drive.  Bacon and eggs follows and the weather matches my order: sunny side up.

As I sit reading Hidden Figures I wonder is it really necessary to have the four huge TV screens behind the bar showing last night’s basketball and football?  The shows are all analysis shows, meaning that the action keeps breaking so we can see experts in deep conversation, but there is no sound thereby rendering the whole thing pointless.  The gaudy images flash into the elegant bar like a sort of visual muzak.

Back in my room and I record a bedtime story to send home, and then pack all of my cases up ready to move on out.

I renegotiate the ladder maze in the lobby to check out and with a cheery ‘have a great day, sir’ in my ears I am on my way.

My route today takes me south following the coast of Long Island Sound as far as Rye, at which point I head west.  The sun is fully up now and it is a sunglasses sort of a day.  The unabridged Morse novel ‘Last Seen Wearing’ should keep me company throughout the journey.

As I drive through Connecticut I pass a turn for the Merritt Parkway and have fond and nostalgic memories of  performing for Gary and Jennifer Bean at the Historic Christmas Barn, which had become a regular stop on my tour but sadly was one of this year’s casualties.

At Bridgeport I pass the Honeyspot Motor Lodge which really looks like it should be a 1960s museum piece: Anthony Perkins step forward.

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On towards the beautiful skyline of New Haven with a gold dome twinkling in the morning sun.  Charles Dickens himself visited the city and said of it :

‘New Haven, known also as the City of Elms, is a fine town. Many of its streets (as its ALIAS sufficiently imports) are planted with rows of grand old elm-trees; and the same natural ornaments surround Yale College, an establishment of considerable eminence and reputation. The various departments of this Institution are erected in a kind of park or common in the middle of the town, where they are dimly visible among the shadowing trees. The effect is very like that of an old cathedral yard in England; and when their branches are in full leaf, must be extremely picturesque. Even in the winter time, these groups of well-grown trees, clustering among the busy streets and houses of a thriving city, have a very quaint appearance: seeming to bring about a kind of compromise between town and country; as if each had met the other half-way, and shaken hands upon it; which is at once novel and pleasant.’

Sometimes it is just best to let the master take over!

To my left throughout this first part of the drive is the sea, shining like a highly polished silver plate, and the glare from it is so great that any features of land or building have become indistinct silhouettes.

When I reach Old Greenwich (really?  I think I know an older one) I finally leave the ocean behind me and head west entering the state of New York and crossing the spectacular Tappen Zee Bridge from which I get a distant glimpse of the Manhattan skyline.

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From New York into New Jersey and the terrain gets more rural as I head further into the hills until the majestic vista of the Delaware Water Gap heralds my entrance to Pennsylvania.

I stop for a quick bite of lunch and then get back on the road.  I pass the ski resorts of the Poconos on my left, and admire the gentle terrain of the Pennsylvanian countryside, the browns and muted greens of winter dotted by red barns, like holly berries.

I am driving towards Lewisburg which is right in the middle of the state, and it is a venue that I have visited many times before, but this is a different drive altogether.  Usually I drive from Hershey to Harrisburg and from there follow the beautiful Susquehanna river through Liverpool and on towards my destination.  The landmarks on the road have become so familiar to me over the years and I rather miss them, for my route today is bringing me in from the east, rather than from the south.

Morse is still going, and it is one of the most ridiculously complicated plots I have ever heard!  Each chapter starts with a short quote from either the classics, a novel or popular culture and I am delighted when one begins with a quote from Oliver Twist.  There has been another familial reference in the book too, as sergeant Lewis favours the expression ‘That was a Dickens of a hard job!’

Finally I approach the Best Western Hotel at The Country Cupboard store and as I pull up in the car park ‘Last Seen Wearing’ finishes – that was a remarkable bit of timing considering that I left Water’s Edge at around 10 this morning

The friendly front desk staff all welcome me back as if I was last here a week ago, and in a moment I am back in my familiar room at the far end of the hotel which boasts a lovely deep and long jacuzzi bath (the bath tubs in most American hotels are so small as to render them pointless).  After such a long day in the car I think I deserve a dip, and soon am relaxing as the bubbles ease the stresses of the road away.

I relax for a while and then when it is dinner time walk across the parking lot to Matty’s Sportshouse where I enjoy a Ribeye steak and slice of cheesecake for my dinner.

Back at the hotel I watch some TV but drop off to sleep early.  Tomorrow I am back on stage.

‘It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal’

As morning dawns I open my curtains to allow the view of Long Island Sound to great me, and I am greeted by heavy low cloud and pelting rain.  A few people, mostly hotel bellmen, are scurrying across the parking lot with heads bowed against the elements.  I may be modifying  my remarks of yesterday when I said that I would  rather be here at this time of year rather than in the summer.

