Sunday, November 29
Waking at 6 is a luxury that I haven’t been afforded for a long time, and it feels rather good. The room at The Beechwood not only boasts a Keurig coffee maker, but real china mugs, with handles too. The smallest things can make a happy start to the day.
I dress quickly and go to the restaurant for breakfast, where I have simple fare of cereal, fruit and a croissant, before returning to my room to watch the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix, which is another disappointing race, marking the end of a disappointing season.
As I watch the race, I write the blog and send emails, all of which neatly takes me to the falling of the chequered flag, and Nico Rosberg’s celebrations. I switch the TV off before the drivers get to the podium to spray whatever non-alcoholic beverage is replacing the traditional champagne.
For the next hour or so I pace around the room rehearsing Doctor Marigold, which I will be performing this evening. I correct a few minor errors, but on the whole the words come pouring out as if I have been performing it as regularly as A Christmas Carol.
With my rehearsing finished I get everything ready for the day’s shows, which doesn’t take too long as most of the costume is already hanging up back at Vaillancourts. As I leave the room and the door shuts, I suddenly realise that I have left the key cards inside. Oh well, I can get replacements at the desk, but there is a sense of such finality as that lock clicks into place.
The day is so blue, bright and clear – Worcester reminds me of California, and that can’t have been said about it very often!
The turn off to the freeway is closed from my direction, due to road works, so I drive on, knowing that I can make my way through the middle of town and pick the road up further along. My Hertz sat nav unit is very unadventurous and doesn’t want to share my new route. She keeps pleading, almost whining, ‘make a legal U-turn.’
Charles Dickens visited Worcester twice and I pass a business that may either a) have been named in honour of one of his characters; or b) inspired him: Blodgett and Blodgett: Attorney-at-Law. Wonderful!
The drive to Sutton is easy, and there are lots of cars on the roads with Christmas trees strapped to their roofs. Maybe this is where the tour will become Christmassy at last, certainly Brenda Lee thinks so as she belts out Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree from my radio.
I arrive at the sun-drenched mill buildings at around 12.30, and the first job is to spend time with Gary and his travel agent Alden to work out a few details about the tour which they are bringing to England next Summer.
I will be joining the group for two days: one in London and one in Kent, and this is an opportunity to discuss where we can visit. The London day will be centred on Dickens’s grave at Westminster Abbey and the Museum in Doughty Street. I also suggest a visit to the Borough of Southwark, south of the river, where Charles’s father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison.
The Inns of Court will make a good walking tour and we can end up on The Strand, where Dickens worked in Warren’s Blacking Factory. There is a blue plaque to mark the site, and it proudly proclaims that ‘Charles Dickens, novelist, worked here as a child.’; which seeing as it is fixed to a TGI Friday’s restaurant, conjures up all sorts of strange images!
For lunch I think we have a choice of three fine establishments: The Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street (mentioned extensively in A Tale of Two Cities); Rules in Covent Garden (which has a Charles Dickens private dining room); and of course our old family favourite The George and Vulture in the heart of the city, roughly on the site of Ebenezer Scrooge’s counting house.
The group will be staying in a London hotel and Liz will be joining me, so that we can perform together. I check with Alden that the hotel in question has a piano and he confirms that it does.
On to Kent: Gad’s Hill Place, The Historic Dockyard, Rochester High Street and the Cooling Marshes where the opening chapters of Great Expectations is set, all feature heavily, with the possibility of lunch at The Old Leather Bottle, in Cobham.
We are all becoming more and more excited at the prospect of the trip. Alden and I need to go away and continue planning. We will liaise over the next few months, and create a package that maybe will become a blue print for other groups in the future.
For now though, I have a show to do and the audience is beginning to muster in the store. They are not let into the theatre itself yet, so there is nothing for it but to peruse the displays. If one of them should maybe want to make a purchase, well I am sure the Vaillancourts won’t mind that.
Meanwhile I lay a business card advertising my blog on each chair, before getting into costume and preparing. It is another sell out crowd, so the show will be another hot work out. Fortunately I am in my ‘thin’ coat again.
With five minutes to go I slip into the back of the hall, where Anna (Gary and Judi’s daughter in law) is sat bouncing little Nathaniel on her knee. Although only nine months old, he is remarkably alert and taking everything in. He loves the fiddle and harmonica playing, and bounces happily on Anna’s knee.
The folk duo make their way off stage, still playing as they leave the room and Gary makes his announcement, before A Christmas Carol begins again.
