On December 16 my USA tour ended in Occoquan Virginia, but there was plenty more fun to come before Christmas and here is a brief outline of what we got up to:
Our flight home to the UK was not due to leave DC until 9.40 in the evening, so we had a full day to ourselves to explore Washington DC. As I have already detailed the weather throughout the tour had been sunny and warm (into the 70s at times), so the prospect of being tourists for a day was greatly appealing. We had decided that we would drive to the centre of the city and then walk the length of the Mall, taking in the Lincoln Memorial (more poignant to me following my visit to Gettysburg), admire The Whitehouse and gaze at the Washington Monument before strolling into whichever of the Smithsonian museums took our fancy.
We would bask in the spring-like temperatures and admire the grandeur of the nation’s capital.
December 17 had dawned rainy and foggy – thick fog and heavy rain. We would be lucky to see the top of the Washington Monument and certainly wouldn’t be able to see Capitol Hill from Lincoln’s seat, but we decided to go ahead with our plans anyway.
The drive into DC was easy, and having finally found a parking garage not too far from Pennsylvania Avenue we emerged into the rain and walked towards the Whitehouse.
With the Presidential election due to take place next year the battle for supremacy in the Whitehouse is in full flight and as we walked we noticed one of the most amazing bits of marketing possible. Within sight of the Whitehouse an old building is being converted into a hotel which will open next year and the huge banner outside carries the message: ‘TRUMP hotel COMING IN 2016.’
If anything the rain was coming down harder and got in at every seam: we were very miserable little drowned water-rats as we stood on the Ellipse admiring the National Christmas Tree and the elegant residence beyond. Having watched so many episodes of House of Cards during my trip it was strange to actually stand so close to the Oval Office.
With the entire choice of the Smithsonian collection spread out before us, what did we chose to see? Julia Child’s kitchen in the Museum of American History. We had seen the film Julie and Julia a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, but knew nothing of the career of Julia Childs at all. In England we used to watch Fanny Craddock, who filled a similar role on our TV channels (and whose husband came out with the greatest double entendre on British television up to that point: ‘And I hope that all of your doughnuts turn out like Fanny’s…’).
The Museum of American History – at least the first floor – was remarkable and we spent most of our afternoon admiring beautifully displayed exhibits – especially the section dedicated to travel across America, complete with huge locomotives and wonderful cars from the twenties to the eighties (give me something with chrome and fins from the fifties any day!)
The afternoon was moving on towards evening so we started to walk back to our car, with a brief look at the Museum of Natural History on the way which, although impressive, didn’t have the same impact on us as American History had done.
Knowing that we would be leaving DC in the heart of the rush hour we had built in a huge amount of extra time for our journey to Dulles Airport, but the dedicated expressway saw us arrive with plenty of time to spare and we ate and relaxed at the airport before leaving American soil at the end of an amazing trip.
Back in England
Our overnight flight was on time, although we didn’t get much sleep during it, so we were both tired as we disembarked at Heathrow. The drive home to Abingdon only takes an hour and as we drove it struck us both that everything seemed so small suddenly: the cars, the roads, the buildings – everything!
At home we had the rest of the 18th to ourselves and spent a rather lazy day trying re-familiarising ourselves with home. We shopped, picked up our cat from the cattery and slowly started to unpack. With Christmas only a week away there were preparations to be made and after lunch Liz started to create the Christmas Pudding. This year she is making a gluten free pudding, so she is worried that the mixture may not hold together as successfully as puddings past – ‘supposin…supposin…it should break in the turning out!’ Mrs Cratchit’s panics are not just a good comedy device – they are a genuine reflection of the fears felt in almost every British kitchen at Christmas.
The 18th moved on, and I had to begin thinking about work again, as Saturday 19 December saw the first of my British shows this year. My UK tour started in Halifax, way to the North of England and then gently worked its way south, meaning that I had a long drive ahead of me to Yorkshire.
Saturday December 19: Halifax
The long drive gave me plenty of time to work at the 2-act version of A Christmas Carol that I would be performing for the next few days. I had become so used to the flow and rhythm of the single act script that I had to make sure that the new passages slipped in successfully: It was not so much a question of remembering the lines – they are all very familiar to anyone who knows the story; the issue is simply remembering to say them!
