Today I will have two shows, but the first isn’t until 2 so I still have a morning to myself.  I avail myself of the delicious French Roast coffee from the Keurig pod, and spend some time in bed writing.

At about 8.30 I go down to breakfast, stopping by the front desk on the way.  I had dropped a couple of shirts off yesterday to be laundered and they have not re-appeared in my room.  The girl behind the desk searches for them, only to discover that the laundry was never collected yesterday and so my shirts are still sitting, scrunched up in their bag, beneath the counter.  Oh dear: first black mark for The Beechwood.

A cooked breakfast soon drives any negative thoughts away and half an hour later I am in the best of moods with the hotel again.

I spend the rest of the morning going over the lines for the two act version, which needs to be ready in three days.

The day is bright and clear and I decide to get into my car early and explore a little.  I iron a couple of shirts for the shows and get into my car.

Before setting off I try to connect my phone to the car’s ‘entertainment system’ (cars don’t just have a radio these days), but all of my best efforts fail:  the USB socket gives power, but the only thing it seems to want to play through the speakers is my voiceover introduction to Great Expectations, which repeats on a never ending loop.

When I try to put music on….nothing.

There is no little audio jack socket in the unit, only those big red, yellow and white sockets that TVs have.  No good.

I even manage to sync my phone to the car, but still it won’t play music.  Very frustrating indeed.

I drive through the outskirts of Worcester in silence.

As I drive along the freeway I look across at the old mill buildings of the city, which nestle in with modern convention centres and glass-sided teaching hospitals.  In the centre of town is the old railway station, which, with its white twin domed towers, is reminiscent of the much missed Wembley football stadium.

I have a particular destination in mind for my exploration this morning.  It is a place that I have seen signs to during my six years driving to and from the Vaillancourts.  It is a place that I have never been brave enough to seek out. Today, however, in the bright sun, under the blue skies, I am at last going to visit Purgatory Chasm.

I leave the relative safety of the freeway and take Purgatory Road.

Purgatory Chasm is a State Reserve, with walking trails winding through the woodland.  Through the centre of the reserve, the chasm slices through the earth, reaching a depth of seventy feet in places.

Today the whole scene is like a Christmas Card – fir trees covered with white snow surround the car park.  I still have plenty of time in hand, so decide to walk through the woods for a while.

You think?

You think?

I lock the car up, take my camera with me and head towards the chasm.  Which is closed.  ‘Purgatory is Closed’:  well, I suppose that’s a good thing!

I pick up a map of the walking trails and marvel at some of the names of the view points along the chasm: ‘Fat Man’s Misery’, ‘Devil’s Coffin’, ‘Devil’s Pulpit’ and ‘Lover’s Leap’ are some of the more lurid sounding ones.

In honour of my ancestor I take ‘Charley’s Loop Trail’ and spend a beautiful hour breathing in the clear, fresh air and just enjoying the peace and solitude of the woods.

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A slight thaw is in progress and I can hear dripping throughout the forest.  It is like being in Narnia as the White Witch’s power wanes, and Aslan is once more on the move.

I wouldn’t be surprised to meet Mr Tumnus on my walk.

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Through the Wardrobe

Through the Wardrobe

I have to return to reality, however and make my way back through the woods and to the car.

It is only ten minutes to the Manchaug Mill buildings, where the Vaillancourts are based and soon I am in the familiar surroundings of my dressing room and the theatre itself.

Randy is there and we do another sound check.  It is interesting to talk with him, as he was watching the show for the first time last night.  He sees it from a technical point of view and suggests that in the future the chandelier above the stage (which doubles as the Ghost of Christmas Present’s torch), should be wired into a dimmer switch, as it is just slightly too bright at present.  He stops generously short of saying that there is a glare from the top of my head.

His suggestion puts an idea into my head:  If we had the dimmer switch on stage, maybe disguised on the mantel shelf, then I could control the brightness during the show itself – bright for Present and then dim it right down for Future, before bringing it back for the end.  It could work.

For now however there is a show to worry about.  I go back to my dressing room and relax until I can hear the audience being seated, at which time I get into costume and get ready to perform.

The usual routine is followed: musicians, trivia, introduction and I am on stage.  It is a full house this afternoon and oh, my word, what an audience!  They are certainly here to be entertained, and they give me as much as I give them.

It is an amazing show, the type of which only happens a few times during a tour. A very good test as to how involved an audience is with the story, is when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to the Cratchit household: ‘It was quiet.  Very quiet.’  If anyone in the audience had a pin, which they accidentally dropped, I could have heard it.