The show is subtly different to the one I performed here last year. Most of the changes I made came in the second half of the 2014 tour, so the audiences are seeing them for the first time and the reaction has been very positive. People love the musical beginning, and the slight re-structuring of some of the scenes.
The show is, as expected hot, but another very good and passionate one. There is such a connection and closeness with the audience here, that the shows become extremely intimate. I think that the Fezziwig-style setting of an old warehouse adds to the atmosphere too.
In the signing line is an old friend of many years, Robin Mc Fee who always comes to one of the shows, and who always presents me with British fare to make me feel at home on the road – McVities biscuits feature heavily.
Robin is also a keen follower of the blog, and after I had mentioned my brother Ian’s book Sea Change, she immediately ordered it and loved it. Robin is a keen sailor and races each summer, so could fully appreciate Ian’s sense of adventure and exhilaration as he raced around the globe.
Between shows lunch is laid out once more and today there are delicious pies and vegetables. The gap since my frugal breakfast has been a long one, so I hungrily clean my plate.
I need to look at the stage now and decide how I want it set for Marigold. Removing Scrooge’s furniture is the first thing, as the fairground pedlar, Doctor Marigold would not be plying his trade indoors.
I had noticed an old green wheelbarrow buried between various boxes in the back store room, so I manage to liberate that and wheel it to the stage: it looks excellent. I had also seen a heavy wooden crate, which will be perfect to stand on as Marigold sells his wares. Unfortunately the crate was part of an elaborate display in the store, but Judi makes other arrangements, and brings it to the stage. Perfect.
In the auditorium Gary and Judi present me with a very generous gift of their new range of A Christmas Carol ornaments, which they offer to ship back to England for me.
The show starts an hour earlier tonight, so having thanked them, it is time to get on.
I get into costume, which doesn’t feature a frock coat, but does feature an unbuttoned waistcoat and casually rolled up sleeves. A cravat is tied loosely round my neck, and I clip the microphone to it, but fearing that it may rustle, ask Randy if we can do a quick sound check. I go into Marigold Mode, and perform a few lines, casually putting my foot on the wheel of the barrow – which instantly tips over in a most undignified way: I’m very glad we did this sound check, or that would have happened during the show itself.
The audience is, inevitably, smaller but Gary has papered the house with a few comps, and there is a decent number sat before me as I take to the stage. I chat for a little while about how Dickens created the charming story of Doctor Marigold and then I begin: ‘I am a cheapjack…’
It is such a lovely story, and always surprising to an audience who have no idea where the plot is going. The central character, Doctor Marigold (christened Doctor, rather than being a medical practitioner), is such a good, generous man and it is my supreme good fortune and pleasure to be able to inhabit him for an hour.
The story ends and there are, as ever, tears among the applause. As the show is short and as the audience is mainly made up of loyal supporters, I take a few questions, and get to recount some of the anecdotes that I was going to deliver last night.
The whole evening finishes with roars of laughter as I once again tell the story of my father building me a cockerel costume for the school nativity.
Most of the people there have already had books signed during the past two days, but there are plenty who want to pose for photographs. It is still early though when we are finished, and I go back to the dressing room where I make sure that I have EVERYTHING with me.
Tonight, rather than going back to the hotel Luke and Anna have invited me to their home for wine and cheese and conviviality. I last saw their house two years ago when it was nothing more than a concrete shell. It is beautiful and nestles in a woodland setting, looking as if it has been there for generations.
Inside, the house is very stylishly decorated and furnished. A log fire crackles on the hearth and the smoke whirls up the brick chimney. The area in front of the tree is dominated by a large Christmas tree perfectly decorated (featuring lots of Vaillancourt Santas, of course) and the whole house looks as if it should be part of a Christmas magazine feature – which coincidentally is what it is going to be in two weeks.
Anna pours wine and we all sit around the fire nibbling cheese and talking about this and that.
Outside in the woods there is the frame of another house, into which Gary and Judi will move next year. These are perfect surroundings for little Nathanial to grow up in, surrounded by his loving parents and grandparents.
The evening draws on and I say my goodbyes before driving back to the hotel. The route takes me along rural roads through small towns, and Christmas lights are twinkling in the trees and on the houses. It never fails to amaze me how well America does Christmas lights
Yes, I definitely think that Christmas has begun.
I get back to the hotel, ask for a replacement room key and retire to bed.
As ever my time in Sutton has been warm and fun – hard work and physical, but surrounded on all sides by deep, genuine friendship.
For details of the Dickens Tour of England, contact Vaillancourt Folk Art through the website: