Saturday 7 November
I wake in the lovely wooden surroundings of the Lilac Room. It is still dark outside and a look at the clock confirms that it is only just past 4am. I hope that the same thing happens tomorrow morning, as that is when I will need to be packing up to leave this spectacular home.
Today is the first performing day of the tour, and I am facing it with a variety of emotions: I am excited to get back to doing what I love to do; but I am also quite nervous about it: I am not sure that I can ‘remember’ how to do it: I am not feeling a part of the whole thing at the moment – maybe I am just not feeling Christmassy yet.
The only thing for it is to rehearse again, so I pad around my room whispering the words and plotting the moves. Actually my issue is not with remembering the words, they are fine, it is a case of ‘capturing’ the magic of previous years.
Rehearsal completed I go downstairs to get an early morning coffee from the kitchen, before returning to my room to write up the blog.
I put the TV on but am only half watching it, until I realise that the police drama that was on has finished and the station is now broadcasting a paid advertising programme for a vacuum cleaner. Two presenters are shouting very loudly as they extol the virtues of the product.
It is amazing, and can reach anywhere! It can reach under couches! We cross to a vox pops of entirely satisfied customers: ‘It is SO great, I can vacuum under my sofa. I don’t have to wait for him to come home and move the couch before I can vacuum our home!’ Really?
We go back to the presenters and they stage an amazing demonstration of how the product can suck up eight pool balls, where the leading rival can only manage two, and they slip slowly out of the tube, because this inferior product does not maintain its suction as effectively.
I would have thought that if you owned a pool table the last thing you’d want is for an out-of-control vacuum cleaner to remove all of the balls from the table, but what would I know?
The programme continues, and the voice-over artist frantically tells us that customers ‘can’t WAIT to tell their friends about it’. Wow, a pretty amazing social whirl these folks live in; imagine overhearing them in a coffee shop: ‘Oh my God, I have to tell you, I just can’t wait, it is SO exciting – my vacuum cleaner can suck up pool balls.’
And still it goes on. Apparently this product is the ULTIMATE pet vacuum! Having seen what it does to a pool table, I don’t think that I want it anywhere near my pet.
Fortunately, it is soon breakfast time.
At the table are two other guests who have come into town for the Festival, and they are already in costume, making me look rather shabby in my 21st century attire.
The Dickens Victorian Village Festival actually runs over ten weekends, and each one has a different theme. Today is a Sherlock Holmes day, and the couple are here to partake in a sort of glorified murder mystery event. Last night they attended a Sherlock Holmes play, which set the scene and today the participants have to explore Cambridge, picking up various clues before making their deductions This evening (unfortunately at the same time as my show), there will be another performance during which the correct solution will be revealed. It all sounds great fun!
Sandy is typically attentive and tops up or coffee cups, as we chat about this and that. With breakfast finished I go back to my room to start working again. I think I am getting a little over sensitive to my issues now, and really could do with stepping away from the constant rehearsals, which are doing very little except making me more anxious.
I decide to read back through last year’s blog posts, which is great fun but also reminds me how completely at one I became with the script during the tour; but that was a result of living with it every day for almost two months – these things cannot be rushed and for now I must just do the most professional job that I can.
As midday approaches I decide to drive to a grocery store I had noticed a few blocks away and buy a sandwich and some fruit for lunch. The streets are busy with festival goers, and on every sidewalk are the life-sized mannequins for which the Dickens Victorian Village is famous.
As I am driving an alarm sounds in the car warning me that the tyre pressure in my rear left is at 21psi and needs air in it. It seems OK at the moment and I’m sure it will get me back to the Alamo desk at Columbus, where they can deal with the problem.
I eat my lunch in my room and at last my first commitment of the tour is looming. It is time to get into my old familiar costume: the trousers, braces, red and gold waistcoat, frock coat and my dear old top hat.
I have a 2 hour meet and greet session at the festival’s welcome centre, a wonderful old wooden building just off the main street in Cambridge. As I arrive various volunteers are bustling about in Victorian costume and I am greeted as an old friend. I am shown to a table in a back room, and almost straight away a line of people forms. Some have books, some want photographs, some just want to chat.
Quite a few people had seen me perform here last year and were enthusing over the show and were coming back to see it again. I know that this should have been encouraging for me, but in my slightly negative mindset it just seemed to create more pressure. I want to say to them: ‘I know it was fabulous last year, but don’t expect too much, it may not be the same.’
