Not Taking Coats to Newcastle

After the adventures of Christmas I have had a relaxing few weeks at home, recovering from the rigours of daily travel and performance.  For a short while it is lovely to be so leisurely, but soon I began to feel as if I needed to get back on stage again, and my first opportunity of 2017 came last Friday.

I had been asked to perform in the North-East City of Newcastle upon Tyne, which is a city that I do not know well, so I greatly looked forward to my trip.   I set off on my 4 ½ hour drive, leaving early so as to leave me plenty of time for whatever the British road system should throw at me.

It is extraordinary how much longer a 4 ½ hour drive in England seems, compared to one of the same length in the USA.  On the whole our roads are narrower and twistier, so a great deal more concentration is required. 

I have commented before that the level of anger on the roads is much greater in Britain, where we are supposed to drive in the left-hand lane, unless we are overtaking another vehicle.  Good lane discipline is key to making our system work and that is something that we sorely lack: so many cars just sit in one of the middle lanes, dawdling along completely unaware of what is happening around them.  Faster cars get bottled up, and the delayed driver becomes angry, either swooping by on the wrong side (‘undertaking’), or flashing headlights, sounding the horn and gesticulating as he eventually passes.  In America, where you may overtake on either side, everyone just makes progress in their own lane at their own speed and the whole thing seems to work just fine.

My route took me up the spine of England on the M1, before branching off onto the A1, roughly following the route of the old Great North Road, which is the historic trunk route between London and Edinburgh.  The Great North Road has a legendary status in the UK, as Route 66 does in the US, although without the rhyme and lyrical quality of its America cousin (‘You may be slowed on the Great North Road’ doesn’t really compare with ‘Get your kicks on Route 66’).

I passed many cities that are familiar to me thanks to my travels and as I got further north so the scenery subtly became more rugged and wild.  I passed signs for Doncaster before crossing the river Don, which set me to wondering ‘what does caster mean?’  A little research after the event told me that the suffix comes from the Roman ‘castrum’ which means a military camp or fort, so Doncaster was the site of a fort protecting the River Don. 

Onwards.  I passed Sheffield, Huddersfield, Leeds, Harrogate and York, following the road as it ran between the two great Yorkshire National Parks, the Dales to the left of me and the North York Moors to the right, (‘….and here I am stuck in Middlesbrough with you…’  Americans, you have to trust me, but that is an incredibly clever geographical joke).

Finally I passed the signs to Durham and Gateshead before Newcastle, with it’s amazing bridges and football stadium, was laid out before me.  I drove across the Tyne and to my hotel in the very heart of the city.  The weather was cloudy and wet as I alighted from the car, and is it was dismay that I realised that I had forgotten to bring a warm or waterproof outer garment with me: perhaps I had misremembered the old adage and thought that it was bad form to take coats to Newcastle.

I had been invited to perform for the Newcastle Lit & Phil, which is Britain’s largest independent library outside London, and holds over 160,000 books on its shelves and in its archives.  Originally founded in 1793 as a conversation club, the membership was 1 Guinea and the volumes were either the ancient classics, or scientific tomes.  Literature was rather scorned and looked down upon within the hallowed portals, and works of fiction was not permitted for many years, and then only grudgingly.

Charles Dickens never visited the Lit and Phil itself, although he did travel to Newcastle on many occasions to perform both with his theatre company the Guild of Literature and Art, as well as on his own reading tours in the 1850s and 60s.  The city is a bustling one, and I am sure that Charles must have thoroughly enjoyed staying there.

I was greeted at the grand front door by Kay, who had booked me, and after taking a look at the room where I was to perform, she gave me a quick guided tour of the library itself, which is magnificent:  shelf-lined walls towering up to the glass-domed ceiling, with quirky iron spiral staircases linking the levels.

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My dressing room was another library room, and somehow I felt very at home surrounded by so many wonderful volumes, whilst an old wall clock tick-tocked reassuringly in the silence.

 

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My Dressing Room

 

The audience was a good one, numbering around 100 and which satisfyingly filled the room.  I was performing my double bill, which features two short stories from Dickens’ magazine ‘All The Year Round’, The Signalman and Doctor Marigold.  Of the two, people tend to know The Signalman better, and that is what I performed in the first half.  Actually the show felt rather at home in this venue, as I have always imaged that the narrator is telling his story to a gathering of fellows at a society of the paranormal.

During the interval I had a chance to chat to some of the audience members and it became apparent that there is a keen following of Dickens and his works in Newcastle.  There were some members of the Dickens Fellowship from nearby Durham, where I performed a few years ago, as well as a gentleman who deals with post-traumatic stress disorder in his work, and recognised the unmistakable signs of the condition in the history of Dickens and the Staplehurst rail disaster.  This is the second time that the same observation has been made to me, and apparently Dickens’ reaction to the crash is quoted in a textbook as being one of the first recorded accounts of the condition.

In the second half I performed Doctor Marigold and really nailed the early fast sales patter.  As usually tends to be the case the majority of the audience were not familiar with Marigold and Charles Dickens pulled their emotions this way and that as the story unfolded.  The performance was not perfect, however, as I gave the crowd a perfect opportunity for an extra snigger, which they politely passed up, when I managed to spoonerise the phrase ‘Put the horse in the cart’, saying instead ‘Put the arse in the court’

All in all the evening was a very enjoyable and successful one and I would very much like to return to Newcastle soon.  Dickens spent quite a bit of time in the North East, with shows in Newcastle, Durham and Sunderland.  He visited Gateshead, as well as making his famous trip to the nearby town of Bowes to research Nicholas Nickleby.  Maybe a collection of events celebrating Dickens’ connection with this region is something that I will think about creating. 

Saturday morning dawned even mistier and wetter and the drive home would be made in horrible conditions, but before I headed south on the Great North Road, I wanted to pay a brief visit to The Angel of the North, the remarkable steel sculpture which towers over the road just outside Gateshead.  The figure, with its giant spread wings, was completed in 1998 and is the work of sculptor Antony Gormley; it is made of raw steel and the rusted colour gives the figure an industrial feel fully in keeping with the traditional industry of the area. 

On the morning of my visit the heavy rain was blown horizontally across the hillside, so I did not spend long in its shadow (not that it had one, of course), but the prevailing conditions seemed perfect to witness this magnificent structure.

 

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The Angel of the North

 

As I drove away the 20 meter tall figure disappeared into the mist, but the 54 meter wingspan seemed to be saying ‘come back soon, you will be welcome’, and I certainly hope to.

 

 

 

2016 Wrap-Up

On November 4 last year I began my 2016 A Christmas Carol Tour in Cambridge, Ohio, and now 2 months later it seems like a good time to look back over the trip and reflect on what went on.

This blog post is an important one, for I will look back at it next November to remind myself of the changes I made to the show during my 7 weeks away, so that I don’t have to go through the whole process again!

 

The Show

So, let’s start with the performance itself:

As far as the script was concerned I didn’t make any major changes this year, although I have added the line ‘Am I the man who lay upon that bed? As Scrooge is confronted by his grave; and to support that addition I also added ‘I see, sprit, I see.  The case of this unhappy man, whoever he may be, might be my own.  My life tends that way now’, after Ebenezer had witnessed the bare bedroom with the neglected corpse.

There are a few scenes which I have started thinking about changing, which I may look at as the year goes on:  I would like to concentrate on the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner a little more, and show the ‘Mister Scrooge, the founder of the feast’ scene, although of course that means losing something else so as not to make the show any longer.   Likewise, I would like to show nephew Fred’s friends making fun of Scrooge during their party games, but that might mean deleting the flirtatious Topper from the tale, and I am not sure that I am ready to do that!

The biggest change to my performance came very late in the tour, and was thanks to a promotional photo shoot at Williamsburg.  Throughout the trip I was aware that something was not quite right this year.  The performance felt heavy and clumsy and didn’t skip along quite as effortlessly than before. I put this down to advancing years, and tried to concentrate on my movements around the stage, making it more balletic. To a certain extent I succeed, and concentrating on the ‘blocking’ made the show tighter and more impressive, but somehow I still couldn’t find the magic key for which I searched.

The answer came in a comfortable armchair in the East Lounge at the beautiful Williamsburg Inn as a photographic crew moved around me taking pictures, moving lights, shifting props.  It was suggested that I should just recite A Christmas Carol as they swarmed around the room, so I began at the beginning: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’.  As I was in a small room, unable to move from my chair, the performance was not a full-blown theatrical affair, but more akin to a grandfather reading by the fireside.

And as I read I realised where the full show had gone wrong: on stage I had been trying to perform every line of narrative, giving every syllable strong emphasis, mostly accompanied by a gesture or movement:  my website declares that I am ‘A Gifted Storyteller’ but I had lost the art of storytelling.

My next performance was a few hours later and I made a conscious effort to take all theatricality out of the narrative.  Of course the dialogue remained unchanged, and the impact of the multiple characters was greater thanks to the more gentle narration.  Over the next few shows I concentrated on the new style and magically the show came right back to where I wanted it.  I had spent 4 weeks trying to change the movements, and all I had needed to do was concentrate on the text itself.

There were a few other practical changes too:  it is wonderful that Liz joins me late on in the trip and besides the joy of being reunited after so long apart, she is excellent at seeing changes in the show that I may have missed.  This year she observed that I was playing Scrooge in different ages – sometimes appearing very infirm and aged, whilst at other times much more sprightly.  I have tried therefore to make him recognisably the same age throughout the show.