The ovation, when it comes, is for all of us today.  As a group we have created an incredible atmosphere and told a great story.

I towel down and change as quickly as I can, before joining Gary in the store where a long signing line winds through the many Santas, who all look on approvingly.

A show like that is incredibly energising when it is actually happening, and the buzz afterwards is amazing, but there will be inevitably be a downside and I am all too aware that I must be up again for the evening crowd.

I go back to the dressing room and try to calm down gently.  I hang my costumes up, re-set the stage with my hat, scarf and cane and then sit quietly with my thoughts.

I have made some changes to the show over the last few weeks, and I am very pleased with the way they are working.

Most of the tweaks are just a way of re-phrasing some dialogue.  For instance, when Scrooge dismisses the charity collector on Christmas Eve, I used to have him being almost violent, as he ranted: ‘If they would rather die, then they had better DO IT, AND DECREASE THE SURPLUS POPULATION. GOOD AFTERNOON SIR!’

In the 2014 version, I have Scrooge sit back at his desk while he delivers the line.  He is wrapped up in his business and the tone is dismissive, rather than angry.  Somehow it feels much more powerful to see his complete indifference to the problems of the poor.

There is one other change, this time a movement, about which I am so happy, I can hardly tell you.

For years I have struggled with the final moments of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  He has always been in the wrong place on the stage.  I need Scrooge to wake up looking at his bed, but the Spirit has always been behind him, necessitating a very clumsy swivel to get back to the ‘bedroom’

I’ve tried so many ways of getting the two characters in the correct juxtaposition with a complete lack of success.  Until a few days ago it suddenly came to me.  Instead of having the Spirit pointing the way to the Churchyard, he now beckons, moving backwards.  By doing that, he is magically next to the bed as he ‘shrinks, collapses and dwindles down’.

An audience probably never notices these things, but it is solving problems like that which keeps me focused and engaged with the performance, twenty one years after I first brought it to the stage.

I am awoken from my thoughts by Gary announcing that dinner is once again served and I have a delicious soup, accompanied by some salad, followed by a plate of fruit.  Delicious, as ever.

With two hours to go before the evening show I go back to my dressing room, take off my shoes and stretch out on the sofa.  I open the music player of my phone and listen to Liz playing four Joplin rags, and my favourite performance of hers, Rhapsody in Blue. As my eyes close, it is as if I am back in North Avenue: I feel very, very close to her.  Music is a wonderful thing.

Relaxing

Relaxing

I nap for a while, but the growing murmur from the shop floor tells me that the second audience is gathering, and I need to get myself ready.

After the excitement of the afternoon’s show, the evening one seems harder work.  The audience are not as responsive tonight, and I feel slightly strained in my performance.  I try not to over-compensate, but everything feels a bit tense and tight.

I am not sure about the show but when I deliver the final line, the ovation is unbelievable!  The audience are on their feet before I’ve even left the stage, and there are ‘WHHOOOPs’ and ‘YEAHHHHs’ and other strange noises more akin to a football field.  It is an extraordinary reception.  I can’t quite believe it and feel a little stunned as I take my bows.  It just goes to show: what do I know?

The audience’s enthusiasm continues through the signing line and people shake me warmly by the hand and pose for pictures.  Alarmingly, one lady asks me to say Topper’s line ‘Helllooooooo’ as we pose for a photograph together.

And so my time with the Vaillancourts is over once more.  I pack up all of my belongings and load them into the car, before saying my goodbyes to everyone in the store.

Gary, Judi and Luke are joining me at the hotel again, for our wind-down late supper  session.

We sit in a booth and the conversation roams around the day’s events, but Gary, ever the entrepreneur, is busy trying to think of things to do next year: how to have different shows, how to market them.

I suggest a special exclusive event for audience members who have signed up to a package of shows, in which I can talk about the background of creating the show and share some of the tricks of the trade.

Somehow, and I have no idea how, that idea turns into a coach tour of Dickens sites in England, which I would host.

That is all in the future, however but now, in the present I am feeling past it.  It is definitely time for bed.

As always with the Vaillancourts it has been a fun-packed, exciting time.  I give them all hugs, we say ‘goodbye’ and I make my way back to the room, where the adrenaline finally gives up the ghost.

NB:  Liz’s CD: ‘Gershwin: New York Connections’ is available to download via iTunes and Play Store.

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