Having returned from America I had one day at home, relaxing before the tour continued on British soil. This is the story of a remarkable 4 days:

Wednesday: Faith and Narnia

Today I am to reunite with a remarkable team of people who are all working on a remarkable script.  Dennis Babcock, a good friend of many years standing and also a theatre producer, has long had it in mind to develop a one man show based on Charles Dickens’s little book, written for his children: ‘The Life of our Lord’. Dennis is a keen Dickensian, a lover of theatre and a devout Christian: the perfect mix for passions and talents to lead such a project.

4 years ago he decided that the time was right to begin, so he contacted well known American playwright and screenwriter, Jeffrey Hatcher, to come up with a way of telling the story of Dickens’s decision to write the story and to show how he achieved it.

Through a curious chain of events and conversations Dennis was put it touch with Dr Gary Colledge who had written his PhD on ‘Dickens, Christ and The Life of our Lord’ and who has gone on to write a second book concerning ‘God and Charles Dickens’. The perfect academic to advise on the theological aspect of the project.

Through his many theatrical enterprises over the years Dennis has met a huge number of theatre folk, including British PR guru Paul Savidant whose contact list is eye watering.  A no nonsense straight talker who knows what it takes to make a show work in a the commercial and cut throat world of theatre.

And me.

Welcome, therefore, to the team of ‘Faith’

When we last met in May The entire team spent 2 days together in Minnesota to stage a series of rehearsed ‘readings’ of the script so that Dennis, Jeffrey and Gary could get some idea as to how the show actually worked on stage: what needed changing, omitting, including and editing. By the last of those 4 readings we had found a version of the  script that worked well.  Although there were a few little tweaks that could be made here and there……

6 months on and Dennis now wants to give ‘Faith’ an airing in London, to build interest here and also to encourage investors to come aboard, so he has arranged for 2 days of performances in the Capital.

Firstly however the team meets to catch up, near my home in Oxford. Dennis has managed to secure a space in The Kilns, the home of CS Lewis, creator of the Narnia novels. I get to the house first and a few minutes later the rest of the team arrives. It is good to see everyone again.

After a brief tour of the house by the owners, we sit around the table and begin a reading. The show is in 2 acts and runs for about 90 minutes. The first act, which deals with the incidents that lead Dickens to write the story, works well and hasn’t really been touched since May.  The second act, relating to the story itself, is giving us trouble. Somehow the revisions that Jeffrey have made haven’t quite worked and the 2nd half seems unwieldy now. We finish at about 7 and then have a long discussion with the Lewis group about the show and once more Jeffrey has a sheaf of notes to convert over the next 2 days.

I drop the team off at Oxford rail station and we say our goodbyes ready to meet up again in 2 days in London. Then it is home to Liz and a curry in front of the TV: a wonderful relaxing evening. At last!

Thursday: Baldock

Today it is back to A Christmas Carol as I am to perform at the Knights Templar School in Baldock, Hertfordshire.  A few years ago at one of my shows I met a teacher, Glenn Christodoulou, who thought it would be a great idea for me to come into his school and perform for the students, as well as the parents.

For the last 4 years, as the American tours have allowed, I have been travelling to Baldock, usually jet lagged, to perform. This year there is a bonus as Liz isn’t working and can come with me. It will be the only time this season that she will get to see me perform A Christmas Carol.

We arrive at the school and are greeted by Glenn who plies us with coffee and then a light lunch before getting ready for the first performance to the year 8s (12 year olds). The 200 kids pile into the school hall creating the noise that only 200 12 years olds can create.

I have to concentrate very hard on this show, as due to the school timetable I have to run for an hour, instead of the usual 80 minutes. That means remembering to cut out the charity collector, the carol singer and all sorts of other little phrases and scenes along the way. Having just perfected the show in the USA, this requires a great effort and I mustn’t run on automatic pilot. Fortunately for me there is a clock on the back wall of the hall, so I can monitor my progress.
At the start of the show I edit like crazy but the clock tells me I’ve gone too far and am likely to finish in 40 minutes so I start editing scenes back in again as the story reaches its second half.  I hit the ‘God Bless Us, Every One’ finish line bang on the hour!