 

The Tour

After a few near-misses in recent years due to delayed flights and lost luggage, Bob and Pam Byers made a real effort to construct the 2016 tour with as few flights as possible, and this meant a much gentler progression around the USA.  I started in Ohio, before flying to Tennessee where I was able to use a rental car to get from Pigeon Forge to Nashville, from where I flew to California.  After a few days in the west coast I was able to return to the Mid-West for an entire week, using another car to drive between Omaha and Liberty, Missouri.  On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving I flew to Boston and picked up another car that I would keep until the very last week of the trip.  Each flight was on a day when I didn’t have a performance, so a delay would not be a disaster (of course, Sod’s law had it that there were no delays this year).  Being able to drive around New England, before heading into Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia was a real treat, and much more relaxing than the constant packing and early mornings that flying demands.  My costumes could hang in the car, and therefore were less creased as I arrived at each performance.

The only negative side at this time was the week when I was staying in a different hotel every night, which became very tiring and it was during this period that I caught a cold (I think from signing without changing costume at Marlborough), which would affect me for quite a while, most especially at Burlington and Langhorne.

There was only one new venue this year, and almost all of the others have become firm regulars for me.  It was wonderful to meet with so many old friends, and to know what I was doing.  The best feeling is driving to a venue and not needing to use the SatNav device!  Driving from Joseph Ambler Inn to Byers’ Choice is a familiar journey for me now, as is the drive from Worcester to the Vaillancourts in Sutton, Mass.

 

The Souvenir Programme

The greatest innovation this year was the introduction of our Souvenir Programme.  It was such fun to work with my brother Ian on this project and I am sure that anyone who bought a copy will agree that we created a most impressive and comprehensive volume.  We are so proud of it.

The sales of the programme varied widely, depending on how it was sold.  At some venues it just was left on a display table among other merchandise, with nobody mentioning it – at such times sales were very disappointing, but other venues embraced the theatrical nature of the product and actively sold it to audiences as they arrived and again at the show’s end, and then the figures were much more impressive.

Our biggest challenge for next year’s brochure will be to ensure that every venue knows exactly what the product is, and the most effective way to market it to a larger percentage of the audience.  One thing I noticed that whilst the majority of people waiting in a signing line had copies of the programmes, we were missing those that didn’t want to wait afterwards, so maybe stocks of pre-signed programmes is another way to go.

We certainly learned a great deal during the trip and all of this information will be used when we get together to discuss next year’s edition, not to mention other merchandising ideas.  So many audience members return year after year to my shows, and it is great for them to have a souvenir specifically linked to the performance itself.

Ideas for the 2017 programme are already forming in my mind, indeed as the tour progressed I found myself in the middle of a show thinking ‘this will be a good pose for a photo next year!’  I will be meeting with Ian very soon to start planning for November.

 

Thank You

Finally, in signing off, may I say a huge thank you to everyone who makes my tours so successful and so enjoyable:  to everyone who invests in me and publicises my shows so well, and gets such enthusiastic audiences to attend; to every hotel clerk and restaurant waiter; to every rental car and airline employee; to those people who I meet who have no idea that they have touched my life, but leave a lasting impression on me (I am specifically thinking of the little girl that Liz and I met on the steps of the Hotel Bethlehem who had just been told that she was going to have a carriage ride.  Her face was so excited and, as I put in the blog for that day, ‘truly aglow’: every wonderful thing about Christmas was encapsulated in that moment.)

Thank you of course to my audiences, and especially those loyal friends who come back year after year and make a point of talking to me after the show.  You are all unbelievably generous not only in the time you spend, but also in the gifts you give me along the way.

Thank you to Bob and Pam Byers for creating this tour and for your friendship over the many years during which we have worked together.  You do the most remarkable job in finding all of the venues and making sure that everything is in place: I can’t imagine the logistical nightmares that you must encounter, but every year things run so smoothly.  And the show you put on in Chalfont is always one of the high points of the year, with three such huge audiences cheering and standing.

Thank you to Ian, who has always been so incredibly supportive of what I do, and this year has become such a central part of my travels.  It has been great to work closely with you, and to witness your professionalism and artistic flair at first hand: ‘next year Rodney…..’

And finally, of course, to Liz.  None of this would be possible without the love and support of Mrs Dickens!  For almost two months each year I am away from home, on the road, doing what I love to do.  I write home about wonderful audiences and lavish hotels, and all of the time Liz is alone, going to work, paying bills, feeding the cat, living a lonely life and yet she is behind me 100%  Liz, you are a remarkable person and I owe you everything.

And now 2017 begins, and it will bring new adventures.  In March I will be returning to Minneapolis to revive To Begin With, which was premiered two years ago, and as the year goes on I will be visiting many venues, old and new to me, performing the works of the world’s greatest scriptwriter, Charles John Huffam Dickens.  I look forward to writing about my various adventures and to sharing my ‘Life on the Road’ with you again.

 

 

Copies of the first edition programme are still available and can be purchased either from Byers Choice, or in the UK directly from me.  Don’t miss this opportunity to begin your collection!

 

 

The Hat Trick

And so I have made it to the end: today is the last day of a tour that started back in Cambridge. Ohio on 4th November.  Over the last 7 weeks I have been criss-crossing America and England performing A Christmas Carol in an amazing variety of venues.

In keeping with the nature of this years’ trip my day will begin with a long drive before performing the Carol to two sell-out audiences.

My alarm is set for 6am, and I write the day’s blog in bed, before getting everything packed into my cases.  Breakfast is served at 7 and I am the only person in the hotel to avail myself of the buffet, and have the personal service of five members of staff (none of who seem very keen to actually serve)

I want to be on the road good and early, because there have been weather warnings about storm Barbara, which is due to sweep from Scotland over the north west of England today.  A glance outside, however, seems to suggest that Babs is being a little sluggish, and hasn’t made it to Liverpool yet.

I leave the hotel at around 8 and set a heading for Leicester, which is some two and a half hours away.  The radio confirms that the storm is only just hitting Scotland, but also warns that today is to be the busiest travel day of the year, and that drivers should expect long delays.  I seem to be lucky though, as my journey is only interrupted by a few speed restrictions through sections of the road where construction is (or, to be precise, isn’t) being carried out.

I arrive in Leicester at around 11 am and pull up next to the towering cathedral which is the resting place of King Richard III, whose remains were found a few years ago, beneath a local car park.  My venue is the ancient Guildhall, in the shadow of the cathedral, and one that I am very familiar with, having been performing here for a number of years now.

I unload my car, and then drive to the Holiday Inn, which is just a few hundred yards away.  I check-in, and then walk back to the Guildhall, via some of the quirky lanes filled with fascinating shops.

In the Guildhall the team, headed by Ben Ennis, are getting everything ready for the days’ events.  The hall itself is an amazing timber-framed structure, dating back to the 14th Century.  There is a low stage at one end and a huge stone fireplace, with a roaring fire in it, cut into one wall.  The room oozes atmosphere, and is an amazing setting for my final shows.

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Also here are Derek Grant and Michael Jones, who together run a small theatre production company, and for many years have promoted and staged my shows in England.  Although there is no technical requirement for them to be here, they have made the journey anyway, and it is lovely to see them and catch up with their news.

My dressing room is in the Jury room, upstairs and soon I have spread my various bags and costumes out on the various tables and desks.  It is very cold up there and Ben has put a few electric heaters in the room to try and warm things up a bit.

After almost two months of travelling, and all of the laundry visits that has entailed, I have just four clean shirts left, which means I can have one for every act today. I carefully hang them all up, and as the day progresses I will work my way through them, like a sort of Christmas Carol shirt advent calendar.

Already I can hear the audience arriving, so I make sure I drink plenty of water before getting ready for the show itself.  Just before 1pm I go to the back of the hall, where I wait with Alexa, one of the staff members, who is in charge of the CD player.  The audience are all gathered, the room is full, and there is a loud buzz of conversation, which suddenly stops for no reason: no lights are dimmed, nobody stands to make an announcement, but suddenly everyone is quiet as though a ghost had passed across the room.  Very mysterious.

It is interesting to stand at the back of the hall looking at the stage, and I notice that nobody can actually see the stool that features so heavily in my performance.  People beyond the first three or four rows must wonder what is going on as I describe Cratchit’s little cell where he works.

We are waiting for Ben to arrive to make an announcement, but he seems to have been delayed and Alexa takes it upon herself to get proceedings under way by starting the sound effect, and before I know it I am walking through the Guildhall towards the stage.

Over the last four days, during which I have performed the two-act version of the show, I have noticed how different the two halves are: the first is dark and sombre, whereas the second is playful and fun, before becoming very dramatic.  Knowing that there are not many laughs to be had in the first scenes, I concentrate on telling the story simply and letting the atmosphere develop.

I do the full version of the show today, with all of the extra scenes, including the description of Scrooge’s school, which could have been written with this very hall in mind: ‘They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room’.

As I reach the end of the act, and as Scrooge subsides to sleep, following the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past, there is no way to bring the lights down, so I simply announce ‘end of act one’ and leave the stage.  The applause that fills the room tells me that all is well with this performance.

Up in the Jury Room I towel down, and put on shirt number 2, before waiting for the audience to return from the temporary bar that has been created downstairs.  After 20 minutes or so Ben comes to tell me that we are ready to start again, and I take my place on stage to continue the story.

Last year Leicester’s football team, Leicester City, was riding high in the Premier League (and indeed would go on to win the title).  I had made use of this local success by giving Scrooge the team’s football scarf when he dressed all in his best.  Of course this got a huge reaction and cheer, and I am keen to do something similar this year.  Unfortunately the Foxes are not doing so well this season, but the city is still immensely proud of their achievements; so, how to include a football reference?  I have no plan, but the solution comes to me in a flash.  As Mrs Cratchit produces her Christmas pudding I always encourage the audience to greet it with a loud ‘Ohhhhhhhhh!’  If a certain crowd respond loudly I will congratulate them, saying how much better they are than the previous audience.  Well, of course the previous audience was in Liverpool – one of the great football powerhouses of Europe; so when the Leicester crowd enthusiastically join in I am able to say: ‘Oh, well remembered!  Much better than Liverpool,’ and then follow up in the style of the BBC reporter who announces the official football results on a Saturday afternoon: ‘Liverpool 1 Leicester City 2!’.  My honorary citizenship of Leicester is assured.

The show comes to an and as is greeted by another explosive standing ovation. These last few days have seen some incredible responses, and I am sure that the changes I made in Williamsburg have created something very special.

Having taken my bows I go to the Jury Room and change quickly into shirt number 1, which has been airing in front of a radiator, before going to meet some of the audience.  There is no formal signing session here, as I ran out of programmes in Liverpool, but many of the audience simply want to say ‘thank you’, and to shake my hand, which is lovely.

There are four hours now before the evening show, but rather than return to the hotel, I am invited to join Ben, his family and some of the staff from the Guildhall for a Christmas lunch.  Derek and Michael are here too, and we all sit down to a magnificent meal of roast turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, roast parsnips, mixed vegetables, including Brussel Sprouts. 

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Ben’s mother Janet has provided Christmas Crackers, and we all wear paper crowns, and read out terrible jokes (mine is: ‘What do you call an elephant that flies?  A Jumbo Jet’.  As Janet points out, someone is employed in an office somewhere to write this stuff!)

The lunch is delicious, and the company convivial, but I do have to remember that I have another show to prepare for, so after the Christmas pudding has been served, I absent myself and walk back to the hotel.  I walk across a square that is dominated by a huge white ferris wheel, brightly lit against the dark sky.  It is called the wheel of light and it is an extraordinarily captivating sight.

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My rest time is all too short, and soon I am walking back to the hall, where the audience are already gathering.  I get changed into shirt number three, and wait for 7 o’clock to come around.

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The last two advent shirts

The evening audience are a little quieter than the afternoon group, but I am determined not to overdo things and try to force a reaction out of them, so I just concentrate on the basics as before.

My last show is not the best show of the tour, nor is it the worst: it is a very good performance, even though I make a couple of silly mistakes: after repeating the Liverpool/Leicester line and receiving the approval of the crowd, I mix up my words: instead of saying ‘Everybody had something to say about it’, I begin the sentence ‘Nobody had anything to say….’ And have to backtrack.  I am taken off guard by that and compound the error by mixing up Mrs Cratchit and Bob.  The line should be: ‘Everybody had something to say about it: Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage’  But for some reason I say Mrs Cratchit…and have to fumble my way through a half remembered line from the book – ‘Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour’.  Silly.  Very silly.

So, not a perfect performance, but it is certainly one of the most memorable on the tour, thanks to something that happens near the end of the show.  During this season I have added a minor joke into the scene where Scrooge gets ‘dressed all in his best’.   Having put the coat and scarf on, I spin the top hat up into the air and wait as if I am expecting it to land squarely on my head.  Of course, it never does and the hat bounces away onto the floor.  As I pick it up I look at the audience, and say: ‘One day!  One day.’ And everyone laughs.

But tonight, on the very last show, after performing A Christmas Carol around 70 times, the hat spins up into the air and DOES land squarely on my head!  I am completely overcome: the audience cheer and I have to pause the show to take in the enormity of the whole situation.  It is a truly celebratory moment, and added to as one wag calls out ‘Now, do it again!’

A wonderful end, to a wonderful tour.

Having wrapped up the story, and taken the loud applause, I go through the routines of packing everything up and loading the car, before returning to the hotel, where I have a quiet drink in the bar, before going to bed.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I finally drive home to be with Liz.

 

 

Thank You Liverpool

I have been on the road too long:  I have one of those moments when I wake and have no idea where I am, or what the geography of the room is (actually this could be rather embarrassing here as the door to the bathroom is right next to the door to the hallway – one wrong fumble in the dark and I would be locked out).

Slowly I come to my senses and remember that I am in the Shankly Hotel Liverpool, and that I had an amazing show last night.  I prepare my little coffee cup and discover the first flaw in the Shankly’s room – the kettle does not have a long enough lead to reach any of the electrical plugs, so has to be placed on the floor: it is those details that make so much difference in a hotel.

Breakfast is a buffet affair, but a very impressive one, and I eat surrounded by yet more football memorabilia. I have some granola with lots of different fruit piled up, before moving on to the eggs, bacon and sausage.

I do not have to be at the hall until 1pm, so the morning is mine.  I spend some time in my room catching up with emails and admin, as well as using the giant jacuzzi bath again, and then I walk over to the shops once more, where I do a little more shopping, and just mingle with the Christmas crowds.

At 12 I pop into a restaurant where I have a ridiculously healthy salad for lunch (avocado and quinoa, since you ask).  Once again there is proof that I have been away from home too much, when I ask the waiter for the check, instead of the bill!

Back at St George’s Hall all is ready for the matinee performance and I chat with Malcolm and his colleague Dawn about our three days, which have proved very successful.  The show is due to start at 2, and another choir will be performing today.  Unfortunately they thought that the show was at 2.30 and it is a rather rushed and flustered set of singers who take the stage at around 2.10.  However hurried their preparations may have been they sound wonderful, and the audience applauds them loudly, which is a good sign.

After last night’s show I have carefully marked the stage so that Malcolm can place my furniture precisely today, and everything is as it should be as I begin the show.  It would be impossible to re-create the magic of last night, but the afternoon’s audience are excellent and once again I give a good performance.  Unfortunately at one point in the first act my microphone cable works a little loose and there are sharp crackles of electrical static. Stu, the sound guy, shuts down the microphone and I do the last few minutes of the act unamplified.  If CD’s spirit is in the room it is as if he is saying: ‘I had to do it without these modern devices, so you should: come on open your mouth wide and speak to the last person in the room!’

During the interval Stu tracks down the problem and in the second half I am back online.  The audience join in with all the playful stuff and get very involved.  Once again there is a fabulous atmosphere in the room and the applause echoes around at the close of the show.  I know that I am working hard here and putting a lot of energy into the shows, but I love performing here.

The signing line is slightly shorter today, in that we have sold our complete stock of souvenir programmes – we made a guess back in October as to how many we should have shipped to the UK, and we were 1 ½ days out in our estimate!  They have sold really well here, which is very gratifying.

I have just over an hour back at the hotel (time for yet another bath!), before preparing for my final show in Liverpool this year.  Supper is a large Bratwurst purchased from the Christmas market outside St George’s, which rather curiously is overlooked by a giant Shrek figure, which promotes a light show in the main hall. 

In the dressing room various volunteers come by and to say thank you and offer congratulations on the show, which is nice.  The choir are in good time this evening and a few of them take turns to play the concert grand Steinway piano on the stage.  As one lady points out ‘it is not every day you get to play a £30,000 piano!’

The audience arrives early, and flood into the hall.  There is talk that local celebrity, and national hero Ken Dodd may attend tonight’s performance, and seats have been reserved for him, but he never arrives, which is a shame.

The evening is a well-oiled routine by now.  The choir sing, and as they leave the stage the team start to move furniture and light candles, leaving the stage to me as the house lights dim.

Once more I feel the energy from the room, and give the show everything, remembering to make the narrative light and easy – don’t force it.  It is another amazing crowd, and the atmosphere builds as Scrooge is shown the vision of his own grave.  The only issue I have tonight is that one of my braces clips pops off and I can feel my trousers falling, meaning that I am treading on the bottoms of them, skating around on the polished wooden floor: I don’t think they are going to actually fall down (that would be a mean trick to play, Charles), but it makes moving around the stage rather difficult.

I get to the end and once more the Liverpool crowd give me an amazing reception, standing, cheering and shouting out.  I have had an incredible three days in the North West and I look forward to returning in the future. 

No programmes = a very short signing session: a few people have brought their own books along to be signed, and others just want to shake hands and offer congratulations, but it is all over within 15 minutes.  I pack up all of my costumes and load them onto a cart that Malcolm has appropriated and already filled with my props.  We take the lift to the ground floor and I fetch my car which is soon filled with my basic set.  I say good bye and thank you to Malcolm and Dawn, and then drive back to the Shankly, where exhausted I get straight to bed. 

Tomorrow I have a three hour drive to Leicester for my very final performances of the 2016 tour, so it is important to sleep well tonight, and as I drift in and out of sleep one thought comes to mind:

Thank you Liverpool.

 

The Most Perfect Room in the World

After the success of last night, I sleep until almost 8am, which is a luxury.  I don’t have any sort of early start today, although I do have to collect my props from the Town Hall at some stage, so I make some real coffee in the little cafetiere mug that Susie gave me back in Omaha.  The smell of fresh coffee is so good, matched by the taste: much better than the little sachets of Nescafe that are the staple of English hotels.

Roomzz doesn’t have a restaurant or breakfast area, but instead has a little pantry, so I stock up with some fruit, pastries and a bowl of porridge, before returning to my room where I eat whilst watching the morning news.

At around 9.30 I shower and then walk the short distance to retrieve my car, which is still in the garage behind the Town Hall.  I park on the double yellow lines and set my hazard lights flashing in that internationally accepted way – ‘I know I am parked illegally, but if the lights are flashing it is OK’.

It is strange to walk into the empty hall and remember the noise and cheering that filled the space last night.  With the help of the duty manager I load the car up and take it back to the hotel, where I pack and check out.

Although I do not have a show until this evening, I want to get over to Liverpool to give myself time for some Christmas shopping in the wonderful Liverpool 1 shopping centre.

The weather is awful as I head towards the Birkenhead Tunnel and on some stretches of motorway I can hardly see the road in front of me.  Soon I am making my way beneath the Mersey before emerging into the daylight, and clearing weather.

I find a car park near to the Liver building and make my way into the shops with thousands of others.  Liverpool 1 is an excellent complex – not a mall as such, but a cleverly designed open-air collection of shops on many various levels.  It is wonderfully decorated and there is a definite sense of Christmas in the air, which is in stark contrast to the Mall of America in Minnesota where Liz and I were less than a week ago.

