Thursday, December 10

Today is a day that I have been looking forward to for weeks: Liz is finally coming to join me in Witnterthur and will spend the final week of the tour on the road with me. Before we can be reunited we both have long journeys to make (hers rather longer than mine).

I pack all of my things and remind myself not to forget the full load of costume shirts in the drier downstairs: that would be a disaster. As I pack I find a belt from one the Hotel Hershey’s fluffy white robes that must have fallen into my case as I packed yesterday (was it only yesterday?).

I load the car up with my costumes, hat and cane and discover that the fog of yesterday has intensified and is very thick indeed. I can hardly see the other cars in the car park.

On the way to the breakfast room I pick up my shirts and stuff them all into a hotel laundry bag, before having some cereal, juice and coffee. It is 7am and I would like to be on the road by 7.30 – especially as the thick fog will presumably slow the journey down somewhat.  145 miles and three hours separate me from Winterthur.

In my room Liz and I exchange a flurry of emails: she is at the airport and ready to board her flight to Philadelphia. It is a strange thought that we will both be departing at about the same time bound for the same destination – one from London and one from Lewisburg.

As soon as I start to drive I know that this is going to be an arduous journey, requiring extreme concentration and caution. Of all the extreme weather conditions that I drive in, fog is my least favourite.  I don’t mind driving in the snow or ice because you can make allowances, but fog is claustrophobic and to a certain extent your safety is in the hands of others.  Even in these conditions of bad visibility some people are driving with no lights and extremely fast and aggressively.

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There is certainly no danger of being distracted by the Susquehanna today, as she is lost in the cloud.

At one point there is an incongruous splash of colour at the roadside in the shape of a beach umbrella, which is covering a small table offering, as the crudely painted sign informs me ‘SAURE KRAUT’. What a strange thing to be selling at the roadside on a foggy morning.

The US15 takes me further south and towards Harrisburg again. The fog is still playing tricks with me, and I am convinced that one official road sign suggest that I ‘Try Carolling’, which seems very festive, if rather austere – a mile or so on I pass another sign with the same message and realise it is actually trying to reduce traffic in Harrisburg and in fact reads: Try Carpooling’.

Past Harrisburg and towards Lancaster and the fog lifts a little. The sun is making a tentative effort to break through, but only manages to appear as a flat disk, like a coin, in the sky.  I have covered half of the journey and hopefully the most arduous part of the journey is behind me now.

I am aware that my throat is feeling rather tight, following my efforts last night, so I pop a Fisherman’s Friend into my mouth and do some deep slow breathing exercises. I am in Amish country now, and the fields stretch away on either side of the road.  At the town of Gap I admire the wonderful lighthouse-like clock tower, as I always do, and drive on.

My route takes me through Chatham. the English town of the same name is where Charles Dickens grew up and enjoyed the happiest times of his childhood, but I dont think I would enjoy the Pennsylvanian version – the sole industry here seems to be mushrooms. I don’t like mushrooms: never have, never will.  I don’t understand mushrooms.  In fairness, they probably don’t understand me either.  For all the fungi, Chatham looks a nice town, and I am sorry for it that it has become so infected!

Despite the bad weather I have actually made excellent progress and I am due to arrive at Winterthur an hour early. As my (our!) bed and breakfast is on my route I decide to stop there in the hope that my room may be ready – which it is.

The Fairville Inn is a lovely collection of old buildings, which provides a very welcome change from the world of corporate hotels. Our room is upstairs in Springhouse, and is furnished with beautiful furniture.  There is a fireplace and balcony, which overlooks green lawns to the rear of the property.

It is nice to relax for a few minutes and not to arrive at my performance venue straight from the long journey. I make sure that I have everything that I need for the shows and at 11.15 get back into the car and drive to Winterthur.

Winterthur was the Delaware home (the state line is actually between the Fairville Inn and the house) of the DuPont family who bought such wealth to the Brandywine valley through their chemical company. Henry Francis DuPont was a great collector of fine arts and the house has become a museum dedicated to displaying his collections.

This will be my fourth year performing here and the welcome I receive as I walk in to the visitor centre is very special. Ellen Taviano is my contact and immediately takes me under her wing, and gets me settled in my dressing room (actually an office for the retail department of the building).

The sound check has to be delayed for a while, as the Copeland Lecture Hall is being fitted with a large digital projector, ready to screen the final series of Downton Abbey tomorrow. Over the years of this popular TV series, which has been such a hit in the USA, Winterthur has become very closely attached to it – the story of the DuPont’s home mirroring life in the fictitious Yorkshire pile.

It is not a great calamity to have my sound check delayed as I don’t use a microphone here, despite the hall being very long, holding 450 people. The acoustics are remarkable in Copeland so that I hardly need to project at all.  I used a microphone for my very first performance and the sound just became distorted, so since then I have let the natural amplification of the room do the work.

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The only thing to be actually tested is the show-opening sound effect and – glory be – the hall has a system that can play a CD.

I return to my dressing room, where Ellen has laid out a bowl of fruit, a tray of tea bags, a mug and a pot of honey, all of which I avail myself of.