The drive took me up the spine of England, using the M1 motorway, which can be notoriously slow, but on this occasion my journey was uninterrupted and I arrived in Halifax with plenty of time to spare.
The venue for the first show was the Square Chapel Arts Centre, which, unsurprisingly, is housed in an old chapel, that is square. The theatre itself is on the first floor of the building, so I had to haul my props and costumes up several flights of stairs before meeting with John the front of house manager, and Simon the technical manager. Shortly after I arrived so did Michael Jones: Michael is one half of the production company that promotes and stages my shows in the UK and he looks after all of the technical aspects of my performances.
I rarely get to perform A Christmas Carol in the UK, so Michael wasn’t really familiar with the show, meaning we had to sit down with the script and go through it slowly scene by scene deciding how to light it. I used the lighting plot designed by David at Byers’ Choice as a base, and we used a small light to highlight Marley’s face, with a bright green gel in it: whether that is the colour of a bad lobster in a dark cellar I do not know, but it seemed to be effective nonetheless.
Michael also had a smoke machine, so we decided to fill the hall with smoke before the audience arrived, so it would be hanging in the atmosphere during the build up to the show, and then just before the start I would press the button to fill the stage again, meaning that the first scene, at Marley’s graveside, would have a very eerie feel to it.
Just before the performance I realised that December 19 was the very date on which A Christmas Carol was published, so we arranged to have a microphone backstage, and after the house lights went out I welcomed the audience and told them of this fact, which drew a few murmurs of interest and appreciation.
The stage at the Square Chapel is at floor level, with the seats raking up steeply in front, so I had to be a bit sparing with my top hat, as it would hide my face from the majority of the audience. The extra lines worked well enough but the transition from old script to new felt a bit clunky to me. One really annoying thing that had been bothering me throughout the USA tour is Marley’s line: ‘You will be haunted by three spirits….’ For some, unknown, reason I have taken to saying ‘visited’ instead of ‘haunted’ and I’ve been re-educating myself to come out with the correct line. During the performance in Halifax I successfully said ‘haunted’ during the script, but when I repeated the line in a blackout to start act 2, I reverted to ‘visited’: very annoying.
One bonus of performing the two act version was that as Scrooge sees his fiancée Belle leaving, I realised that I was approaching the interval and would have a chance to cool down before pushing onto the end.
The audience was a typically English one: somewhat quiet and rather reserved in their responses, which after the enthusiasm of American audiences was a little bit difficult to come to terms with, but the ovation at the end told me that it had been a successful evening.
As I got ready to leave the theatre the front of house manager gave me an envelope that had been left for me, and it contained a heavy iron key, with a note scribbled onto a napkin: ‘my great grandfather gave this to me to be returned to its rightful owner. I trust you know what to do with it. Signed, a debtor’. Curious!
Michael and I were being hosted by one of the theatre’s volunteers over night, so we drove back in convoy to a charming village nestling in the Yorkshire Moors between Hebden Bridge and Howarth, and had some cheese and biscuits before retiring for the night.
Sunday, December 20: Market Drayton
Sunday morning had dawned bright and the air was so clear. We all met in Julia’s kitchen and she made a delicious breakfast, which we ate overlooking the hills that folded over one another to create the Calder Valley.
My next show was due to be a matinee in Shropshire and I wanted to get onto the road reasonably early, so as not to be rushing at the other end. I left Julia’s cottage at around 9.15 and headed towards Manchester, encountering a strange meteorological phenomenon on the way: Yorkshire is in the east, whereas Lancashire (and Manchester) are to the west – why then was I driving straight towards the rising sun, which made visibility almost impossible? This scientific anomaly would not last long however, as I would be turning to the south soon – but as I took the M6 motorway the sun was STILL in my eyes! I have no idea how that all happened.
The Festival Drayton Centre in the small Shropshire town of Market Drayton is a great example of a community coming together to create an entertainment venue. Firstly a chapel was purchased and a simple and intimate theatre was built, but the needs of the community soon outstripped the small space, and more land was purchased. Now the venue boasts meeting rooms and a fantastic modern lobby, which houses the box office as well as a superb café. All theatres are struggling to get audiences in these days, but The Festival Drayton Centre has embraced live streaming of opera and productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which are bringing new audiences through the doors – it is a shining beacon of how to provide theatre in the 21st century.
I arrived in good time, followed shortly by Michael and we began to work at the lighting rig again. Having seen the show once Michael had scribbled some new ideas down and we discussed how best to include them. We asked the resident technician if we could have the green special for Marley’s face and after a moment’s thought he cheerfully replied: ‘Sure, You can have the Bad Fairy Special!’
We were joined in Market Drayton by Derek Grant, the other half of DGO, the production company. Derek and Michael have been working with me for eight years or so and have opened so many doors for me, and encouraged me to write new shows (most particularly Great Expectations). Sadly Derek and Michael have decided to retire and these few shows will be my last with them: it is certainly the end of an era in my professional life.
I sat in the dressing room chatting with Derek until the audience started to arrive. We gave the stage a good dose of smoke again, and I lit the candle on the little table, as well as placing the key that so mysteriously arrived in Halifax next to it.
The Shropshire audience was much more vocal than the Halifax one, and the show was great fun from beginning to end. However the strains of international performing were beginning to tell and I felt very weak and shaky during the performance. I was glad that this was a matinee and I could return to my nearby motel and have some rest.
Monday, December 21: Gloucester
I had plenty of time during Monday as both Market Drayton and my next venue of Gloucester are in the west of England, meaning no long drives were needed.
I had decided to drive initially to Shrewsbury and spend some time Christmas shopping there. Shrewsbury is a lovely small city, with plenty of independent shops. It is also the location for the George C Scott version of A Christmas Carol and Scrooge’s grave stone still lies in one of the town’s cemeteries.
After spending a few hours enjoying the Christmas Spirit and buying some small presents for Liz I returned to my car, and drove on to the Cathedral city of Gloucester, where I had time to explore before I had to be at the Guildhall to set up.
The Cathedral itself is set a little apart from the city centre and looked glorious, with its honey-coloured stone glowing against a bright blue winter sky.
My get-in at The Guildhall was scheduled for 5pm, but even though I was only moving my car about half a mile I got caught in the one-way system’s rush hour and ended up taking forty minutes to get there. The car park for the building is on the roof, which meant that I had to unload all of my furniture and get it into a lift, before being able to get to the stage.
The Guildhall is more of a rock venue, and the stage is very high and quite distant from the audience, so the atmosphere isn’t a great one. However the organisers had sold a goodly amount of tickets, so I was certainly hopeful of a good response.
Michael and Derek were both there and Michael worked with the tech crew to get the lights properly focussed and the cues logged in the system well before the audience arrived. My dressing room was beneath the stage and I felt tucked out of the way, which was rather nice as the fatigue was certainly telling now.
At 7.30 I climbed the staircase to the stage and waited for the houselights to dim, which was my cue to make the pre show announcement from the wings and activate the smoke machine, before listening to the music and walking out to start the show.
The Gloucester audience were another ‘British’ crowd and the show seemed to be quite a struggle. I was still saying ‘visited’ instead of ‘haunted’ (the other way round this time – I got it wrong at the beginning but correct at the start of act 2, although strictly speaking I should have said ‘visited’ both times, so that they matched).
The reaction at the end of the show was very positive, and lots of people waited afterwards to chat, which is always a good indication as to how the show has been received. By the time I had finished chatting Michael and Derek had left and I began the process of transporting my props and costume along the corridor, into the lift, out of the lift, and to the car, before driving home for a rare luxurious night in my own bed, and a chance to be with Liz for the first time in a few days.
Tuesday, December 22: Fernodwn
It was lovely to have a morning at home with Liz, and to make preparations for Christmas, including a good session at the supermarket. Over the last two months we have hardly been able to be together in a relatively ‘normal’ environment, so even the shop was a precious time to us.
In the afternoon however I was on the move again, this time driving to Ferndown in Dorset, and to the Barrington Theatre built in the middle of a small shopping centre. After about fifteen minutes driving around a Tesco car park, searching in vain, I eventually found myself at the stage door.
The Barrington is a small, modern theatre perfectly suited to the needs of the community, with a large well-equipped stage and a very welcoming and helpful staff. As it is right on their doorstep both Michael and Derek came to the show. Michael worked with the technical team while Derek and I chatted in the dressing room.