For 12 year olds they are remarkably attentive, a really quiet group, although being 12 there is plenty of sniggering every time I say the word ‘breast’, whether it is describing the Ghost of Christmas Present’s robe hanging so loosely that ‘Its capacious breast was bare!’, or simply describing Mrs Cratchit carving the goose: ‘she plunged the knife deep into the breast….’. Oh well, I’m sure I was the same at 12.

After a brief break we all pile into Glenn’s car to visit a nearby book shop and sign a few copies for their stock before having dinner at The George IV pub.

Back to the school and time to prepare for the evening performance for the general public. We get there at about 6.45 for a 7.30 show and the audience has already begun to arrive! Actually my brother, Ian and his wife Anne have arrived and soon they are joined by their friends. Another audience member arrives: Gary Colledge, who has travelled by train to London to catch the show too. At the moment the entire crowd is made up of my family and friends.

As the audience roll in I have to once more think about the show and take the opportunity to go over a few lines to myself. This is to be a new version, in 2 acts with a few more scenes added in: more of the Jacob Marley scene, more at Scrooge’s school, more at the Cratchit’s Christmas Lunch. I am really pleased with the additions; they make the show more complete and fill in some holes in the plot that exist in the 80 minute version. Frustratingly I will only be performing it twice when I return to America but it is nice to develop something that I’ve been living with for so many years.

The show gets off to a bit of a messy start in that backstage I am suddenly aware that the audience has gone quiet. I make my way into the wings and see with horror that the house lights are down and there is light on the stage. There is a nervous shuffling and even some giggles from the auditorium.  Oh! I realise that Glenn must have made my introduction without checking I was ready in the wings, so I march to centre stage, trying to look as if this is all part of the show. The centre spot light comes up and I begin: ‘I have endeavoured, in this ghostly little book, to raise the ghost of an idea……’ and so I am off once more but not a very convincing start to the proceedings.

At the end of Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past, the lights fade to black and it is interval time. Glenn is backstage and it turns out that our lighting guy brought the lights down, thinking that Glenn was going to the stage to make an introduction,  just as Glenn went outside to check there were no more audience members waiting to come in. This was the precise  moment that  I came to the stage, panicked and began.    Glenn, meanwhile was ready to make his announcement and discovered that I’d started without him!

The second act is the dramatic one, the pain of the Cratchits and the terror of Scrooge. The audience are right there, living every moment, crying and laughing and at the end there is generous applause.

Unlike the USA shows, there is no formal signing session planned but there are a number of people waiting outside the dressing room with programmes and books. Liz is there, Ian and Anne with their friends are there and Gary is there. We all have hugs and then it is time to pack up and away.

It is almost a 2 hour drive and both Liz and I are very tired. The traffic is light at that time of the night and we are home before midnight and gratefully falling into bed.

Friday: Sidney McSprokett and Faith

On Friday morning I have to drive into London to perform 4 staged readings of Faith. I get my costumes and bags packed and get onto the road by 9.30. Just before I leave an email comes in from Jeffrey with the latest changes to the troublesome 2nd act. I print and bind them before driving towards London.  Fortunately there is heavy traffic and I’m able to peruse the alterations whilst sat stationary in the sprawl of London.

As I start to approach  the suburbs it strikes me how different the city driving styles are between America and England. I’m sure it is not the case but there seems to be very little, what we call, road rage in the USA.

If someone is cut up or forced to brake, well, they just brake and swerve. In London every move is aggressive, every gap to be fought over. Every victory celebrated with an arrogant burst of acceleration. Every loss angrily hooted by the cars behind. I am as guilty as anyone; it is true Darwinian survival of the fittest out there.