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The audience are gathering already and Ellen and her team are making sure that nobody gets into the hall before the 12.30 door opening. The doors to the theatre are at the back end of the beautifully and tastefully stocked gift shop, and it is fun to watch audience members pretending to browse, but in fact watching the door so that when it opens they can be first in.

It is a huge audience and I have a moment of doubt when I look into the hall – can I really do this without a mic? Of course I can, I have done it before.

I am to be introduced by David Roselle, the director of Winterthur, and I need to be on my guard as I have learned over the years that he likes to start talking when the clock strikes one, whether I am ready or not: bathroom break visits have to be carried out with plenty of time to spare.

Sure enough, I am chatting with Ellen and some of the volunteers in the gift shop when we are suddenly aware of David’s vice on stage. I hurry to the auditorium and wait for his cue. The music starts and I walk slowly to the stage and deliver the first line.

Now is the test: can the audience hear? When I say ‘Mind, I don’t mean to say that I know what there is particularly dead about a doornail’, there is laughter from the hall – most importantly there is laughter from the BACK of the hall.  OK, I am safe!

After the difficulties of last night what I need today is a good show, a powerful show and a responsive audience and I am rewarded with all three. The stage is a lovely space to move on, and the audience is brilliant, quite brilliant.

At the end of the show they are on their feet and cheering even before I am down the three little steps from the stage. And as I walk out of the theatre there are a succession of high fives and pats on the back.

I change as rapidly as I can, and am soon at the signing table.

One young boy, he can be no more that twelve or thirteen, is dressed in a smart jacket. He proffers his programme for signing and then asks some very serious and well considered questions about the text: a professor of English literature in the making, without a doubt.

I have two hours before I have to be ready again and Liz is due to land at Philadelphia very soon. I sit in the office for a while, pondering the many (incomprehensible to me) notices and memos.

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After a while I decide to return to Fairville Inn for an hour and relax, away from the venue. While I am laid on the bed I get an email from Liz saying that she has landed early, cleared immigration and is now waiting for her cases.  Pam Byers has very kindly driven to Philadelphia and will transport her to Winterthur.

At five o’clock I am back and after making myself a tea and honey (my voice is a little raspy), I stand in the foyer chatting to people, but keeping an eye on the door. As I am talking to a very interesting gentleman who has been doing some historical research at Winterthur, and who has no connection with my show, the main door opens and Pam comes in, followed by Liz.  I say ‘excuse me’ to the gentleman as politely as I can and rush to Liz: we hug, and hug and hug some more.  Our reunion is a very public one, but people give us space and time, and are very respectful of our first moments together for five weeks.

Liz, I and Pam walk up to the car park, where we transfer the suitcases from one car to the other. We both thank Pam for her great kindness and she drives home to Doylestown and we go back to the visitor centre, where I have to get ready for the show.

We sit and chat in the office, as I get changed and ready. Liz drinks some water and eats a banana – she is tired and fading (her body is telling her that it is 11pm and that it is bed time).

At six Liz sits at the back of the auditorium, where she can ‘rest’ her eyes if necessary and I get ready to start another show.

It is another good performance, without being quite as crisp and energetic as this afternoon, but the audience is very enthusiastic. It is a work out, for sure and the cumulative effects of the long drive and the first show mean that I am not quite as lively as earlier, but I am very satisfied with the way that the day has gone.

Liz is waiting for me in the gift shop, but so are a long line of audience members, so I sit at the desk and sign for half an hour or so, until we can be together again.

I pack up all of my belongings, not forgetting to retrieve the scarf from the stage, and we get ready to leave, thanking Ellen and the staff for all of their help and kindness in making us feel so much at home.

Liz’s body clock is screaming rebellion now, but we are hungry so drive the short distance to Buckley’s Tavern, which is on the way back to the Inn. We are shown to a table and chat about the evening.

It is interesting for Liz to sit among the audience and listen to people’s responses. She overheard two lady’s talking about the script and bemoaning the fact that I didn’t include the line about Marley being ‘a bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.’  They also continued by commenting about the book itself – The poulterer would never be open on Christmas morning!

To address the two points: I hate leaving some of the wonderful descriptions out of my script, but to perform it as a single act in eighty minutes means that some sacrifices have to be made.  I do include the ‘bit of beef’ quote in my 2-act version of the show.  I’d also love to include Bob Cratchit toasting to ‘Mr Scrooge, the founder of the feast’ and Mrs Cratchit’s irate response; I’d love to include the scene in which Scrooge is shown a young couple in debt to him celebrating his death, as they were  on the point of being ruined by him.

And I would like to include one of the greatest passages in the book in which Scrooge and The Ghost of Christmas Present land in the streets on Christmas Morning:

The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squat and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement. 

The Grocers’! oh, the Grocers’! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose.

 It is a lovely scene – in early Victorian England the shops would indeed have been open on Christmas morning and the boy could have bought the prize turkey – more to the point was how the Cratchit family were able to have it cooked at such short notice!

At Buckleys we have a lovely dinner and talk and catch up, but we are both very tired now and we need to get back to the Fairville Inn.

A day that began with Liz in Abingdon and me in Lewisburg ends with us together again in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania.

 

Links:

Winterthur: http://www.winterthur.org/

Fairville Inn: http://fairvilleinn.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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