I lay in bed in a world somewhere between sleep and reality, but am brought fully into the latter state by my phone bleeping at me.
I have a message from Liverpool asking me to urgently answer a series of questions for a newspaper article promoting my shows in the city before Christmas. The deadline is in an hour. Maybe even a day’s warning would have been good?
I make a coffee and work through the questions one by one in the hope that, even in my drowsy state, I come up with something approaching intelligent.
Now fully awake I start to think about the day ahead. Firstly, it is another laundry day. They seem to be coming around with alarming regularity on this trip. As there is no guest laundry in this hotel I need to bag up all of my shirts and get them down to the front desk.
I have my breakfast in the restaurant, which is very nice and I am lucky to have a very cheerful and chatty server.
As I leave the restaurant there is a family (parents, one child), sat in a booth. They seem to having a moment of reflection together, all sat at the table with the heads bowed, as though in prayer. That is nice, I think, until I walk past the table and see that they are all intently using their smart phones. Welcome to the new religion.
Back in my room I lay out my costumes and props for the day’s events and then get dressed ready to meet Lee in the lobby at 9.30. As I prepare to leave, I give a thought to my friends in Norfolk, VA: Dickens Christmas Towne is due to open today and I wish them all well.
Lee is waiting, and we set off for my first commitment of the day, which is an hour’s signing appearance in a shopping mall.
The day is bright and clear and the roads are quiet. But, as we drive, we pass a number of serious looking car wrecks. Smashed up fronts; dented side panels; police officers talking earnestly into their radios. There is obviously something in the air today.
The event is in The Regency Mall, which is small and seems to have nice, exclusive stores. It is so exclusive that there is nobody here, although the stores themselves don’t open until 10am. Kathy is setting up, as well as a few other folks: some from the mall itself, some from the Historical Society.
As there is no action at the signing table, Lee suggests that we get a coffee from the Paradise Café, which is bustling. It is a remarkable place, serving all sorts of exciting sounding fare: Pancrepes and Quiche Muffins among them.
Lee’s motives for bringing me here are not purely caffeine related, as a man in Victorian costume attracts lots of attention and hopefully a few of the patrons will come by the signing later on.
At the moment however the table sits forlornly in the middle of the mall, next to Santa’s magnificent throne.
A couple arrive, and I recognise Nancy as a fan from previous years. She is here with her brother Skip. It turns out that Skip is married to one of the helpers, Judy and he has prepared a special surprise for her.
Yesterday he was in Iowa buying antiques and found an amazing bronze door knocker featuring Charles Dickens. It is obviously old and features the bust of Dickens, surrounded by a garland of books, all of which have their titles engraved. The patina of the knocker makes reading them difficult but a professional cleaning job would reveal them all, I am sure.
Beneath Dickens’ head is the actual knocker part, which features a trio of characters: Mr Pickwick, Mr Micawber and Little Nell. When the knocker is raised it reveals the Dickens birthplace in Portsmouth.
I assume that it was a souvenir bought from the museum, sometime in the early 1900s.
Skip has also brought along a planed plank of maple wood, with a beautiful grain running through it. Although Judy does not yet know it, his plan is to mount the knocker on the wood, have me sign the bottom of it and give it to her for a Christmas present. When she realises what he is doing, she is beside herself with joy and gratitude.
It is a simple gesture by Skip, but an utterly charming one.
We all talk about the knocker and how best to clean it. The conversation lasts for quite a while, as there is nobody else in the mall!
As a result of their time with us, Skip, Judy and Nancy buy tickets for this evening’s show at the Crook House.
A few people drift up to the table, but it by no means a busy session and the hour passes quickly. Before we pack up and leave, we all have photographs taken in Santa’s chair: I’m sure there is some law about that.
From the mall we drive to the Field Club, where my afternoon show is to be. We have an appointment to meet with the sound man at 12, and get there in plenty of time.
The Field Club is a golf club, of which Lee is a member. This year, for the very first time, I have a free day while I staying in Omaha (Sunday), and it has long been the plan to play golf with Lee. I have had my golf shoes in my case for the whole trip. As we look out over the snow covered fairways, it looks as if that may be unlikely sadly.
The main function room is laid out with round tables, ready for an afternoon tea service. At one side of the room my stage is set.
Today I will be performing Doctor Marigold, which doesn’t really require any set, although I do ask if it is possible to have a low table or stool to stand on. The staff at the Field Club are very efficient, and procure a perfect little table in no time.
After the microphone has been tested, Lee takes me back to the hotel. I have to collect the props for tonight’s performance of Nicholas Nickleby and pass them on to Barney, who has been charged with finding a way of rigging up a noose for me. Yes, you did read that correctly.
While in my room I start to check emails but discover that my first day’s internet access has run out and I need to purchase another day’s worth.
Why is it that you stay in the cheapest, smallest little motels and they offer you complimentary Wifi, but as soon as you get to classier joints they charge you for it? Explanations gratefully received.