I make it into Central London at 11 and leave my car in a garage near Marble Arch before getting onto the tube to take me to my first appointment. This has nothing to do with ‘Faith’

For many years I have been recording the complete works of Charles Dickens as unabridged audio books. I work with a small production company in Soho called Create Media. Create also is the home of Fun FM, a digital radio station specifically for young children. One feature on Fun is a regular spot to encourage kids to show an interest in science and engineering.  It is hosted by a mad Scottish professor, Sidney McSprokett. He, if truth be told, is a bit mad.

Ladies and gentlemen, I unveil Sidney McSprokett: ME!

Today we have 5 short scripts to record and it only takes about half an hour.  It is very silly and such fun being so different to anything else that I do. The next time I will be in the studio will be to put the finishing touches to Barnaby Rudge.

Create Studio

Create Studio

Mad, Scottish McSprokett out of the way I have to recalibrate and make myself Charles Dickens once more. I get a cab to the Jermyn Street Theatre, just off Picadilly. The cabby is a exactly what you’d expect of the breed and keeps up a nonstop dialogue, complaining about the traffic, the state of the roads in London and the best efforts of the mayor to drive cars out of the city once and for all: ‘Boris! It’s all Boris, aint it? Eh? He wants to fill London with bikes, that’s what he’s doing. I ask you. Look, there, at them rickshaws, that’s what he wants aint it? Fill London with rickshaws. I ask you? Would YOU want to be in a rickshaw in this weather? I wouldn’t! Oh, and the Olympics, don’t get me started on the Olympics…..’ so, I don’t.

At the Jermyn Street Theatre huddled on the pavement are Dennis, Gary and Paul. Jeffery had taken Dennis’s wife, Ann, for a coffee and we have to wait until a small theatre workshop has finished on the stage. The Jermyn Street theatre is a tiny underground studio space and there is nowhere inside to congregate if the stage is being used but the manager is concerned for my performer’s throat and lets me stand in the box office, which is really the ‘bottom of the stairs’

The first London reading is to the industry and invitations have been sent to producers, bookers, actors, directors and agents. The audience isn’t huge on a wet Friday afternoon, but they certainly appreciate the show.

The reading goes well and Jeffrey’s changes have started to tighten up that 2nd half again. The audience are very generous in the praise about my performance (which is really only a slightly animated reading, we certainly haven’t done any directorial work on it at all).

Jeffrey Holland who appeared in the British Sitcom Hi-de-Hi is there with his wife and they are very keen. We chat for a while about his own one- man show based on Stan Laurel before it is time to move on out.

I have a little time to get back to my ‘club’ (rather a grand sounding title for where I am staying. But it is in the centre of London and very comfortable), drop my bags have a brief rest before heading over to the Dickens House Museum for the evening’s reading.

My cabby this time is another example of the breed, but this time in a fantastically positive way.  The direct route is Oxford Street, Piccadilly , The Strand, but it is 5pm, it will be choc a bloc.  But we dive into quiet squares and mews, avoiding the traffic and getting to the museum wonderfully early.  Not a rickshaw in sight!

The performance tonight is for a very select bunch of potential investors. People who have supported Dennis before and, of course, who he hopes will support him again.

We are performing in the newly renovated and very impressive museum housed at 48 Doughty Street, where Charles lived early on in his career, at about the time he was writing Nickleby. It certainly adds a sense of connection to the piece.

After a brief cocktail and canapé reception Dennis welcomes everyone with his speech about the show. He explains that this is still a reading, not a performance. This is all part of the writing process. Boy is it: Jeffery having given me new cuts and alterations just before we start.

Dennis’s analogy is that if we were an artist setting out to paint the Mona Lisa, the stage we are currently at is the equivalent to seeing a pencil sketch. It may be a woman. Possibly she is smiling.

The group go off on a tour of the house and I change to be able to greet them as they file into the very intimate board room, where the chairs are laid out, lighting is subdued and the ‘stage’ is as close to them as you are to your computer.

I have to say that of all the readings of Faith this isn’t my best. I take a while to get into it and I’m still trying to work my way round the scribbled additions in the margins. But I must remember it is NOT about me! It is about the script, the show, the future.

