Thursday, November 19

Time to move on once more and the alarm rings at 4.30, jerking me away from my short sleep.

I fold my costumes carefully, so as to protect them as much as possible from creasing, and pack them into my cases.

As I pack the top hat I realise that I have left my thick woolly knitted scarf at Langhorne, presumably still on the hat rack on stage.  It is the first ‘casualty’ of the tour so far, but will be easily retrievable.  I will have to email Pam later today.

When all that remains to be packed is my wash bag, I shower and finally close up.  The whole process from alarm to leaving my room takes forty five minutes.

It is dark outside, but pleasantly warm.  The gloves, hat and scarf that I have packed for the cold winter weather remain resolutely unused so far.

In the car I go to set the sat nav for Philadelphia Airport.  Most of these units are pre-programmed with details of how to get to the car rental desk, but in this case it is slightly odd, in that the sat nav unit is made by Hertz, even though the car does not come from them.  I try and remember who I rented from and my mind is completely mixed up between Hertz, Avis and all of the others.  I have to dig out the rental agreement to find where I am going.

The traffic, even at this hour, is busy and aggressive but flows well and I arrive at the Dollar desk (for ‘tis they who entrusted me with this car), and make sure that I have all of my belongings.

The courtesy bus drops passengers off at terminals B, C and D until it is only me and the driver left.  ‘Norfolk, Virginia.  I used to do this flight every week.’  There is deep memory and a certain sense of melancholy in his voice.  ‘Millitary?’ I prompt.  ‘Yes, I was in the Navy’ and for a moment his thoughts are in the mess, or wardroom, as the great grey prow of his ship cuts through the waves.

He drops me off at terminal F and I leave him to his memories.

Terminal F at Philadelphia airport: ahhh, I have a strange relationship with terminal F.   The last time I was here was in October when I spent an entire day forlornly waiting to board a flight that never left. It is a perfectly nice terminal, with a very impressive food court at its hub.  It is almost as if the contractors who were building the main airport completed this building and set it to one side until they could attach it.  Somehow terminal F was forgotten, and remains at the edge of the field, unloved, and only reachable by bus.

With that forlorn little story of neglect in my mind I feel more amenable to Terminal F and make my peace with it.

I have time for a quick breakfast, before going to gate 20, ready to board my flight for Norfolk.  At the very tip of the terminal F there are 5 gates gathered together, all serving little Dash 8 propeller-driven planes.   As each flight boards, the agents make the same scripted announcement about boarding, carry-on bags, Sky-Miles medallion members, those who need a little extra time, zones one and two.

By the time my flight is called it hardly seems necessary for our agent to go through it all again, as we’ve heard it four times already.

The flight is quite empty, and I have two seats to myself, towards the rear of the plane.  I watch another House of Cards episode, or at least part of it, for the flight is not long enough to get me to the end.  As we break through the clouds I can see that Norfolk is wet today.  The wheels (only a few feet from where I sit) throw up a plume of spray as they touch the ground.

At the airport I pick up a car from Alamo, and start on the short drive into downtown Norfolk.  The street names are wonderful here, and I drive along Azalea Gardens, passing Kevin Road, Robin Hood Way and turn onto Princess Anne Road.  The businesses are nicely named too: ‘Murphy’s Propeller Works’ (good, I’m glad that it works); and ‘A Step in Time Chimney and Roofing’ (It’s an ‘appy ‘olliday with Meeearrryyyy!)

I arrive at the hotel and even though it is only 9.30, am checked in to my room, where I can start working on the blog. It seems a real struggle to write today and is slow going.

I get a slight break, when I get a message from an old friend, Christine, who used to work at the Williamsburg Inn and now lives with her husband and son in Norfolk.  She offers to take me out to lunch, and I have a very nice salad as we catch up on old times.  It is only a brief interlude to my day, as Christine has to pick her son up from school, and I go back to my room and finally finish writing.

I am due to walk to my venue (The Nauticus National Maritime Center) at 4.45, so I begin to gather my belongings together.

It is now time for an ironing rant.

Two years ago I made some comments in my blog about the dearth of electric outlets suitably positioned for ironing and I delighted to say that almost every hotel has now improved that situation.  I am happy to take credit for this change, on behalf of travellers across the globe.

Now, for a new campaign:  the covers on hotel ironing boards are so thin these days, that the metal lattice work beneath is imprinted onto whatever garment you are ironing.  There is no soft, foam padding, and it is as if you are ironing directly against the metal.  Not good enough, hoteliers of America – I want thicker ironing board covers!


Lattice work

With my lattice-imprinted shirts carefully folded and packed I walk to Nauticus, where I am greeted by Angela Mello who is my contact here.  She greets me like an old, old friend and takes me to her office, where I will be based for the evening.

Nauticus is a huge maritime museum, which includes the magnificent Battleship Wisconsin, moored alongside the building itself. The complex also includes a cruise ship terminal and it is there where the Dickens Christmas Towne is based.  Today I am performing A Christmas Carol in Nauticus itself and tomorrow I will be helping to launch Christmas Towne’s second season.

Angela takes me to the theatre, which is a huge cinema space, with a curving white screen on the back wall.  The thousands of seats (I’m sure that I do not exaggerate), curve around the floor space in a huge arc (now, how nautical is that reference!)



My props look rather lost in the midst of this huge space.  The challenges here are the complete opposite of those I faced in Langhorne and Burlington, where the space available to me was divided up on different levels and broken up by altar rails and the like.  Here, there is just space, and lots of it.  Looking at the expanse of floor reminds me of Noel Coward’s comment in Private Lives: ‘Very flat, Norfolk.’

Angela fetches Dustin, who will be looking after the technical side of things and we spend quite a long time working on the sound levels.  He adjusts the base levels to allow for what he calls my ‘boomy voice’.  When we are all satisfied we spend some time on the opening music/sound effect.


Sound Check


When all of the details have been looked after I go back to Angela’s office, where I spend a very enjoyable hour or so chatting with Jeff Cannon, who is an architect specialising in museum spaces.  Jeff is well travelled and fascinating

As we chat the door opens and Stephen Kirkland comes in.  Stephen is the director of Nauticus, and Christmas Towne is very much his pet project.  Last year he convinced the board members to invest in his dream and it paid off handsomely.  I worked with him to promote the inaugural season, and even though I was only in Norfolk for a single day, I feel as if Stephen is an old friend, and that I have been part of his project for years.

Time is marching on, and Stephen, Jeff and Angela leave me to prepare for the show.  I change, and then listen to music until Angela returns and takes me down the stairs to the theatre.  As I stand waiting I become aware of the strangest phenomenon.  All of the walls of the theatre are curved, and as I stand, I am aware of the conversation of the audience being ‘broadcast’ eerily along the walls; It is the same science that makes the whispering gallery at St Paul’s Cathedral in London such a fascinating place to visit.

On the dot of seven o’clock Stephen takes to the stage and makes a passionate speech about his visions for Christmas Towne.  He thanks the many sponsors and board members who have supported him, and then announces the show.

The strains of the cello playing God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen fill the auditorium, and I begin the show.

I am not sure how well the microphone is working, but the acoustics in the room seem very good and I make sure that I annunciate clearly (taking my late father’s advice to always finish one word before starting the next).  I try not to use too much of the space, and to remain in clearly defined areas for each scene.

One couple get up and leave the auditorium quite near the start of the show, and I hope that their exit does not mark the start of a mass exodus, which is my recurring performance nightmare!  Fortunately the rest of the audience remain in their seats, and respond more and more enthusiastically as the show continues.

As I make my final exit, Stephen is on the stage whipping the audience to even greater heights (he used to be an entertainment cruise director with Carnival Cruises, and is now reverting to his old self).  As a result I get to take three curtain calls, before going back to the office to change, ready for a signing session.  As I take the microphone off I notice that the battery level is on zero, which may explain why it didn’t sound as crisp as when we did the sound check earlier.

I spend forty five minutes in the main Nauticus hall, just outside the gift shop, signing books and talking about the show, and greeting people I met at last year’s event.  Stephen’s wife, Sarah Jane is there and is enthusing about the performance.

At the end of the evening I change and Stephen drives me back to the hotel.  There is a small restaurant in the foyer, and I order a burger for my dinner.

As I sit, pondering the day, a young man who appears to be no more that high school age comes into the lobby. It seems strange at this time of night and a moment later the revolving door turns and a few more join him; this trickle turns into a flood and soon the foyer is heaving with young people.  Many of the kids have musical instrument cases over their shoulders: there are violin cases, flute cases, clarinet cases.  Bringing up the rear three guys are doing battle with the revolving door as they force their double bases in.

I talk to one of the adults with the group and discover that they are from The Shenandoah University Conservatory, and are in town to play at a conference of musical educators tomorrow.

It is wonderful to see so much young talent gathered together, to perform excellent music.

One final thought crosses my mind as I go to bed:  It is going to be very busy at breakfast tomorrow morning.




Shenandoah University Conservatory: