Friday October 2

I wake up in the Sheraton, In Columbia, at a thoroughly reasonable 5.30 am.   It is usual, when I first arrive in America, to see 3.30, 4, 4.30, so this is a luxurious lie-in for me.

Today marks my first performances of this mini tour and I am looking forward to performing Great Expectations for the first time on American soil, even though the first show is at 10 o’clock, which is terribly early to get the voice going.

Yesterday was spent going over the lines for Great Ex in my hotel room. Fortunately the weather was terrible, with unremitting heavy rain from dawn until dusk (and I assume either side of those events), so being confined to my room was no great hardship.

I had driven over to Slyaton House during the afternoon to meet with the technical staff who would be overseeing my show. Fran, Sue, Steve and Dale couldn’t do enough for me. They ‘built’ Miss Havisham (a seven foot high wooden frame, draped with white fabric), and diligently focussed and plotted lights. Great Expectations is the only one of my shows that requires specific lighting, and I sat for an hour in the lighting box, working through the script as Fran and Sue tapped away at a keyboard to record all of the cues – and there are a great many.

Theatres are great places to explore, and backstage at the Slayton House Theatre I discovered an Aladdin’s cave of old pieces of furniture and props from long-forgotten productions.

Aladdin's Cave

Aladdin’s Cave

Oregon

It was while I was finishing up in the theatre that I heard about the latest college shooting in Oregon.

‘The latest’….how terrible are those two words?

How long must we wait, how many innocent lives will be lost, how many grieving parents must we be forced to watch on the news channels, how many bunches of flowers with candles flickering between them must we see, how many yearbook pictures, how many aerial shots of a campus with captions overlaid, how many photographs taken in a bedroom of a cock-sure lunatic brandishing a gun? How much longer can this slaughter continue before something is done?

The sad and terrible fact is that the wait will most likely go on and on and on. I’m sure that this will not be the last time that I write ‘the latest’.

Two years ago I met with Darren Wagner whose children attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. – another community ripped apart by a lone gunman. At the time I was impressed by his positivity and energy to bring the community back together and fight for tighter gun control laws. Now there will be another Darren in Oregon battling with grief, desperate to get something done.

I am aware that a few ranting lines from me will have no effect on anything but, please America: take action – take the RIGHT action now.

Great Expectations

The world keeps turning and lives go on. For me I have to get up and ready for my shows. The theatre is only ten minutes away from my hotel, so I have plenty of time to breakfast, shower, iron (oh, how you have missed those words!) and pack my costumes.

Slayton House is open and being prepared for the ‘British Invasion’ festival, of which I am a part. In the lobby there is a full sized cardboard cut out of a British phone box, apparently sourced from the British Embassy in DC. Even the weather makes me feel at home. The director of the festival , Dave Simmons, is there bustling around – a man of energy and adrenaline!

The crew are ready to go and I set the stage, while Fran and Sue work through the lighting cues again to check that everything was saved correctly. They find a slight discrepancy towards the end of the show, and we go through the script again to re-plot those cues.

Back stage a very kindly lady is looking after the green room and lays out a magnificent spread of fruit, soda, coffee, cookies, muffins, chips (crisps) chocolate and more. She seems a bit put out when I say that plenty of water is all I need.

It does seem to be a huge amount of treats for little old me, but I soon realise that the festival has taken over the Slayton House Community Center and the day will be filled with multiple events.

Unfortunately the 10 o’clock show will be played to a very small audience. The original plan was to take the show into one of the local schools, but the date clashed with a major schools meeting and nothing could be done. The result is that we are expecting a meagre 22. However, each of them has invested not only their money, but their time too and therefore deserve as much energy and commitment as a full house does.

To be honest, I am quite nervous about Great Expectations: It is a much darker and more intense show than those that I regularly perform, and laughs are scarce, to be sure. It requires a great deal of commitment and concentration from the audience and runs the length of a Broadway show. In the UK I have discovered that those who come to see it tend to be fans of the novel and therefore bring a degree of passion and knowledge with them: will it be the same in America or will the audience be made up of curious festival goers who are keen to see the great novelist’s descendent. We shall see.

Miss Havisham looks on

Miss Havisham looks on

As the start time approaches I pace the halls behind the stage, go into the wings and try to ‘feel’ the audience from their chat and conversation, of which there is very little. I return to my hall pacing.

Steve is the stage manager for the event and he comes to fetch me. We are ready to go.  The lights dim to black and the recorded voiceover, featuring the opening passages of the novel, plays into the darkened auditorium. And now it is time for my entrance…..

The show goes very well and the audience seem fully engaged. It is an intense silence of concentration, rather than a shuffling silence of boredom. I am very pleased. There is good applause at the end of the first act as Pip sets off to begin his new life in London.

The second act is darker still and yet more complicated to follow, but the audience are there with me every minute of the way. When the final black out enshrouds Pip and Estella as they walk into their uncertain future, the applause is remarkably generous for such a small gathering and as I return to the stage to take my bow there is whistling and whooping. Phew.

I return to my dressing room and am amazed to discover that it is not yet noon. I had completely forgotten that this was a morning performance, and fully expected the skies to be dark outside.

I pack up my things, as there is to be a rock band on stage now, and head back to the hotel, buying a salad for my lunch on the way.

The afternoon is spent resting, and going through the lines of Doctor Marigold, which I am due to perform tomorrow evening. As I am rehearsing I remember an actor friend of mine asking ‘how many hours do you have memorized?’ It’s a good question and I hope that pushing Marigold into my limited memory banks doesn’t drive Great Ex out before the evening show.

At around five-thirty I return to Slayton House and everything is busier. David is running here and there, as are other members of the organising group. There is a lecture taking place about the British explorer Ernest Shackleton and another band, who will be performing after me, has just finished their sound check on the stage.

I set up the stage again and sit in the quiet of the auditorium chatting to the crew, as they munch egg sandwiches, garnished with little Union Flags.

Proud to be British!

Proud to be British!

We chat and Dale philosophises that Charles Dickens planted his novels all those years ago and now I am nurturing them and spreading them: ‘Dude,’ he says, ‘you are truly a word farmer’ and nods profoundly.  And with that, it is time to farm.

The crew: l-r: Sue, Fran, Steve, Dale and David

The crew: l-r: Sue, Fran, Steve, Dale and David

This evening’s audience promises to be much larger than this morning’s and soon more seats are being laid out, which is a good sign. With thirty minutes to go I get into costume, check the stage one final time and commence my back-stage pacing once more.

Ready to Farm

Ready to Farm

The show is even more intense than this morning’s and I can feel myself pushing hard; trying to capture every emotion in every scene. Once again the audience are well involved in the story, and once again the applause is generous with accompanying whistles and cheers.

When I get back to my dressing room the band who are up next have already moved in, so I get changed and pack my things up quickly, leaving the evening to them.

In the lobby plenty of audience members are milling about chatting about the show. Among them are Bob and Pam Byers who have driven down from Philadelphia to see me, which is so generous of them. As we are all staying in the same hotel we say our goodbyes to as many of the folks from British Invasion as we can find and head back to the Sheraton in convoy

There is time for a drink in the bar and we have a lovely time chatting and catching up: they admire the wedding pictures and we discuss plans for future events and tours: venues are already seeking dates for the 2016 trip.

As time goes on the effort of two Great Expectations (two Great Expectationses?) begins to takes its toll and it is time for bed.

I can sleep soundly in the knowledge that Great Expectations has worked!

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