Derek has been in the business for years and years, and with Michael has promoted a wide range of shows. As they are retiring from the theatrical business Derek chatted reflectively about some of the characters that they have known over the years, especially some of the more temperamental. He told me of one female singing star who regularly threw the dressing room furniture about if everything wasn’t just so, and a television star of the seventies who grandly announced that ‘I am not a star – I am an ICON!’ I so hope that I never come across in that way!
As the start time of 7.30 approached the audience started to arrive and were entertained in the foyer by a local musical society singing carols. When everyone was seated I made the welcoming announcement from the wings (as had become the routine during the week), and activated the smoke machine before walking out.
The first act went well, and I managed to say ‘haunted’ instead of ‘visited’, although I fumbled the line when Scrooge is seeing the vision of Belle as a ‘comely matron..’ adding: ‘sitting opposite HIS’ (instead of HER), ‘daughter’. That makes for an interesting sub-plot.
Once again the audience were restrained and polite, but they all enjoyed the show. Naturally I said ‘visited instead of ‘haunted’ at the start of the second act, but apart from that all went smoothly.
After I had changed I chatted to some of the audience, many of whom had bought CDs and programmes and wanted them signed. Many of the choir wanted to talk as the musical society had produced their own version of A Christmas Carol a few years ago, and are staging Oliver! next year.
I said good bye to Derek and Michael and returned to Smuggler’s Cottage, my charming B&B just five minutes away from the theatre, where I fell asleep watching the end of Love Actually.
Wednesday, December 23: Leicester
The ancient Guildhall in Leicester has become a regular venue for me over the last few years: I have performed An Audience with Mr Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations, Doctor Marigold, the Signalman and A Christmas Carol there. The audience is always enthusiastic and I have gained a strong following in the city.
The drive from Dorset to Leicester was due to take three hours and as this was the busiest shopping day of the year I set out good and early, thereby forgoing the delights of The Smuggler’s Cottage breakfast. After an hour on the road I stopped at a motorway service station, and realised that more and more of them are not serving ‘real’ food, so I was reduced to a Sausage Egg McMuffin meal.
I made good time and arrived in Leicester an hour before I needed to be at The Guildhall, which suited my purpose as I wanted to make a rather specific purchase, which I managed to do successfully.
Leicester has enjoyed great prosperity over recent years, thanks to the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton under a municipal car park (only the British could actually lose one of their Kings and not notice for hundreds of years), and the Guildhall houses the main City museum. I was welcomed like an old friend by the staff, headed up by Ben Ennis, who has become a good friend over the years.
Between us we unloaded my props from the car and took them into the hall itself, originally built in 1390, and therefore possessing the most amazing atmosphere. The stage is small and there is no technical equipment, but who needs it when there are half timbered walls, a vaulted ceiling and a roaring fire in a stone hearth?
My first job was to chat with the local radio station and record a few clips of the show for them to use on Christmas Eve. By the time I had finished, the audience were arriving and I could watch them from my dressing room, which overlooked the courtyard through which they all entered.
As the start time approached there was no sign of Michael, which was worrying, as he and I had been driving from the same place and I had been in Leicester for at least two hours. I sent him a text, but then had to concentrate on the show.
As ever the Leicester audience were a real treat to perform for: it was like being back in the USA! They joined in and laughed throughout the show, and even the City itself joined in, with the Cathedral bell ringing right on cue, which raise a huge laugh.
For once I got the ‘haunted/visited’ line right on both occasions, although I did manage to spoonerise ‘on the very day of the funeral’ into ‘on the derry vay of the funeral’, which I hope not too many people noticed.
During the first act I noticed Michael slipping in to the rear of the hall, which was a great relief. I discovered during the interval that he had left Dorset a little later than me, and had become caught in the Christmas traffic around Leicester itself.
Into the second act and the festival atmosphere continued, but I was saving the best until the end:
Leicester is a small city, and it has a small football team, which traditionally battles around the lower reaches of the Premier League. Leicester City FC has had its moments of glory, but has never been a team to threaten the multi-million pound outfits from London, Manchester and Liverpool.