Within the guests who come to see me are a group of magicians who have travelled to Cambridge specifically to see the show. Charles Dickens loved to perform magic for his family, and was always on the look-out for new mechanical tricks too astound and delight them with. It is an area of his life about which I know very little and I would be fascinated to learn more.
My time at the Welcome Centre comes to an end, and after posing for a few photographs with the festival mannequin of Charles, I go back to the house, where I get myself ready for the main event.
I make sure I have a complete extra costume to change into after the performance, my cane, my hat and scarf. I pick up my fountain pen, for signing, and the CD containing the sound effect with which I am opening the show this year. When all is ready I head off to the theatre, where Tom is waiting for me.
It is large auditorium, but one with a lot of atmosphere. The stage is large and very well lit; they have even laid on a follow spot for me. As soon as I see my set (a chair, a table, a hat stand and a stool), I feel completely at home; it is like walking into my office. I move the furniture around a little and then am met by the sound engineer who wants to do a sound check. I clip the microphone onto my waistcoat and start in time-honoured fashion:
‘Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt, whatever, about that…’
Usually I would just do a few lines, but today I carry on and am quite happily working through the entire script, when I realise that the tech team want to do some other sound checks, and cannot quite understand why I appear to be doing the entire show.
I go back to my dressing room to continue the rehearsal, but it is so hot down there that I return to the stage where I can continue going through my lines in the space behind the back curtain.
Rehearsing in this space gives me the advantage of hearing the audience arrive, and the increase in volume as the numbers rise. By the sounds of it there is a good energy in the auditorium (although we should have had some Christmassy music playing).
Almost as I get to the end of my muttered rehearsal, I am aware of Tom making his introductory speech on stage. I take a few deep breaths, wait for the welcoming applause and walk into the light.
The performance gets off to a slow start, and I’m not happy with the rhythm of the opening passages – they feel a little clunky and stitched together. I AM happy with the energy and commitment though. I feel completely at home on the stage and all of the little bits of business and phrasing come to the surface. As the show goes on, so my worries begin to disappear and I begin to relax, which in turn makes for a better performance.
Laughs come in all of the right places, as do the sniffles. I can feel my throat tightening a bit, so throttle back the effort a little, as that is always a sign of me trying too hard. After an hour and twenty-five minutes I stand in a pool of light, on a dark stage and say: ‘God Bless Us, Every One. Have a very merry Christmas’, and the audience erupt into applause. As I return to take my bows everyone is standing, and there are loud shouts and cheers. What a relief! Now all I have to do is get it perfect.
I return to my dressing room and take a while towelling down and changing before going to the foyer, where a good crowd is waiting for me at the table, including all of the magicians from earlier. I sign, and shake hands and pose for photographs, until the last of the audience drift away.
I pack my things up in the dressing room, say good-bye to Tom, and head off into the night. I should go back to the Inn, but I am famished, so drive to Ruby Tuesdays for a spot of dinner.
The warning on the car dashboard is now showing that the tyre is down to 11psi, and rather than risking a problem in the morning, stop at a petrol station to put some air in. The girl behind the counter must have doubted her senses when a Victorian gent asks where the air-line is, but she doesn’t bat an eyelid.
Dinner is a piece of grilled chicken and a salad. The staff in Ruby Tuesday’s all seem to be on a mission to create the cleanest carpet in Ohio as at least four of them are scrubbing away with little hand carpet sweepers. They have to haul heavy tables to one side to get at all of the little crumbs: they should have one of those vacuums that I saw on TV this morning – then they wouldn’t have to move the furniture.
I drive back to the Inn, noting that the tyre has already lost 2 psi and hoping that it will have enough in it in a few hours time, to get me back to Columbus.
As I approach the door Carol and Sandy are there to greet me; they were both at the show and we spend a little time talking about it – they had thoroughly enjoyed it. I sign a few books for Carol and they present me with one of their coffee cups, and we hug our goodbyes, before I go upstairs.
In my room I set the alarm for 3.45am, as I need to be on the road by 4.15 at the latest. I hang my costume up over the shower-rail, so that it can dry out before I pack and then I subside into bed and, to quote the show, fall asleep upon the instant.
The Dickens Victorian Village Festival http://www.dickensvictorianvillage.com/index.php