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Obviously I can’t go into too much detail as to where I shopped and what I bought, but I can say that with many others I helplessly looked at an awful of things that I did NOT want to buy.

All of the restaurants are very busy, so I decide to stroll down to the riverside and see if I can get something to eat in the Museum of Liverpool, and am rewarded by an almost empty café where I have a chicken and bacon pie, with some sparkling Lime and Jasmine drink.  This afternoon I have an interview on BBC Radio Mersey, so I spend a little time researching Dickens and Liverpool, before returning to my car.

Charles Dickens loved the city, as it was a bustling, thriving, energetic port.  He had spent much of his childhood in Royal Naval ports, thanks to his father’s employment, and never lost that sense of excitement and adventure that a seafaring community has.  He departed from Liverpool when he travelled to America, and gave many performances and speeches here.  His tour manager, George Dolby said that, other than London, Liverpool was his favourite city and that the Concert Room in St George’s Hall (where I am to perform later today), was his absolute favourite venue, calling it ‘the most perfect hall in the world’

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‘The most perfect room in the world’ Charles Dickens

He performed in Liverpool more than in any other town, with the exception of London, and it was a stop on every one of his reading tours.  It seems to me that the Dickens family should do something to honour Charles’ connection with the city – a plaque at the least, but why not another statue at the docks, or even a boutique hotel in his name?

I am due to meet Malcolm at 2.30 and he will take me to the BBC studios, where I am to be interviewed by Liverpool legend Billy Butler.  I just have time to check in to my hotel, the Shankly Hotel, which is an homage to the great Liverpool Football Club manager, Bill Shankly.  It is an amazing hotel filled with quotes and memorabilia of the great man.  I make my way up to my room and unlock the door which has a plush vinyl covering (I assume to represent a football), and a large brass knocker.

The room itself is beautifully designed in a French style.  It has a real free-standing wardrobe, and an elegant little desk.  The bathroom features a huge jacuzzi bath, with a large square shower head attached to the ceiling in the middle.  Very very nice, indeed. 

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Over the bed, somewhat disturbingly, is a large panel describing a gentleman’s memory of Bill Shankly, and the words are accompanied by a large photograph looking down at me. 

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Quite apart from the plush furnishings, the hotel has another great advantage in that it is only a 2-minute walk from the magnificent St George’s Hall.  I only have time to drop my bags in my room, before I have to meet Malcolm so I make my way through St John’s Gardens and into one of the grandest buildings you will ever see.

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The BBC studios are only a short walk away, and Malcolm and I are soon sat in the greenroom waiting for my slot.  I am not filled with too much confidence when the researcher comes to chat:  ‘So, it’s Gerald, yes?  Gerald Jackson?’  we correct him, but wonder what course the interview will take.

Eventually after the inevitable news, traffic and weather bulletins, I am ushered in to the studio where Billy and I talk until the music track reaches its end and we are ready to start the interview for real.  Well, he gets Dickens right, but calls me Gerard instead of Gerald, it is not surprising as the name Gerard, or Gerrard to be precise, is a famous one on Merseyside – Stephen Gerrard being one of the great heroes of Liverpool Football Club (those who don’t already know will be beginning to realise that football is a religion here.  It was Bill Shankly who famously said ‘football is not a matter of life and death; it’s much more important than that’).

During the interview Billy concentrates most of all on the various film versions of A Christmas Carol, and leaves me in no doubt that the Alastair Sim version is the favourite but ONLY in black and white: ‘the story only really works in black and white, doesn’t it?  The ghosts are more frightening that way.’  Maybe I should issue some monochrome glasses to the audience at my show, so they can enjoy it properly….

Actually the interview is slightly unnecessary as the shows are very nearly sold out, with just a few tickets for tomorrow’s matinee, but it is an opportunity to give Age UK a plug, which I manage to do before our segment ends.

We walk back to the hall, and get set up for the evening, which is not as simple as we may have thought: there is a large grand piano on the stage and the choir will be using it.  When they have finished, the piano will have to be pushed to the back of the stage and my furniture put into place, before I start the show.

I have a large room all to myself as a dressing room, and I hang all of my costumes up so that the creases of travel can fall out.  I have a couple of hours before I need to get ready, so I return to The Shankly where I treat myself to a hot, deep, luxurious bath, followed by an energising shower.

Night is falling as I walk back to the Hall and some audience members are already gathering in the cavernous entrance hall.  I go to my dressing room and slowly prepare.  Just before the choir is due to start (indeed, they are already on stage), there is a slight kerfuffle at the door:  Malcolm has made a mistake with a booking, and a group, who were supposed to have reserved seats thanks to a special promotion, have turned up to find no such seats are available.  Malcolm had thought they were coming tomorrow, and even has the RESERVED signs ready.  The mistake is his, and he and his staff bend over backwards to make up for the error.  6 seats together are found, and Malcolm asks me if I can meet and shake the people’s hands after the show.  He buys them all a souvenir programme, as well as a bottle of Prosecco, and by the time they are seated everything possible has been done to make the party feel special.

The choir is superb again, and the acoustics in this magnificent hall are perfect for such a concert.  I slip upstairs to the balcony and love listening as the various harmonies float and merge in the circular, domed room.

My time is coming, however, so I go back to the dressing room, gulp some water and pop a Fisherman’s Friend into my mouth, breathing the menthol deep into my throat.  On stage the piano has been moved, but my furniture has all been placed in a little group in the centre of the stage.  I hiss from the wings (making sure that my microphone is not on): ‘Malcom!  Malcom!  Table and chair over there…further, yes right!  Hat stand next to it!  OK, stool over to the left, further.  More forward. No…..Oh, it will do!’

Malcolm and the team leave the stage, and the music starts.  I start the slow walk to Marley’s graveside and suddenly realise that in all of the panic I haven’t finished the Fisherman’s Friend which seems to have swelled and is now filling my mouth.  The first bell tolls: crunch, chew, swallow.  Second bell: crunch more.  Third: swallow, dammit, swallow!!  Fourth: gulp. Here goes….

I do a slightly shorter version of the show tonight, as with the choir the first act is very long for the audience.  I keep the extra Marley passages in, but lose the second scene in Scrooge’s school, and Mr Fezziwig doesn’t get to dance tonight.

Charles certainly knew what he was talking about for the Concert Hall is indeed a wonderful room to play – it is intimate and alive and energetic.  It is extraordinary to think that I have exactly the same view (give or take a few bonnets and top hats), as Charles had 158 years ago.  His eye roved across the chairs on the floor, and looked up to the faces craning over the iron rail of the balcony.  He must have paused before delivering a line that he knew would get a laugh, as I pause.  The Dickens voice would have cut the stillness, knowing that every person in the room was fully immersed in the story.  I have never felt more connected to my great great grandfather than I do tonight.

The interval comes and I sit in the dressing room trying to keep my focus: this show is too good to spoil now.

After about half an hour the audience return and following the raffle draw (I assume Charles didn’t have to wait for a raffle!), I return to my chair.  The second half is even more powerful than the first, and the silence that sees Scrooge’s arrival at the Cratchit’s dwelling is truly astounding. I don’t usually allow myself to think about CD, or think if he is able to witness what I am doing, but tonight it is definitely as if there is a benign spirit with me on stage, and I embrace his presence gratefully

The story progresses towards its end and as I take my bows I am almost in tears: I can’t remember a reception like this.  Cheering, waving, clapping, shouting, stamping:  Oh my, oh my.  Of course Charles received receptions like this when he stood on these boards, and must also have been so moved also.

I leave the stage with a final wave and sit in my dressing room breathing very deeply for a moment, before remembering that I am meeting the six audience members who were supposed to have the reserved seats.  I change quickly, and am slightly more composed by the time there is a knock on the door.  They loved the show, and were so grateful to Malcolm and his team for sorting everything out so generously.  We chat for a while and they ask questions about the show and my tour.  I sign the programmes and shake their hands, before following them down into the great stone foyer where a line winds around like Marley’s chains.

It is a lovely session, and everyone is gushing about the show – some who have seen it before and some who have managed to get tickets for the first time.  There are a couple on holiday from Nova Scotia who ask me to come to Halifax to perform, and who pose for pictures to take home with them.

It has been a long, intense and incredibly emotional evening for me, and I know that I won’t get to sleep until late tonight.  I tidy up my dressing room, making sure that all of the costumes are properly hung on the rail and then walk into the night back to the Shankly hotel, and as I stand outside my door fumbling with the key card my attention is attracted to the brass door knocker: what was that?….

‘Well done, dear boy.  WELL done!  It IS the most perfect hall in the world, isn’t it?’

No, surely not!  I put the key in the lock, open the door and go in.

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Chester

You left us in the departure lounge of Minneapolis airport, ready to fly back to the UK.  We got home on Sunday morning and it was lovely to see the house again after so long.  I had just a day and a half before I was back on the road, so the first job was to choose the perfect tree and decorate the house.

In our quest for the tree we certainly succeeded, finding a wonderfully bushy and full one which maybe is a little larger than usual, and will take up a large amount of our living room, but looks magnificent.  The simple of pleasure of discovering all of the old tree decorations, checking the lights and beginning the process of hanging them cannot be described, but the afternoon (accompanied by the Christmas playlist, of course), was truly special – and, yes the tree is perfect!

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However on Tuesday 20 December it is time to get on the road again.  Early in the morning Liz and I sorrowfully say goodbye once more and I start the three-hour drive to the ancient Roman city of Chester which nestles between North Wales and Merseyside.