There is no breakfast service in the restaurant this morning, for The Water’s Edge Resort provide a huge, and very popular, Sunday Brunch.  Julia has booked me a table at 9, when the event opens, so that I have time to enjoy it before getting ready for my morning performance.

I bow my head and scurry across to the main building and am soon being led to a table next to the window which would usually have a magnificent view of the sea – today it is just cloud.  Attentive waiters surround me like bees around a hive, and soon I have water, orange juice and coffee laid before me.  The brunch buffet is magnificent and features a remarkable array of dishes, from humble toast to oysters in their shells.  There are joints of meat waiting to be carved, there are frittatas and pasta dishes, there are sweet cakes and jellies.  A magnificent Hanukkah inspired ice carving towers over the whole thing.

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I very much concentrate on the BR, it being too early for UNCH, and have some fresh fruit, some eggs (prepared by a chef to my liking) and bacon, some pastries and a croissant (the correct shape) and jam.  It is delicious.  As I sit I can hear the waiters talking to other guests: ‘are you going to the show this morning?’  ‘Yes, that’s right, we are looking forward to it!’  One couple wave hello and I chat to them as I leave.  They have seen me perform at Byers’ Choice in Chalfont before but this year have decided to treat themselves to an overnight stay at the resort.

I go back to my room (huddled and scurrying) and fetch a fresh shirt and pair of socks for the performance, everything else is still in my dressing room.  I stay in my room until 10.30 and then go back to the main building to prepare.  As I scurry I notice a party of four running toward the door, and gallantly wait for them to go first.  The young lady at the front smiles a thank you to me, but there is more, there is a recognition in the look too.  I do recognise her but for the life of me cant think where from.  I smile back and the moment passes.

The ballroom is locked when I arrive but in a moment Jeremy, one of the banquet captains from last night’s event, arrives and soon after Julia.  I am much more assertive about the lighting today and we come up with a solution that has the centre part of the large room (including the stage)  lit, whilst each side of the room is in darkness preserving a feel of an auditorium.   It will be much better than the gloom of last night.  Jeremy puts new batteries in the microphone and I check that, just turning it down a hair, so that there is no risk of distortion.

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At 11 o’clock the audience begins to gather and I go to change.  As 11.30 gets nearer I stand in the lobby and chat with Jeremy and Julia as the final guests arrive, among them the party of four I met in the wet car park.  Another nod and smile of recognition.

It is a smaller audience than last night’s dinner, maybe about 50 people, but they are certainly keen, many have been in their seats for half an hour.  Jeremy gives a very short introduction then starts my music on his laptop and I begin.  It is a much better performance, and a very energetic one!  I have noticed through this trip that I haven’t been getting nearly as hot as in previous years but today the sweat is certainly flying again.  Once again the audience is slightly ‘English’, that is to say a little reserved and quiet, but very attentive, and they certainly are enjoying the show, which is a relief for I can see them clearly (thanks to the lighting set up), so any disgruntlement would be clearly evident to me.

At the end of the show they all stand up and clap loudly as I bow.  I make my exit from the room and then wait as the audience leave.  Some have books to be signed, some just want to shake hands.  And then there is my party of four.  The girl who had smiled in the car park comes up ‘Hello! I’m Amy. Dave and Sue’s daughter!’  OF COURSE!  Dave is the brother of Martin, who is Liz’s sister (Sheila)’s husband.  Amy now lives in Connecticut and earlier this year married Tara.  They came to see me perform at Vaillancourts last year and have made the trip here to see me again, which is so kind of them.  We all chat for quite a while and have a great time catching up with our respective momentous years.

Soon however it is time to get changed and my work at The Water’s Edge is done.  Sadly Jeremy and Julia are long gone and there is nobody to say goodbye to or to thank and my departure from the ballroom feels rather anti-climatic.

I go back to my room and hang today’s costume up to air and check the time, it is almost 2 and I have decided that I am going to the cinema this afternoon.  My original plan for the free afternoon was to drive along the coast, but as the rain is as heavy as ever and the fog has descended even lower, that does not seem a wholly appealing prospect.  A quick online search this morning revealed the existence of a cinema just a mile or so away.  I could watch the second Magical Beasts film, but I’d much rather see that with Liz when I get home, so I plump for the Freddy Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Having purchased my ticket I order a hot dog for my lunch (somewhat limp it must be said) and take my seat.  Unsurprisingly the audience are all of a similar age and we all await the film eagerly.  The sound of popcorn and slurping accompanies the anticipation.

And then the trailers for other movies start and they go on and on and on and on….so long that some people have to go and get a popcorn refill before the main feature even begins (if the evidence left by previous attendees is anything to go by much of their popcorn may be on the floor).

