Friday, December 4
My first thoughts, when I wake this morning, are about the show that I am due to perform this afternoon: I am not satisfied with the programme I have devised and I only have a couple of hours to correct it. The show is based around an article written by my father in 1993, in which he reminisces about Christmas Day,1932. His childhood memories are charming, and he also takes the opportunity to introduce the reader to Henry Fielding Dickens (Charles’s son), and his wife Marie Roche.
As I have worked with the Douglas County Historical Society for five years I thought that this would be a perfect way of bridging the gap between Charles and me. The problem arises in that the article, when read, only lasts for twenty minutes. My plan had been to tell a few anecdotes about various other family members, but somehow the show lacks structure and formality. It is frustrating.
I sit at the computer and trawl through a few files until I arrive at a show that Liz and I created a few years ago, featuring Henry Fielding Dickens’ memories of his father, which we set to the music of Charles Gounod. This begins to make more sense: Henry’s reminiscences paint a very personal picture of Charles Dickens, the like of which you would never find in a history book, whilst Dad’s words paint a very personal picture of the aging Henry: it is the perfect journey from Charles to me.
I Select a few passages from Henry’s book and email them to myself, so that I can print them off at the office workstation in the hotel lobby. Suddenly I feel a lot more confident about the day ahead.
I do my morning exercises and shower before going to breakfast. I print the new script, so that I can study it while I eat, and make a few notes and corrections.
Today is quite a full one and Lee is due to pick me up at 9.30 to take me to a large shopping mall, for a signing session there. I dress is costume, and make sure that I have what I need for the show this afternoon, before talking the lift and waiting in the lobby.
The drive is little more than fifteen minutes and on the journey Susie tells me that at the High School yesterday one of the students had asked if she were my mother – a prospect that she rather liked!
We arrive at the huge Mall, which is not open to the public yet. Due to my performing commitments we only have one hour here, between 10 and 11, and the prospect for a large crowd does not look promising.
A table filled with books and merchandise is set up in the middle of the mall, near to an escalator. On one side of us there is a branch of Victoria’s Secret and on the other a temporary stand selling Microsoft computers.
As I wait for the public to appear I look longingly at the slim, superbly proportioned models on display: The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 looks particularly appealing, and would be much lighter to travel with than my laptop. Expensive though.
The mall is indeed quiet at this hour and only a very few people stop to buy books and have them signed. One gentleman brings a beautiful 1939 edition of The Life of Our Lord, that he bought for $4 in Spokane, Washington many years ago. It is an edition that I have not seen before, and is in very good condition. I explain a little about the history of the book’s publication and he walks away a happy man.
Susie tries to drum up some business by accosting the few passers-by: her technique is to set off at a diagonal to their direction of travel, as if to head ‘em off at the pass: I christen it The Susie Move.
Eleven o’clock approaches, which is time for us to leave, and the mall is just beginning to get busier. It is a shame for the Historical Society, but at least the session hasn’t been too taxing from my point of view.
Lee leads Susie and me through a huge department store to the car park he has used. Von Maur is wonderfully decorated and there is lovely piped piano music filling the space, except it is not piped: there is a pianist at a grand piano, next to an extravagantly decorated tree, he is not playing the routine Christmas favourites, but a lovely classical piece. You never know when a pang of home-sickness will strike, but now is one such moment.
We all get into the car and drive away from the mall towards the Field Club, where I am due to perform this afternoon. On the way I ask Lee if we can stop at a pharmacy, so that I can replenish my dwindling supplies of Fisherman’s Friends menthol throat lozenges, that I have taken to sucking before every show, and which seem to be working very well in protecting my throat.
None of the customers or staff in Wallgreen’s seem the slightest bit surprised to see a Victorian gent in their midst. One lady tells me that she likes my vest, but that is the only reaction.
With my shopping excursion complete we drive onto the Field Club, where Lee drops us off at the door, before parking. The Field Club is a golf club, of which Lee is a member and I have always performed here when in Omaha. The building has a relaxing sense of familiarity to me, and I know many of the staff too, which makes the day so much easier.