The drive is mainly spent rehearsing lines, which may seem odd seeing as I have been living with A Christmas Carol for almost two months, but the version that I will be performing over the next few days is the full 2-act theatre version and there are a few additions to the standard tour show.  Jacob Marley gets more of a look-in: there are additions to the door-knocker scene as well as to the actual conversation between the two men.  The second addition comes with the Ghost of Christmas Past, who shows Scrooge all of his school friends travelling home for Christmas, and there is also an extra scene in which Scrooge sees the vision of his little sister coming to take him ‘home, home, home for good and all!’  Mr Fezziwig gets a little bonus by dancing Sir Roger De Coverley, and the Cratchits get to spend longer discussing Tiny Tim before enjoying their Christmas lunch.

The actual line learning isn’t difficult, as the words are familiar but trying to settle them into what is a finely-honed script is the hard bit. By the time I am approaching Chester I am confident that the longer script will work succefully.

I drive my way into the centre of Chester and pull up outside the magnificent Town Hall which is my venue here.  I am performing on behalf of Age UK, Wirral and am greeted at the door by Malcolm who is running the event.  He helps me in with all of my furniture, costumes and boxes of programmes, before I take the car to a nearby car park.

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Chester Town Hall

The main hall is a wonderful space, although with somewhat boomy acoustics. I do a sound check with the microphone, which although I don’t need from a volume point of view, does allow the sound to be directed down towards the audience rather than up into the soaring barrel-roof.

 

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The choir rehearsing on stage

 

My dressing room suite is luxurious, made up of two actual dressing rooms, complete with lit mirrors and showers, as well as a large green room with a sofa to spread out on.  The large windows look out over Chester Cathedral, and the bustle of Christmas shopping.

The afternoon audience is fairly small, around 130, and so that the room doesn’t feel too cavernous and empty the Town Hall staff have a rigged up a black screen half way back, so that everyone is gathered together at the front.  This is a sensible precaution, although it does cause a few problems for James, the tech guy, who is stuck at the back of the hall with the sound and lighting desks, but with no view of the stage: all of his queues will be managed by guesswork.

The show goes well, and all of the additions fit in seamlessly, which is a relief.  The audience are quiet to begin with but as the second act gets up to speed (The Ghost of Christmas Present and all of his frolics), they start to join in and relax.  The two act show is a much darker and more sombre version, even though the script is not that different: I assume that it is the extra Marley passages cast a dark pall over the story.

The applause at the end is very nice and there is quite a line in the foyer waiting to shake my hand and have me sign programmes.

My hotel is just five minutes away, so I leave all of my costumes at the hall, before checking into the quirkily-named Roomzz, and resting in my colourful suite (complete with little kitchen) for an hour or so.

 Back at the Town Hall I know I am tired, and I try to ‘shut down’ so as to preserve energy.  As I sit I can hear a very mournful carol singer outside my window.  Looking out I see he has a small CD player and is moaning tuneless tunes. Maybe I am making assumptions, but I imagine he is homeless.  The crowds of bustling Christmas shoppers give him a wide berth, as if they are ‘other creatures bound on other journeys’.  It is a sad sight, and the messages that Dickens tried to convey are obviously just as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1843. 

The show is due to start at 7.30 but I am not on for a while, as a local choir takes to the stage and performs for twenty minutes or so.  I sit at the back with James (who can now see what he is doing), and enjoy the singing, as well as studying the audience trying to gauge what they will be like to perform for.

When the choir file off the stage, taking their keyboard with them, I wait for James to start the music, and I walk down the centre aisle, making sure that my shoes and cane make a rhythmic click-clack on the wooden floor.

The audience are very quiet throughout, and the show is very dramatic and sombre.  I am not sure if they are enjoying it or not, until I arrive at the interval and the loud applause follows me back to the dressing room, which is a relief.  I come out for the second act in a positive frame of mind and continue to tell the story in the same style.

There are laughs at Mrs Cratchit and old Joe, but the crowd are still quiet and intense, but when I sign off with ‘God Bless Us Every One’ there is a sudden explosion of sound.  The room is standing, and stamping and there are cheers and whoops and bravos filling the air: what a wonderful feeling!

It is a strange thing, but with my new, easier style of narrating I have found that the show has become much more physical again, maybe I am putting more into the characters now, I don’t know.  But a quick costume change is necessary before going to the foyer and greeting the long line of people, all clutching programmes for me to sign (this has been one of the best sales days since the programme was published!)

When everyone has left I am wearily starting to pack up, when David, from the Town Hall, suggests I pick all of my things up in the morning.  I gratefully agree to his suggestion and walk the short distance back to my hotel, where I collapse onto the bed.  Of course I don’t sleep straight away, as the adrenalin is still in my veins, but thanks to an episode of Lewis that I have seen many times before, I drift away eventually.

Tomorrow I make the short journey into Liverpool, where I will be performing at St George’s Hall, on the same stage that Charles himself used, to tell the same story.

 

 

The Last Day

Usually on tour I perform for the last time, return to the hotel and then fly home the next day, but this year is a little different.  I have one more show to do this morning before boarding a flight at 7.39 tonight.  In a way it is a good thing, because the extra show means that Liz and I don’t have to try and pass time for a whole day, when what we want most is to be flying home: the show gives the morning some focus.

After breakfast we get ready to leave for the Arboretum, it has been snowing throughout the night and the roads are still slippery, but the ploughs have been out and conditions are a lot better than last night.  We are rather hoping that our turkey might be waiting for us again, as we were not able to get a picture of him yesterday, but sadly he is not at the door to greet us. 

When we stomp (to clear the snow from our boots) our way inside, Clarissa is already checking audience members in.  We chat for a while go upstairs to the green room.  The sun is beginning to come out now and the snowy landscape outside looks absolutely beautiful, with long blue shadows from the bare tree branches staining the snow.  Our room overlooks a large semi-circular balcony and as we take in the view Liz suddenly notices that the turkey is back, and sitting on a low wall admiring the same aspect.  Liz runs downstairs to capture Mr Gobble on her camera, while I try to record the scene from above. 

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Almost as soon as Liz is outside the turkey hears the call of a mate, and half hops, half tumbles off the wall and walks away through the trees.

The audience today is another good one, almost a full house, and I hope to be able to sign off this years’ tour with a good show.  I have suggested that Liz takes control of the sound effect today, so that it can play as soon as Clarissa finishes her announcement.  Dear Clarissa seems to have been doing everything relating to the shows so far: looking after us, checking people in, making the announcement as well as starting the music cue, and this just relieves her of one of those jobs.  The result is that the start of the show is tighter and more effective. 

At the start of the performance I find myself lapsing into my old narrative ways, giving the words too much emphasis, and acting them rather than just storytelling, so I give myself a silent talking to and try to return to a more delicate performance again, which I think I succeed in doing.  The audience are restrained, but I know that is the Minnesota way, and I don’t panic.  The biggest laugh comes from Old Joe’s snot (good old bodily fluids – always a winner!) 

As I start the final passages it is as if I am signing off from the whole tour, from every member of every audience who has watched me over the last six weeks, and it is actually quite an emotional moment for me.  The applause is lovely, although it has not been the best show of the tour and I sign off by bowing centre, left, right and centre again before walking up the aisle and out of the room.  

I chat to a few people and sign a few autographs, but I can feel the adrenalin that has kept me going since November 4th taking a well-earned break.  I feel weary and tired and the smiles for the cameras are maybe a little more forced than before. Two pictures that I am very happy to pose for are with Peggy and Clarissa who between them have been responsible for bringing me to the arboretum and for staging four wonderful shows in a beautiful venue.

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Peggy

 

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Clarissa

I change out of my costume for the last time and make sure that I collect everything from the green room.  I have done well on this tour as far as leaving things behind is concerned:  usually I leave watches, pens, scarfs, cufflinks and various items of clothing scattered around the country, but this year I have been much more disciplined (a credit card left in a restaurant cheque folder being my only lapse).

We have secured a late check out from the hotel so that I can have a shower and pack all of my costumes.  The skies are blue now and the scenery looks truly wonderful as we drive back into Chanhassen.  As Liz packs her case, which has hardly been unpacked during her brief stay, I shower and get myself ready to leave.  Hat, cane and two costumes are carefully placed, and then we both check the room for the various chargers and leads that are plugged in here and there. 

Eventually I am confident that I have everything and we roll our bags out of the room, and to reception where we check-out.  Just as we are about to leave the desk clerk grabs a Christmas bag and says ‘this is for you’.  It is packed with goodies from the Friends of the Arboretum, and once more I am so moved by the generosity of the people who let me perform in their venues.  The bag contains some Scotch whiskey, chocolate, a couple of apples, some horticultural note-cards and a scented candle: a wonderful memory of our stay here. 

There are still four hours until we have to be at the airport, so we have decided to drive to the St Paul Hotel in the state’s capital city.  I used to perform at the hotel, which is similar to the Hotel Bethlehem in that it is in the centre of a city and has a bustling, lively bar and lobby.   

I was hoping to use the valet parking service, but today it is only for overnight guests.  The bellhops direct us to a parking garage in the next street where we are charged $13, even though we will be little more than an hour.  Apparently there is an ice hockey match in the city, and all of the parking garages are operating ‘Event Parking’, which means they can charge top dollar.  We find a space on the roof, and then navigate our way through the network of skyways, meaning that we don’t have to step out into the cold from the moment we leave the car to the moment we arrive in the hotel. 

Afternoon tea is being served in the lobby, but it is a five-course tea which lasts for two hours, so doesn’t quite tie in with our timetable.  We head for the St Paul Grill and order some delicious gourmet burgers, which we wash down with a celebratory glass of prosecco. 

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When we have finished our lunch I suggest that we just look into the ballroom where I used to perform, just for old times’ sake.  Before I worked with Byers’ Choice I used to have a different agent, who was responsible for my performances in St Paul, and when my contract with her came to an end so did the shows here.  The hotel, keen not to lose the pre-Christmas crowds that flocked to the A Christmas Carol teas, then booked a theatre company to perform a radio play based on It’s A Wonderful Life, and I am delighted to see a packed house pouring out of the ballroom as a performance had just finished.

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The set of Wonderful Life

I look into the ballroom, and admire the set and lighting rig that has been installed for the show (I never had anything like that).  As I am looking at the scene I am spotted by Heather Noseworthy who used to run my shows here, and still works at the hotel.  It is very nice to be remembered after so many years (it must be twelve or so). 

There is not much more to do, so we decide to walk back to the car and get to the airport.  The traffic is very heavy, thanks to the recently finished hockey game, and we crawl our way out of St Paul and towards the Twin Cities airport.   

We return the car, that has given such sterling four-wheel-drive service over that last two days, to Thrifty and the agent offers to drive us to the terminal, rather than making us take the tram.  In our very brief time with him we learn that he came originally from Djibouti, and then to California before ending up in Minnesota – it’s a fairly safe bet that he didn’t come here for the weather! 

We drop our bags which are all underweight and line up in security line where we are checked in by different agents.  The girl who checks my passport does not enter into conversation, but the fellow with Liz asks if she is related to Charles Dickens, and when she replies that I am a direct descendant he asks her if she knows anything about the memorial cross in France to Cedric Dickens, who died in the First World War, and who was related to Charles.  This is extraordinary as earlier in the year we attended a memorial service to Cedric and laid flowers at his cross in the tiny village of Ginchy.  How he knew about Ceddy’s memorial we never ascertain, but what an extraordinary coincidence.   

And now we sit at a table at gate G6 waiting for our flight to board.  It has been another successful tour, with so many memories, by far the majority of them very positive.   

I will write more about my reflections of this years’ trip in a few days, but for now Mr and Mrs Dickens are heading for home.

 

The Tour Pet

We are getting very close to the end of the tour now, with only three more shows to go before we fly home, two of which are today.

I don’t have to be at the arboretum until 11.30, so we have quite a leisurely morning in front of us.  Breakfast at The Country Inn is standard motel fare, and as we eat the very final load of laundry on the 2016 tour tumbles itself to completion.  Having finished our meal we both go to the laundry to mark this great landmark moment, and then head back to the room.

 

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The Final Dry

 

I write up the blog, and Liz reads the newspaper, getting more disenchanted at the state of the world by the minute: between the horrors of Aleppo, riots in British prisons, dire economic predictions as a result of Brexit and all the uncertainty here in the USA, it is not a happy read.

The time passes and soon we are wrapping up in scarfs, coats and hats ready to brace the winter conditions once more.  Last night Peggy told us where the staff car park is, which means a much shorter walk through the snow, and as we reach the door we are greeted by a wonderful, prehistoric, lumbering, wrinkly, plump old turkey, pecking in the snow to find some berries or grubs for his breakfast.

We hurry indoors where Clarissa is making preparations for the morning’s show, and we go straight up to the green room to get and remove the coats and scarves that have forded us scant protection against the sub-zero temperatures.  With an hour to go before showtime we go to the cafeteria to grab a light lunch to keep us going.  We both choose tomato soup, which is warming and delicious and sets me up perfectly for the show ahead.

While I am performing, Liz will be touring the library and amazing archive here at the arboretum, and Clarissa introduces her to Kathy the librarian, who will show her the most interesting and antique parts of the collection.  Liz is a passionate gardener and has studied horticulture in the past, so is very excited about her morning.

It is a larger audience that gathers this morning, and they sound enthusiastic as they take their seats (I am on the balcony with the stage lights looking down on them as they assemble).  At 1 o’clock I go to the back of the hall and I listen while Clarissa makes her introductory remarks, and then make my slow way through the audience and onto the stage.

It is another good show, and I keep concentrating on keeping the narrative light – it would be so easy to slip back to where I was before, and I want to really cement this style of performing into my memory before A Christmas Carol is tucked away for another year.

As last night, the audience is responsive, but not demonstrative – until the curtain call that is, when they all stand and suddenly become very vocal with cheers of ‘bravo’ and some whoops to be going on with.  I stand in the lobby as they leave and shake hands, as well as signing a few programmes.

I do have a short commitment before I am off duty, as there is a post-show tea being served, and the arboretum has said that I would make an appearance during it.  I quickly change costumes, and then spend thirty minutes or so moving from table to table, chatting about the show and the tour.  It is lovely to hear how many people used to come and see me perform at the St Paul Hotel back in the old days (I haven’t been there for about 12 years), and have now followed me here.

When I have finished the schmooze I get changed and Liz and I go back to the hotel.  She has had an amazing morning, and was completely blown away by what she has seen.  The collection contains many wonderful books, many including the most exquisite watercolour illustrations of various plant types.

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One volume dates back over 400 years and the colours are still so vivid you would think they had been painted last week.

Liz had also mentioned the turkey and apparently there a many of the them in the grounds and they have become completely fixated by the Bruce Munro light installation.  When darkness falls, so the turkeys become moth like and head for the source of the light.  In the morning the staff have to go through the entire installation re-connecting all of the wires that the turkeys have tripped over and pulled apart!

As breakfast was a little disappointing this morning we thought about finding a diner somewhere for tomorrow, but have yet to be successful.  On our route there is a large Lund’s grocery store, and we wonder if there maybe a café or restaurant in there.  When I was performing in Minneapolis two years ago we greatly enjoyed shopping at Lunds, and have a great affection for the chain.  We park and walk in, and the first thing we come to is a Caribou Coffee concession, which has a small sign saying that they do indeed serve a breakfast buffet, so we wait in line to get more details.  As we wait I notice a sign behind the counter, with a quiz question which, if you answer correctly, gets you 10 cents off the cost of your order.  See if you would qualify (correct answer at the end):

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At the counter the young barista tells us that Caribou Coffee don’t do the breakfast buffet, but the deli counter does, so we ask there.  The staff at the deli counter says that they don’t do a breakfast service but Caribou Coffee do.  We give up on this plan.

By the time we return to the car it is snowing more heavily, and even though we have only been in the store for ten minutes or so, I have to brush the windows off.  There is due to be quite heavy snow this afternoon, and we wonder of it will actually affect the evening performance.

Back at the hotel we make sure the heat is on high, and settle down to watch the latest episode of the Grand Tour programme (which as Liz points out bears the initials of Top Gear, but reversed), which is fun and passes the time.

The evening show is at 7, but we know that we will need to leave plenty of time to clear the snow from the car, as well as to deal with whatever driving conditions there may be.  The snow has been falling constantly and the car is indeed well coated.  Liz gets in and sets all of the heaters to defrost while I brush as much as the fine powdery snow away.

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The roads are covered too, and it is impossible to see any markings which would usually mark the edge, the lanes or the central reservation.  I am very glad that I thought to ask for an AWD car for these few days.  Everyone drives in a single lane, and very sensibly – of course this is just an ordinary commute in Minnesota.

We arrive at the arboretum again and park in our staff slot.  There are no turkeys this time, and maybe they are enjoying the light show on the other side of the building.  Before getting ready for the show we wrap up warm and attempt to get a few more pictures of the spectacle, before shivering our way back inside and warming ourselves with a cup of hot apple cider.

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Any thoughts that a snow fall may cause the show to be cancelled come from our British perspective.  There is no way a public event would go ahead in these conditions at home, but the Minnesotans are from hardy stock and just shrug it all off.

I get changed and as I open the little tin that has my cufflinks in, I see a little ladybird crawling around in it – I think he should become the adopted pet of this tour, and we shall christen him Tim!

 

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Tim and a Pin

 

When I am changed Liz and I return to our eerie above the audience and watch as they arrive.  While we are watching we are greeted by David Maddison, who is the director of the arboretum and is the creative mind behind all of the wonderful innovations here.  We chat for a brief while, but show time is approaching and I go downstairs to liaise with Clarissa once more.

The audience is quiet and staid and it is a little bit of a struggle to illicit a response: ‘don’t try too hard!  Don’t overdo it’ I tell myself.  Actually my job is made somewhat easier by a lady sat in the front row who is laughing often and loudly.  Her enthusiasm brings to mind two quotes from A Christmas Carol, the first being ‘it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs’, and the other more importantly this evening: ‘It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour’.  The infectious nature of the lady’s laugh soon has the rest of the audience laughing too, and I am truly grateful to her.

The show finishes up and I receive another Minnesota standing ovation, but there is not much hanging about this evening, as everybody wants to get safely home.  Coats are donned, scarves are wrapped, hats are pulled down and the audience drifts away into the night.

I change, and as I have one more performance tomorrow can leave all of my costume here.  The snow has been falling hard all evening, and the drive home is very tentative.  Each time I pull away from a light the car slips this way and that before the four wheels gain traction and propel me forward again.

We dine at Axels once more, and even though I do have to perform tomorrow, this feels like an end-of-tour celebration dinner.  Liz has a steak and I have pork chops covered in a delicious, spicy apple chutney, and we toast another successful trip with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma.

The sled ride back to the hotel is only a matter of a couple of hundred yards and soon we are back in the room for our last night in the USA.

 

 

Answer to Caribou trivia:  It is not quite as simple as it seems.  Of course the obvious answer is 4 (Marley and the three ghosts of Christmas), but I submit this passage for your consideration:

Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

Whether these creatures faded into mist, or mist enshrouded them, he could not tell. But they and their spirit voices faded together; and the night became as it had been when he walked home.

However for your 10c discount, I don’t think that Caribou count these ghosts……

 

 

A Wonderful Life

Today promises to be sad day in a few respects: firstly we are moving out of our beautiful suite this morning, secondly the alarm is set for 5.15 and thirdly it will be the last morning in the little VW that has been my companion since November 23.