The film is a wonderful tribute to the music of Queen and a fascinating history of the band.  The actors are amazing and it is difficult to watch Brian May and not believe that he is playing himself.  Gwilym Lee, who actually portrays May, has got his demeanour, gait, attitude and gentle character to perfection.

As each successive anthem blares out so the floor of the cinema trembles with lots of feet being stamped in time, most particularly as the seeds that would grow into We Will Rock You are sown.

It is definitely a feel good movie and the hugely emotional Live Aid concert that finishes the film is a fantastic celebration of an entire era. The view from the stage looking out across the massive expanse of humanity that packed Wembley stadium that day, makes my efforts in the Water’s Edge Ballroom this morning look rather insipid:  ‘HEY! YEAH HELLO WESTBROOK!’

Outside the fog is even heavier and it is quite difficult to navigate back to the hotel.  As I get out of the car I look toward where the sea should be and I feel slightly short changed, for there should be a mournful fog horn (fog horns are always mournful) , or a bell  clanging on a buoy, but no such sound comes from the ocean.

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In my room I check YouTube and watch the actual footage of Queen’s Live Aid set and I am amazed at how accurately the film makers recreated it – every strut, every gesture, every note was perfect.

It is late afternoon and the hotel is completely deserted now, which gives it a rather eerie feel, but it means that the washers and driers are available for me to use.  I do one load of my daily clothes and then go to have dinner in the bar.

I am sat alone, and order a salmon and fennel dish which is good.  I also treat myself to a pistachio gelato concoction which is equally delicious, and a coffee to finish things off.  I am rather relieved when another couple comes in to dine (I was getting rather worried that the entire hotel was staffed just to look after me tonight), and they had been at my show this morning, so we chat for a while until they order and I leave.

I feel like watching another nice feel good film tonight, so I download one of Liz and my favourites, The Glenn Miller Story with Jimmy Stewart, and lay on the bed and wallow in the gentle sounds of a bygone age.

 

A Little in the Dark

I wake up in my little apartment at the VNA Senior Living Centre and potter to my little kitchen where I put a pot of coffee on the brew, and will that is gurgling and dripping I start work on my blog.

Today I cant just mooch to breakfast when I feel like it, as it has been arranged that I will be hosted by Mary, one of the residents, and we are to meet in the lobby at 8am.  I prepare and present myself at the appointed hour and sure enough my date is waiting for me.

We go into the café area (in act my theatre from yesterday) and there is a smattering of applause as I take my seat.  We are joined by three other residents, and have a lovely time chatting about the show and Charles Dickens himself.  From time to time other people come and have a word or two, including Oscar the centenarian .  After a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, and a paper cup of coffee it is time to leave the party and start getting ready to move on.

I take my costumes to the car first and hang them over the rear seats and then return to collect my cases.  Mary is in the lobby and would like a photograph but her tablet is very slow to boot up, so I take one on mine which I will email to Linda.

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It is a beautiful day to drive and I am soon guiding the Rogue through the streets of Sommerville and over the Charles River and past the Harvard Business school, before joining my constant companion on this trip, the I-90 headed towards Worcester again.

Today I am headed for Connecticut and the Water’s Edge Resort in Westbrook.  This is another new venue for me, and it will be interesting to see how their method of staging the show will work.

I need to stop for fuel, and notice that the flags are flying at half mast in honour of President Bush snr.  Irrespective of ones political leanings, it is always sad when a person who has served their country diligently and selflessly passes away, and the limp flag represents a historical day.

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The miles and hours pass by in the company of Morse and Lewis and soon I am in Connecticut and headed toward the sea.  In amongst all of the usual English place names – Canterbury, Colchester and Norwich – there is suddenly a mainland European enclave comprising Hanover, Versailles and Baltic.

Eventually I turn onto a road called Shore End and the sat nav suggests that ‘At the end of the road turn right and you have reached your destination.’  That will be Water’s Edge then!

The resort looks fabulous at first glance, a collection of grey and white wooden apartment buildings gathered around the main hotel block, from behind which the sea glints and sparkles in the afternoon sun.

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I leave my cases in the car, assuming that I will be housed in one of the other buildings, and go into the lobby where I am greeted with a large picture of myself, promoting the events of this evening and tomorrow.

‘Name?’  ‘Dickens’  A double take from the girl behind the desk, a glance at the poster and she bursts out laughing.  ‘Of course you are!  Welcome to the Water’s Edge resort’

I am given the key to an upstairs room in a nearby block and delighted to discover that I am in another little suite, with a view across the ocean.  I leave my bags and walk down to the sea and spend a little time walking and admiring the view.  On the horizon Long Island seems to hover over the surface of the water.  It is a beautiful and relaxing view and there is only one other person on the beach gazing out to sea.  I can only imagine what these beaches must be like at the height of the summer and I decide that I am definitely here at the right time of the year.

 

I return to the main hotel and go to the bistro bar where I order some crabcakes for my lunch, which are delicious.