I change my waistcoat for a slightly plainer one, suitable for Marigold collect all of my Nickleby stuff, and make the long trek back to the lifts.
Lee is waiting in the car and before returning to the Field Club he drives me past the General Crook House. I happened to mention last night that in my four years of performing in Omaha, I had never seen the house in daylight.
Back at the club the guests are starting to arrive, they are all smartly dressed, many with elegant hats.
The room is now fully laid up and each setting has a delicious looking plate of sandwiches and cakes, artistically presented.
Unfortunately a button on my waistcoat has worked loose, finally giving up the ghost and dropping off. Once again the Field Club staff are up to the challenge and from somewhere a roll of gold thread and a pair of scissors is produced.
Lee says that he is the one who sews in the Phillips household and is happy to do the repair for me. Life in the military has served him well.
As the guests pour into the main room to start their tea, Lee suggests that we get a bite of lunch in ‘The Men’s Cry Room’: this is where the golfers come to after they have finished their rounds, to share their tales of woe.
I have a delicious plate of crab cakes.
The tea is progressing well and various members of the team are gathered in a little anti-room, from where we can check on progress.
Abby, Kathy’s assistant, is there, with her boyfriend, as is Mona and her husband. Mona takes extreme pride on serving tea correctly and this whole event is run to her strict rules. Each year Mona ceremoniously presents me with my ‘official’ cup of tea.
Today the event has almost been too successful as supplies of tea run out. There is a slight commotion back stage about brewing more, but Mona stands firm: there is no more, there will be no more.
With thirty minutes to go before the show itself Kathy appears and introduces me to Stephanie, who is going to interpret the show for any deaf guests.
It is a nice touch, as Doctor Marigold adopts a deaf daughter in the show, and together they develop their own sign language.
Stephanie works at the University of Nebraska Omaha, co coordinating the department which teaches young interpreters. She has come with two of the students and together they will sign for the entire show, in fifteen minute shifts.
Stephanie has watched a recording of Marigold on YouTube and has read the script. Quite frankly she is terrified at the prospect.
We chat about some of the language that Marigold uses, but there is not much time to prepare, so we just agree to see what happens.
Before the show starts Susie takes to the microphone to run through answers to a trivia quiz, based on the history of Omaha. She is magnificent, controlling the room as if she were back in the classroom teaching a group of rowdy students.
One hundred and thirty adults are brought to silence simply by a withering look from Mrs Phillips.
At one point there is a query about an answer; one of the volunteers starts to suggest that maybe it should be……
‘Glenda, do you have something to say? No? Well, let’s keep quiet then, while I continue with the answers’
As the quiz goes on Susie gets into her stride and has everyone in the palm of her hand, it is a masterful performance.
It is extraordinary how competitive people can be. There is no prize for the quiz, it is merely a bit of fun, but to watch a room of, it must be said, mainly women, pumping the air with their clenched fists on hearing that they have nailed a particular question, is quite remarkable.
Quiz over, it is time for Marigold to take over. Stephanie takes her place on the stage and I am off.
The character of Doctor Marigold captivates the whole audience and they hang on his every word.
At the end the tears are flowing and I get a long standing ovation. Stephanie and the girls have made it through unscathed too.
There is a tight turnaround between shows today, so after a short signing session, we drive over to the Crook House once more, where I will be performing The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby tonight.
Nickleby is really designed to be performed in a larger space than we have available to us, so I am not sure how well it is going to work. Barney has done a great job stringing up my noose, so that I don’t need a screen on stage – that buys me a little extra space.
I fuss around with the other furniture and arrive with a set which will work well.
The guests begin to arrive, it is a slightly smaller audience tonight, and there are many familiar faces from years past. Skip, Judy and Nancy from this morning’s signing session are there.
A group of singers station themselves on the main staircase and sing beautiful carols, beautifully.
In the room which doubles as a bar, the stuffed head of a moose looks down upon the guests.
At 7 o’clock Kathy takes the stage to introduce me. She talks about cell phones again and again, so as not to have a repetition of last night’s interruptions. In fact, two went off during Marigold this afternoon.
Nickleby is a big, physical show but it shrinks perfectly into the house’s cramped parlour. I think most of the audience are unsure what to expect from the show, but they are soon fully involved.
Barney’s noose solution works brilliantly and there is an audible gasp as it drops down from behind the wooden archway to signify the end of the evil Ralph Nickleby.
When the ovation has died away and a few questions have been answered, we all move into the next room, according to Crook custom, for another of Suzie’s creatively written toasts. We clink glasses and sip champagne before I take my place at a signing table.
It has been a very successful but tiring day, and I am glad when it is time to leave for the hotel.
I say goodnight to Susie and Lee, go to my room, change out of my costume and go to the bar where I dine on a juicy pork chop.
Tomorrow we go through it all again.