My phone duly wakes us at the prescribed time and I get straight out of bed, knowing that I will fall back to sleep if I don’t.  I start the process of packing, and Liz follows suit.  Packing is a strange experience this morning, as I haven’t had to get everything into my cases for almost a month.  The two costumes are bundled up and squeezed into my little carry-on case which has the twin benefit of being with me in case of mislaid baggage, as well as reducing the weight in my checked back.  The top hat is stuffed with socks and surrounded by the thick scarf that I use on stage, before being surrounded by other clothes.  The cane is laid diagonally (it’s length dictates the size of my case), and everything else is then carefully and neatly packed around it.  I ditch a few things to save weight, and lifting the case am fairly confident that I will hit the 50 lbs limit.

On the other side of the room Liz is going through the same process, albeit without a top hat or cane, and we both zip up our cases in good time.

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It is indeed with heavy hearts that we close the door on suite 3285: it has welcomed us and comforted us and cuddled us at a time in the tour when we most needed welcoming, comforting and cuddling.  There is a beautiful moon out as we pull the bags to the car, and the Inn’s white lights are twinkling in the darkness.  When we return next year renovations will be complete but hopefully the old lady will have retained her grandeur and elegance.

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We are on the road by 6.30 and there is a surprising amount of traffic on the road.  The inky blackness becomes diluted with the dawn, becoming royal blue before the sun takes over casting its golden rays across the flat swampy landscape of Virginia.  We have to stop briefly for a splash of gas before arriving at Richmond airport.  We unload the VW and I say a silent thank you to it for keeping me company and looking after me so well.  At the Enterprise car rental desk the clerks are surprisingly perky at this early hour, and ask where we are from and what we are doing here – on hearing that I am touring with a one-man show they promise to look up the clips on YouTube, before wishing us a good day.

Richmond airport is quiet this morning and we are very quickly checked in (my bag tipped the scales at 49) and through security.  We have a rather disappointing breakfast, accompanied by a cup of very watery tepid liquid that was given the name coffee at the counter, but which in reality is a distant relative to that beverage.

(It is unfortunate that everything today gets compared to Williamsburg, and 45 minutes behind us that delicious buffet is being laid out, as serene servers pour freshly squeezed orange juice and rich coffee to the guests lucky enough to be there).

We get to our gate and decide that our caffeine needs have yet to properly served, so Liz goes to a Caribou Coffee outlet to buy two proper cups, but the guy serving her takes an age and by the time we get them we only get a couple of sips in before boarding begins.

The flight is on one of those little regional jets, a CRJ 700ER (the name looks like a response to a rather risqué Carry-On film:  ‘OOOOH! ERRR!’). It is a full flight, but there is a remarkable amount of legroom on these little planes, and it feels quite luxurious.  In front of us sits a little girl all on her own and eventually a woman (a stranger, not her mother) takes the other seat.  They begin to chat  and the little girl, who is ,7 displays a quite remarkable maturity in her conversational ability – neither of us could ever been so confident at her age.

The flight will take us to Minneapolis and is due to last 3 hours, so I decide to try Delta’s new inflight movie service: you log onto the their Wi-Fi network, with no charge, and then select from a library of online films.  Within a few minutes I am watching The Race, a biopic of the American athlete Jesse Owens who won golds at the 1936 Munich Olympics beneath the racist glare of Hitler’s Nazi regime.  The film is superb, as is the whole Delta system.

As we fly further North so the ground beneath us turns white – just a dusting of frost at first but soon thick snow and frozen lakes: oh, yes we are definitely nearing Minnesota!

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The plane finally docks with the jet bridge and lets us disembark and instantly the blast of arctic cold hits us.  We were in Minnesota two years ago and have never experienced cold like it, and now those memories become reality once more.

On the way to baggage claim we suddenly see a large poster that could have been put there especially for Liz, and the photo op is too good to miss:

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Having collected our bags we get a tram to the car rental desks where we I ask to be upgraded to a 4WD model, as fresh snow is forecast overnight and I don’t want to be slithering about in a small saloon model.  Our new companion is a Hyundai Tucson, and it feels chunky and safe as I take it out onto the freeway.

It is around 12pm by now and I don’t have any commitments until 5.30 this afternoon, so we decide to do what all visitors to Minneapolis are encouraged to do and pay a visit to the Mall of America, which is the largest shopping mall in the USA.  We enter from the car park and at first it is just another shopping mall: brightly lit, soulless and somewhat depressing; but then we arrive at the central hub which is in fact an indoor amusement park.  Roller coasters twist, rise and plunge over our heads, while a traditional carousel gently delights the riders.  An intrepid man rides a long zip wire high above us and gigantic Lego models dominate one quarter of the space.  It is extraordinary to see and you would expect the air to be filled with screams of pleasure from the children on the rides, however it is rather strangely quiet.

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We walk through the mall, feeling rather overawed and somewhat disappointed by what we are seeing.  We find an Italian restaurant and decide to have a proper lunch, as we are not entirely sure what the evening will hold.  We both order large bowls of pasta and meatballs, which feels a suitably warming meal to counteract the blast of cold that will be hitting us again soon.

Having finished lunch we walk back through the mall, looking in a few stores on the way, but with no real enthusiasm.  I used the word soulless earlier, which is surprising for the place has sucked so many souls over the years that it must hold a surfeit of them somewhere.

I will be performing this evening at The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which is situated in the small town of Chanhassen in the outskirts of Minneapolis.  It is a 20-minute drive from the mall, and the road conditions would have brought Britain grinding to a frozen halt. Minnesotans are not fazed by a bit of snow and the roads have been ploughed and salted, so that the traffic is moving without hindrance, indeed with remarkably frightening speed.

Our hotel for the last two days of the 2016 is the Country Inn and Suites in Chanhassen, and of course it is bound to suffer in comparison with the Williamsburg Inn, but the room feels slightly dowdy , the towels a little thin and grey, the heating system a little confused (either stifling, or freezing, but never in the middle).  For all that there is plenty of room in the suite and once more we have a separate living room with comfortable sofas and chairs, as well as kitchen sink, microwave and refrigerator.

And the Country Inn and Suites has one huge advantage over Williamsburg: it boasts a guest laundry!  I know my regular readers will have become greatly concerned about my laundry needs over the past few days, but fear not, for here I can feed quarters into the trembling machines and return to the room a happy man.

My only show today is at 7 at the arboretum which is only 10 minutes way.  After a brief rest I have an energising shower and we get ready to drive through the snowy night.  I visited the arboretum for a day last year and was completely entranced by it, but this is Liz’s first visit and I hope that it is as impressive as I remember.

It is.

Even as we make our way along the long drive, there is evidence of a superb modern light installation in the grounds, the white snow illuminated in greens and oranges.  We unload the car with as much expediency as we can manage, so as not to be in the -20°C temperatures for any longer than necessary.  The main lobby of the visitor centre is a magnificent towering glass and wood hall, lavishly decorated with lights and trees.

We walk through this cathedral-like space and into the older part of the building where I am to perform, following the signs to ‘A Christamas Carol’

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We are greeted at the Snyder Room by Clarissa Pfarr who works at the centre and who has co-ordinated the three days of shows that I am doing here.  Last year when I performed here the lighting was a bit disappointing, so this year Clarissa has hired some theatre lights and had them rigged up on a balcony casting a superb light onto the stage below.

As we are chatting so Peggy Johnson arrives and hugs us both warmly.  It was Peggy who first saw me perform in Williamsburg many years ago, and who has been responsible for various shows since. Peggy encouraged the powers that be within the arboretum to bring me here and is responsible for this part of the tour; she immediately takes us under her wing and once I am settled in my luxurious spacious greenroom, takes Liz and I for a quick walk around some of the magnificent light show outside.

The installation is the work of British artist Bruce Munro who has made quite a career of featuring his work around the world.  Here he has filled the landscape with tiny lights which slowly change colour.  The light field stretches as far as the eye can see, and each section changes at different times, meaning that the entire scene is alive with light.  Pictures cannot do credit to the sheer scale of what is before us, and we are breathless with amazement (not to mention being breathless from the cold).

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We are only outside for a few minutes, but we are not hardy Minnesotans and do not have the correct clothing for these conditions.  We come back inside and spend some time admiring the lavishly stocked gift shop before returning to the green room and getting ready for the performance.

The Snyder Hall is a small venue, but Clarissa has created a lovely stage and set for me.  The doors are opened an hour before the show and cocktails are served to the guests as they chat.

I am keen to get going as I want to try my new lighter approach on the full-length script (as the Williamsburg events were around food service the scripts were shorter there).  I am slightly worried about my voice as all of the buildings here are heated with very dry air, but I drink as much water as I can and let the menthol vapour from my Fisherman’s Friends lozenges permeate my sinuses.

Clarissa welcomes the audience and then starts the music, which is being played through her iPhone.  The music is not quite loud enough and a few people in the audience don’t realise the show has started.  It is not until I stand on the stage and say ‘Marley was dead to begin with’ that full silence descends upon the room.

The secret to this new-improved show comes from the voice of the narrator.  I had become too intent on working every single syllable and giving them dramatic emphasis.  Now, I just tell the story and as in Williamsburg it works superbly.

The audience laugh and chuckle and are a delight to perform for.  The Minnesotan character is slightly more reserved and the audiences here tend to be more stoic than a typical American crowd, but their enjoyment is apparent from beginning to end.  Even though they do not stand at the end of the show I know that I have done a good job here, and this feeling is backed up by the fact that Liz gives me a big hug saying ‘The best ever!’

And now a very strange thing: no signing line!  The arboretum have decided not to offer anything for sale, so there is no formal signing session.  I stand in the lobby and audience members come up and shake my hand and congratulate me on the show, but no signing.  Within 20 minutes of the show finishing I am back in my normal clothes, and wrapping up ready to go back into the cold again. 

Liz is chatting to Peggy and some of her friends, who have seen the show in various different venues over the years, and they are a lovely bunch.  After a few photographs and many warm handshakes, Liz and I return to the car and drive back towards the hotel. 