This year, however, Leicester have been playing with the spirit of a winning team, and the day before my show it had been confirmed that they would sit at the top of the league over Christmas – which is always a major achievement for any team. To celebrate this fact I had wanted to mention the team during the show, and I decided that when Scrooge gets ‘dressed, all in his best’, I would let him wear a Leicester City scarf (my special purchase from this morning). I reached that line and he put on his usual plain scarf, before muttering ‘no, I must get dressed in my VERY best’ at which point I produced the blue and white of the Foxes. The cheer that went up must have threatened the ancient building!
I was very pumped up and excited by the performance, but I had to remember that there was another one to go, so tried to calm down and focus a little.
As the two-show event in Leicester was so close to Christmas, Ben had arranged for roast turkey and vegetables to be ordered in and hosted a wonderful festive supper between the shows. As well as Michael and me, there were various volunteers and staff members from the museum and Ben’s family who have all become good friends too.
We used the huge table in my dressing room, which was actually used as a jury room in the Guildhall’s days as a town hall. I cleared all of my costume away and the table was prepared. I placed my top hat in the table centre with a candlestick placed on the top in lieu of a more traditional table decoration.
It was a lovely dinner, with much laughter. Ben’s mother told a long story, about some apparently dead goldfish that were brought back to life by a re-oxygenation of the water via a drinking straw: it was a bizarre, surreal tale, but brilliantly told and very entertaining. There then followed many stories of pet disasters, which became more upsetting and yet macabre-ly funny by the minute.
The dinner ended at 6, and the staff got ready to welcome the evening audience to the Guildhall. The jury room looks down on the hall itself, so I was able to watch the crowd as they took their places.
Although I was feeling tired, I was very pleased with the evening show. The audience were not quite as vocal as the afternoon’s but joined in enthusiastically. This time the clock didn’t ring on cue, but when I said ‘some people laughed to see the alterations in him…..’ a loud shriek of laughter was heard outside, again bang on cue. Two shows, two perfectly timed ad-libbed interruptions: if I believed in ghosts I may have thought that someone in the spirit world wanted to be a part of this show…..who could that be, then?
The football scarf raised another huge cheer, and I reached the end of the show with a feeling of huge celebration, which is just how it should have been so close to Christmas Day.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
I drove home from Leicester on the morning of Christmas eve and Liz and I spent the rest of the day making preparations for the big day. We finished decorating the house together, and hung lights wherever we could.
Christmas Day was so special, as it was the two of us together in our own house, and Liz provided the most remarkable turkey and Christmas pudding- which blazed in brandy, bedight with Christmas holly stuck in the top.
Having spent so much time apart over the past two months the entire Christmas time was wonderful, and we walked (a little) and talked (a lot) and relaxed together. It wasn’t a great huge Dickensian celebration – it was the perfect time for the two of us to grow together once more.
Sunday, December 27: The Concorde Club, Eastleigh
I had one final performance to give before 2015 passed and that was at a new venue for me, near to the city of Southampton. The Concorde Club was built as a music venue but is trying to expand its programme of events. The generously sized stage was in a cabaret style lounge, and tables were laid for the guests to have dinner before the show itself.
Liz had come with me, and Derek and Michael were both present, as this would mark my final performance for them.
The dinner service meant that the show would begin later than usual, and just before 8pm Liz wished me good luck and went to take her seat among the audience.
It was back to the ‘English audience’ and I quickly decided that there would be no point trying to cajole them to join in with anything, as they were not that sort of group. However there was no fidgeting, not muttering, no noise at all – everyone was listening and concentrating on the words with great intensity.
I shortened the show ever so slightly so that we didn’t finish too late, but included most of it. The applause was very generous and I stood on the stage bowing not just for the evening’s show, but for the entire season, which began back on November 7 in Cambridge Ohio. It seems strange to think how nervous I was about performing A Christmas Carol back then, but the show has developed since. and is definitely better now than it was in 2014.
Many members of the audience wanted to chat after the show, including a couple that Liz and I had met on a cruise ship many years ago, and with whom Liz had watched the show.
We said our final goodbyes to Derek and Michael and entered a new phase in my life. In 2016 I will write new shows and think of new ways to promote myself in England, hopefully working with my brother Ian and using his brilliant marketing talent; but for now I can relax and rest and reflect on 52 performances of A Christmas Carol, each one performed to the very best of my ability.
And with that, I shall leave you to your New Year’s Celebrations. Thank you for all of your support throughout this year, and for all the comments and gifts along the way. I look forward to chatting to you again very soon.