As soon as I get back to my room I get a phone call from Julia who is the contact here and who has worked with Pam Byers to create this event.  Julia would like me to take a look at the room and stage, so we arrange to meet back in the lobby in 5 minutes.

I am performing two events and tonight’s one will be during a dinner service, so the ballroom is laid out with large round tables which are in the process of being set.  Each setting has a green or red napkin carefully folded into the shape of a Christmas tree.

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The stage is wide and flanked by two beautifully decorated trees, on it there is a chair and hat stand of course, but the stool is a very modern bar stool with a vinyl cushion and a slatted back.  It looks very out of place, but unfortunately it is either that or chrome.

I am also slightly worried by the lighting on stage – the room is a bit dim, but the overhead lights cast a little glow on the stage, and there are small LED uplighters which may help as well.  Julia shows me a large room that is to be my green room, and then informs me that the sound check will be at 4.30. After which we go our separate ways, me back to my room and she back into the corporate world that keeps the Water’s Edge Resort functioning.  Strangely the feeling here is much the same as being at the Hotel Hershey.

At 4 I return to the ballroom and find a banquet supervisor making checks to the sound system, and when he is finished I take over.  The level is slightly high and there is a little feedback if I stray too close to the speakers, but it all seems very good.  The room is bustling with the waiting staff who are busily making the final preparations.  Orders are shouted out in broad NY accents, questions are asked, replies given.  Plates clatter and glasses clink.

In the corridor outside an extensive bar is being set up and a few early birds are already availing themselves of it’s services.

I go to my large green room only to find it being prepared for a bay shower, which Julia didn’t know about, so I am relocated into another room filled with poinsettias, bare trees, crates, carts, chairs and various other accoutrements of the Christmas season.  At a large table in the centre a waiter is sat monotonously folding napkins.  This is a working room and I will be sharing it this evening.

There are events all over the hotel tonight and as I get ready staff from all of them come and go and so I get to eavesdrop on hotel politics.

The guests arrive at 6, even though the event doesn’t start until 7, and soon the lobby is filled with noisy chat and the bar is doing good business.  Eventually the clock ticks around and I am called for.  I make sure that the microphone is switched on and not muted and peek into the hall.  To  my horror all of the lights are off and the little uplighters do no more than shed a coloured glow on the black back drape.  I am dressed in black.  The backdrop is black.  This could be a very dim performance.  I ask the banquet supervisor (a different one), if anything can be done but he says no, that would mean putting all the fluorescent overhead lights on which would spoil the atmosphere.  And with that, I am on.

I am performing in two acts, the first up to the point when Scrooge is left in his bed by the Ghost of Christmas Past.  I start and it is very like performing for an English audience, in that the responses and reactions are quite restrained.  I am a little worried that it is not really a huge success, but become aware that there are increasing amounts of chuckles and the silences are truly silent and not filled with shuffles and whispered comments.

There are a tables with young children who have been brought along in their pyjamas and they are a little restless, but little pools of blue light reflecting in their faces show that tablets are keeping them occupied.

I plough on, remembering not to rely to much on facial expression as I doubt that anyone other than those in the very front seats will see them, and the performance is a good one – intense and focussed.

I get to the end of the first act and receive a very nice round of applause, so things must be going alright.  I return to my room which is deserted now, as the staff are at the various events, and am brought a plate of turkey, beef, mashed potatoes and vegetables which is delicious.  When I have finished eating I pass the rest of the interval by playing Backgammon or Angry Birds on my phone.

At 8.15 a banquet supervisor (yet another different one!) comes to tell me that we are almost ready to start, and I return into the darkness where the story resumes.  Of course the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Present are much livelier and soon the room is gasping and oooh-ing over the goose.  I don’t pick a girl for Topper, as the tables in the front seem to be a little reserved and it may backfire on me.

As I get to the end I walk out to shake hands on Christmas morning and one young dude with a beanie hat on grabs my hand and shakes it vigorously ‘Merry Christmas man!’ he shouts out.

‘God Bless Us, Every One!’ and the applause is amazing and the room stands.  It has been an interesting evening and an exercise in keeping my concentration and not letting negative thoughts take over.

I wait outside the room and lots of people come and thank me and tell me how much they have enjoyed the evening.  Some are almost in tears as they shake hands.  There is no product being sold, so no formal signing, but it is lovely to chat with so many of the guests.

When they have left I return to the stage to set things up for tomorrow morning’s show, and then go back to my room to change.  I stop by the bar which is very busy and noisy with a live band playing, and order a glass of wine, and am amazed when the waiter informs me that it has been paid for by some other guests who had been at the show!  I join the couple and chat with them until it is time to go back to my suite.

In bed my last thought is that we must somehow improve the lighting for tomorrow.  And the rest is silence.