We have a light dinner in Axel’s restaurant near the hotel, which is a very stylish venue.  I have a burger and Liz has fish fingers made from the Minnesota native fish, the Walleye.  When we are finished, we walk out into a light snow, and everything seems Christmassy at last.  There is something magical about the silence of a snowfall, and it feels as if we should be running and sliding down the main street in Bedford Falls shouting ‘Merry Christmas!’

We have had a privileged day, that started in Williamsburg and ended among the warm, generous, and stylish folk of Chanhassen.  It is a wonderful life.

 

 

A Lighter Touch

The heavy drapes in the bedroom effectively shut out the morning light, so although it feels as if it is the middle of the night when we wake, it is actually 6.30 and time for coffee.

I write for a while, before we get ready for breakfast which is served in The Regency Room and is one of the high points of the tour.  We are seated close to the wall, and it is interesting to view the room from the audience’s viewpoint.  When I am performing I am always very aware of the tables back here, but actually we are surprisingly close to the action. 

We both choose the buffet over à la carte and start off with moist creamy Bircher muesli, with a pecan and maple granola sprinkled over the top.  Scrambled eggs follow, along with bacon and sausage. I add a small croissant with raspberry jam to bring the delicious meal to a close.

Sadly we can’t linger for too long, as I have a photo shoot booked for this morning, so that Williamsburg can market my future visits (which is good news).  We go back to the room, where I get into costume and descend our staircase (a magnificent circular staircase which actually serves an entire wing, but as it leads to the door of our suite we regard it as ours.  There is a black and white photograph of the Queen making her way down the same stairs and she probably regarded it as hers too.)

The shoot is to be in the East Lounge, a really lovely function room.  The team who will be taking the pictures are gathered as we arrive and are ready to begin.  The shoot is being overseen by Jorin, the producer is Shanin, the photographer is Darnell, while his counterpart on the video camera is Ryan.  The team is completed by Charlie who is the gofer and getter.

The team are so professional and obviously very used to working together: ideas scarcely seemed to be formed in Shanin’s head when Darnell starts to create the picture she wants.  Jorin moves the light a foot this way or that and another effect is created.  I sit in a chair and read a book (which is not A Christmas Carol) while Darnell clicks away.  In the background Ryan moves silently with the steady-cam, getting the footage he needs without ever interrupting the main photo shoot.  It is truly a seamless operation.

 

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Darnell

 

 

 

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Ryan and Jorin

 

 

Now, Shanin wants pictures taken from outside, looking through the window over my shoulder.  Charlie disappears and returns with a ladder and Darnell climbs up.  Instructions are relayed to me, via Jorin at the door: ‘Hold the book higher up.  Closer to you.  Tilt you head to your left.’  Suddenly there is a squeal of delight from outside as Shanin sees that the shadow of a sprig of holly in my hat band is cast across the page.  I make sure I don’t move my head, or the book, so that the effect can be successfully captured.

 

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L-R Charlie, Darnell, Shanin, Ryan

 

With the outdoor shoot finished the team comes back inside and ask me to continue reading.  Rather than performing in my big theatrical style I just recite the words as if I were talking to a small group sat around the fire.  It is lovely to let the language do the work without battering it with acting, and I thoroughly enjoy the impromptu performance.  Liz and I chat between pictures and we both think what a lovely event it would be to do a smaller, more intimate performance in here. 

I am sat near a Christmas tree and the guests of the Inn have been encouraged to write their Christmas wishes on small cards, which are then hung for all to see.  The notes range from the laudable (‘Peace on the Earth’), to the political (‘Make America Great Again’), to the wonderfully specific (‘Can I please have 3 dog toys for my little dogs.  Merry Christmas’).

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Jorin has been keeping an eye on his watch as he is determined not to overrun the 1 hour time slot they have been allocated and sure enough at 11 o’clock it is a wrap.  Not only were the team fantastically professional and efficient, but they were also extremely nice people – there can be a lot of egos in any artistic industry, but there were none in the East Lounge today.

We say good bye and swap business cards before once more ascending into our palatial quarters, where I change and then finish off writing the blog.  We have a little time to ourselves now, so decide to stroll along Duke of Gloucester Street, the main thoroughfare of historic Williamsburg.

During the years before the Bostonians had their tea party, Williamsburg was the capital of the colony of Virginia and a centre of commerce.  As revolutionary thoughts began to stir it was here that George Washington assembled a force to take on the British.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Williamsburg fell on hard times and became just another Virginian town, but in the 1930s J D Rockefeller threw squillions of dollars at a restoration plan.  The result is the magnificent living museum which now exists here.  Along Duke of Gloucester the houses are either genuinely restored or perfectly recreated, and life carries on around, and in spite of, the many tourists. The stores are staffed by costumed reenactors who greet the visitors in period language, whilst swiping the credit cards.

A horse drawn carriage rumbles down the streets, and is pulled up next to a large cart painted in yellow and black – it looks rather like a Georgian school bus!

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We stroll, admire, take photographs and just enjoy the whole ambience of Williamsburg.  We pop into the Bruton Parish Church, where Ryan was singing last night, and look at the various President’s names that are inscribed on the ends of the pews – including John Tyler who was the incumbent when Charles Dickens visited the USA in 1842.  Tyler met Dickens at the Whitehouse, but my ancestor wasn’t terribly impressed by what he saw, commenting on the large spittoon which sat next to the President.  I ask a guide about the relevance of  Tyler’s name being here, and she explains that he hailed from just a few miles away, and attended the Bruton Church.

We reach the end of the street, and buy some sandwiches before walking back to the hotel, where we sit and eat before my afternoon show.

From a performance point of view the day is a repeat of yesterday, with a tea at 2.30 and dinner at 7. Having so enjoyed the gentle reading in the East Lounge this morning, I am keen to try something new this afternoon, as well as to integrate some suggestions from Liz, who has seen the show with metaphorically fresh eyes over the last few days.

John is back to introduce me again, and as soon as he finishes I put the first change into place: Liz has noticed that when Scrooge first appears at Marley’s funeral, and at a few other moments in the story, he is very infirm, apparently extremely elderly and hobbling his way along on his cane.  However, when he is in the office battling with his nephew and berating Bob Cratchit, he appears to be much more sprightly.  For Scrooge to be believable he has to be the same man physically throughout, so I give him a firmer step from the outset.

The other change is to lighten the narrative and to make it more like this morning’s reading, and suddenly the show is back to where it was last year – it is less ponderous and the words seem to trip lightly from my lips to the audience.  I have been aware throughout this tour that somehow I have lost a gentleness and delicacy in the storytelling, but this afternoon it has returned, and I couldn’t feel happier!

The audience are great fun and I thoroughly enjoy the whole show.  Let’s hope I can seal this memory and repeat it in the rest of my shows this year.

The Rockefeller Room is being used for dining this evening, and the staff are already preparing it, so I run back to our room to change, before returning to the lobby where the wonderfully patient group are waiting, books and programmes in hand.

When we are finished Liz and I meet up with Leroy, who used to be in charge of the Regency Room, and ran it with military precision.  For years Leroy has been threatening to retire, but we never quite believed him; however this year he has done the deed.  He has come into the hotel just to say hello, and we spend a very happy time chatting and catching up with our respective news.  Liz takes some photos of us together in front of the tree, and then she joins in and more pictures are taken.  As we chat Christine Vincent, who also used to work at the Inn, arrives with her husband Erich, and everyone is now catching up with everyone else!  Time is a little short between the shows, and we need to get back to our room for some down time before the dinner.  We say a final farewell to Leroy and leave him chatting to Christine as we head upstairs.

It is with great sadness that when Liz checks her phone we discover that none of the pictures actually took, so we have no pictorial memories of our good friend.

The gap between the shows seems shorter today, and in no time it is once again time to costume up and head for the dining room.  Ryan and his wife Jeanne are having dinner with us tonight which means good company and conversation.  We are sharing our table with three other guests from South Carolina, who are fun also.  As we eat, the conversations steers around Presidential elections and Brexit, before settling into golf, and specifically the Ryder Cup competitions, many of which our companions have travelled to watch: we are all rather jealous of them.

We are so wrapped up in our talk, that it is almost a surprise to find the banquet captain standing at my shoulder suggesting that it may be a good time to start the show, if it’s not too much trouble!  Ryan makes a short introduction while I wrap the scarf around my neck and put the top hat on my head, and almost before I know it the music is playing and I am in character.

I try to replicate this afternoon’s lighter and pacier narration of the story and things seem to move through well again.  The audience is attentive, although not boisterous and some of the interactive scenes are hard work (they seem to be particularly unimpressed by Mrs Cratchit’s cannonball-like pudding), but on the whole it is a lovely show and I am very pleased with the progress that I have made today. 

I make my run through the elegant corridors of the hotel back to the room, so that I can get into my dry costume for the signing.  As I make my way I undo my cravat, unbutton my waistcoat and unclip my braces (ascot, vest and suspenders for those reading on the western edge of the Atlantic), so that by the time I am at our suite I can change quickly.  By the time I get back to the lobby the line has already formed.  I return my microphone to Donald, and thank him for all of his help over the four performances, and then go to my desk, where the session starts.  Liz is sat on a sofa chatting with Ryan and Jeanne, and watches me as I sign.  Every so often our eyes meet and we exchange a ‘it-would-be-nice-to-be-together-now’ glance, but the signing is just as an important part of the performance as remembering the lines, and I have always greatly enjoyed meeting the audiences when a show has finished.

People are fulsome in their praise tonight, and it is with a happy heart, although a rather weary body, that I eventually join Liz, Ryan, Jeanne, Christine and Erich on the sofa.  Normally we would all repair to the little bar, but we have an early start in the morning and will need to pack for a flight to Minneapolis, and the final venue on this year’s trip.

We make our excuses, say our goodbyes, promise to meet up again next year, and return to the room. 

Our last night coddled in the warm embrace of Williamsburg will be a sadly short one.