After we are finished we all go downstairs where a catering company have laid on a sumptuous dinner and we chat and share stories. It is a very pleasant evening.

When the guests have gone the team pile into 2 taxis and go to Dennis’s favourite watering hole: PJs in Covent Garden. I am in a taxi with Paul and Jeffery. Paul (London based), tells the cabby where we are going.

Dennis, Ann and Gary are in the other cab: All American. The Brits get there in 10 minutes for a fare of £10. The Yanks get there in 20 minutes paying £15. When in London, my American friends, best perfect your Dick Van Dyke Mary Poppins accent……

After a couple of wind down drinks we all drift our separate ways to clubs, hotels and homes.

Saturday: The Oak Room

One more day living with ‘Faith’. One more day of trying to put some colour into The Mona Lisa.

Nothing is due to happen until this afternoon so I am able to have a very lazy day, late breakfast, stroll around Oxford Street and Marble Arch. Do very little which is very nice.

Today our 2 readings are for the general public in the grand surroundings of The Oak Room in The Hospital Club, near Covent Garden.  I arrive at 1.30 and it is a very stylish room, with a stage and lighting at one end, but still very intimate.

The Oak Room.  L-R Dennis, Gary and Paul.  Jeffery is presumably making some last minute script alterations!

The Oak Room. L-R Dennis, Paul and Gary. Jeffery is presumably making some last minute script alterations!

However. We have a panic.

Yesterday one of Paul’s contacts, from The Really Useful Group, who had been at the industry reading, had wanted to see the script. Paul picked mine up at the Museum and gave it to him. Unfortunately that was the only copy we had with all of the new additions in it. As 2.30 approaches Jeffery and I are hurriedly going through the script again, trying to remember what we had done, re creating yesterday’s script.

We only get half of it done, but at least we can get on with the first act and regroup in the interval.

Dennis makes his introduction, talks about the Mona Lisa, welcomes me to the stage, reads the opening stage direction and : ‘Disagreeable evening. Lost an argument with Swinburne over the meaning of Christ and the existence of God….’

It is one of the best shows we’ve done. Everything seems to work well. The timing is excellent, the room is excellent, the audience ( an excellent sized audience), is excellent. We have a brief Q&A after the show and there are some very valid comments, but really we are getting to the stage where Dennis needs to finalise a script. Otherwise we will keep tweaking it as a result of every comment from every audience. That pencil sketch must start to have some depth.

We have about an hour between shows, during which Jeffrey and I huddle down again to make a few more changes that came to him during the last reading.

Another goodly sized audience arrives, including Liz who has come down to London to join us all.

Oak Room take 2. Another good show and more comments during the Q&A afterwards. In this audience is one of the leading Dickens scholars on the planet, Michael Slater and he is generous and fulsome in his praise both for the piece and my performance of it, which is very gratifying.

When the evening is done we all make our way to the team hotel in Leicester Square, where Dennis, Ann, Gary and Jeffery are staying. We have a lovely dinner in an Italian restaurant, say our goodbyes and drift away into the night.

I don’t know what the next step will be for ‘Faith’ (actually one comment this afternoon concerned the name. Paul came up with a brilliant alternative: ‘To Begin With’).

Dennis will go back to Minneapolis and work with Jeffrey. I have no part in the writing, so I will wait and see if I am to be involved in the future of the project.

It has been an immensely interesting time, working with this creative team. As most of my work is very solitary both in the writing and the creation of a new show, it has been great fun to sit down with Jeffery, take the advice of Dennis, discuss the character of Dickens with Gary and talk about the theatrical possibilities with Paul. However it is definitely time for the script to move onto the next stage, to settle on a final version and to prepare it for whichever audience will come to see it. The Mona Lisa will begin to smile now.

For me it is 2 days at home before boarding the same flight I took to Boston 2 weeks ago.  On the Friday after Thanksgiving I will stand on the stage of the Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Mass. On the same stage where Charles Dickens stood.  I will look out into the same hall and I will say the same words:  ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’.  The second part of the 2013 tour will have begun.

See you there.

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