I need to do a microphone check, and start reading Henry Dickens’ memoirs. Although the sound engineer is happy I read on, until I reach the end of the piece. A simple sound check has turned into quite a rehearsal and a small audience of helpers and volunteers have gathered to listen. Judging by their reaction I think that this show could just work
When I have finished, I am served a cup of tea by Mona. This is an annual tradition, and this year she has found a very specially blended Earl Grey, which is delicious. The Friday event at the Field Club is always a tea show. Tables are spread out through the room and are laid with fine china teacups, saucers and plates.
Lee appears and suggests that we grab some lunch in the main dining room: I have a Chicken Orchard Salad, complete with apples and grapes.
Although the guests are starting to arrive, I still have almost two hours before I perform, so Lee suggests that we go into the ‘Cry Room’ (a small bar where frustrated golfers retire to after a bad round), to relax. As there is still some snow on the ground, the Cry Room is devoid of golfers today.
We sit. Lee reads a newspaper and I read my script, making a few more notes. There is a golf tournament on the flat screen TVs and every now and then we exchange a comment about a shot, but basically we sit quietly.
As three o’clock approaches I go back to the function room where a very noisy tea service is in full swing. Apparently some ladies are on their fifth cup, so I may need to be prepared for a fair amount of movement during the show!
At three Kathy stands up and asks how many have seen me perform before and the response is amazing, it must be about 90% of the audience which bodes well for the show. After thanking the Society’s board, staff volunteers and sponsors, Kathy introduces me and I walk to the simple lectern that has been set for me.
The programme of two Dickens’ (mmm, can we think of a suitable title?) is a lovely mix. Henry’s gentle words of an affectionate son pcreate a charming and homely picture of Charles Dickens for the crowd; but it is dad’s speech that is the star of the day. I feel so emotional reading his words and I can feel him watching me – nervous but oh so proud to hear the people’s reactions. The emotion is heightened by the fact that I am reading from his own type-written original, with notations in the margin in his own hand.
The heartfelt applause at the end is for my father: David Kenneth Charles Dickens.
After the show I sit at a table in the main foyer of the club and sign books and programmes and shake hands as the guests leave. Among the crowd is John and Mary-Ann Clinton, with their son Mark. The Clinton’s staged an event for me last year in Lincoln Nebraska and it is lovely to see them again. John has brought along a lovely edition of The Life of our Lord – an American first edition, published in 1934, shortly after Henry’s death, which I sign for him.
When the signing is finished Lee drives me to the hotel where I have the briefest of rests – just enough time to change costume – before it is time to leave for the Crook House once more.
This evening I am performing Nicholas Nickleby. The show is designed for theatres and it is quite a struggle to confine it to the tiny stage here, but I managed it last year and the response was so positive that Kathy has decided to do a repeat performance.
As ever the carol singers are gathered on the front porch as we arrive and the singing sounds beautiful floating across the clear night sky. My first job in the house is to find Barney, who looks after all of the logistical issues surrounding my various sets and furniture. The climax of Nickleby involves the villain of the piece, Ralph Nickleby, hanging himself. Last year Barney managed to fix my noose (yes, I have been travelling with a noose in my bag for four weeks), to the ornamental arch over the stage. At the appropriate moment I just need to pull at the cord for it to fall menacingly down. The effect drew a gasp of horror last year.
The guests arrive and we all mingle and chat, as last night. Wine is poured and consumed, Kir Royales are tried and enjoyed, Mario’s delicious buffet is devoured. I look on, hungrily, but knowing that to indulge so close to a show will be a big mistake.
As seven o’clock approaches Kathy and Susie round everyone up and the show begins. Nickleby is one of my oldest shows, and I have great faith in it, which means I can just relax and let it flow. It is a wonderful story, with laughs, violence and pathos in bucket-loads. The audience greatly enjoy it and the noose gets the expected response. It is a hot, tiring show, but my thirst is quenched by the champagne toast that Susie proposes immediately after the applause has died away.
I sign and pose and chat, and sign some more, but I am feeling the effects of a busy day now. More pertinent is that I did not bring a replacement costume to this show, and I am keen to get changed before catching a chill.
I say goodbye to all of the staff at the house, and gratefully receive a plate of Mario’s delicious food, before getting into Lee’s car for the short hop back to the hotel. As soon as I am in my room I get out of the costume and hang it up, before sitting down in front of the TV to eat my supper, and sipping a glass of wine.
I silently raise the glass to dad and whisper: ‘Thank You’.
The Field Club: http://www.fcomaha.com/