(Please accept my apologies for the lack of a blog post yesterday: this was due to the misplacement of my laptop charger and adapter, which rendered me hors de combat for the day. Here are the last two days, which saw us travelling to be with our dear friends at Byers Choice.)
Friday, December 11
We wake at the Fairville Inn to yet another bright, warm morning. Liz’s sleep was interrupted as she started the process of acclimatising to another time zone. They say that it takes a day for each hour difference – that being so she will just about back to normal as we fly back to the UK.
We don’t have a difficult morning ahead of, so I write the blog as Liz grabs an extra hour’s sleep. At around 8am we get up and walk to the main house where we are welcomed by the Inn’s owners Laura and Rick Carro. Laura saw the show yesterday afternoon, and is fulsome in her congratulations and praise, as are another couple, who are guests at the Inn. We sit in the small dining room and have a properly prepared and cooked breakfast: no buffet tables with congealing scrambled eggs or greasy bacon here.
Although I don’t have a show until 7pm, we do have an appointment this morning, as Ellen managed to book us on a morning tour of the house at Winterthur. We repack (as ever it is astounding how much we have managed to unpack and use in the space of twelve hours) and load the car up, before saying goodbye to Laura and Rick.
It is a strange feeling to drive to ‘work’ as a tourist and as we arrive at the visitor centre it takes a great deal of effort not to go straight to my little office dressing room. Instead we take a short woodland walk to the house itself, where Ellen meets us with hugs.
The tour of Winterthur takes an hour or so, and the various rooms have been decorated to showcase spectacularly designed and prepared Christmas Trees: there is an autumnal one which glows with oranges and reds; there is a Tiffany one in purples and peacock blues; A Downton Abbey themed tree is weighed down with traditional glass ornaments, along with little bells (representing the servant’s bells) and tiaras hiding among the branches. Our particular favourite is in the conservatory, and is a massive tree decorated purely with dried summer flowers. It is a truly impressive sight and moves Liz (a passionate gardener) to tears.
The tour is very much tree-centric, and we miss being told the story of the house and art itself, but the Montmorenci Staircase (moved from a house in North Carolina and re-assembled here) is quite stunning.
After finishing the tour, and spending some time in the gift shop (where the wares of both Byers Choice and my friends at Vaillancourt Folk Art are featured), we decide to drive to Doylestown and grab some lunch there before arriving at The Byers Choice building.
The journey lasts for about an hour and sees us skirting Philadelphia, before driving into Bucks County. We are close to Chalfont, where Byers are based, and (somewhat confusingly) to North Wales where we will be staying. The charming historical town of Doylestown is not far but the traffic is very heavy. We soon realise that by the time we get there and eat it will be time to turn round again, so we decide to cut our losses, find somewhere to have lunch close by and then check in to the hotel.
I pull into a car park as we consider our options, and as the car park in question belongs to Bertucci’s Italian restaurant we decide to eat here. We share a large bowl of salad and each have a plate of spaghetti and meatballs each. It is a good, filling lunch, and should keep us going through the afternoon and evening until we can eat again, after my show.
The Joseph Ambler Inn is just a short drive away and the route takes us through a lovely, well-to-do residential area. A neighbourhood like this is so different to a corresponding one in England, in that the houses stand proudly within their plot of land, whereas back home everyone hides away behind hedges , fences and walls. If you are claustrophobic live in America, and if you suffer from agoraphobia then Britain is the place for you.
We receive a fulsome welcome at the Joseph Ambler Inn, which is a traditional Pennsylvanian country inn, with fifty two rooms spread through five historic buildings. We are staying in ‘Rose Valley’, which is a room in the main barn building, above the restaurant.
Liz lays on the bed and relaxes, while I battle with the mini ironing board, trying to get two shirts ready for this evening. These table-top ironing boards are very awkward, but the small rooms in the converted barn do not leave much room for a full-sized version.
I have a quick shower and then we re-gather our belongings ready for the short drive to the Byers Choice headquarters and visitor centre.
Byers Choice is not just another venue, it is home. I have been performing here for eleven years, and for the past seven Bob Byers has been managing my tour. He does an amazing job on my behalf and the tour quite simply would never happen without him: he secures my visa, arranges the venues, makes sure I can get from a to b in time to perform, he makes sure I have somewhere to stay. Of course all actors have agents and producers that they work with, but not all actors can say that their management are genuinely good friends, as I can.
For the past two years Bob’s wife Pam has been working closely with him and now she looks after all of the day to day logistics of the trip. In the summer Bob and Pam visited us in Abingdon and we spent a wonderful day on the River Thames and being tourists in Oxford.
We park our car and as we arrive there is a veritable reception committee to meet us – Bob and Pam are there, as well as various other staff welcoming us back. Liz has visited Byers Choice on a few previous occasions and she is welcomed back with open arms.
Almost as soon as we are in the door Wendy Stubb ushers us in to the staff canteen where a table as been set up with a huge wedding cake is laid out. Suddenly we are celebrating our wedding all over again! It is the most generous and charming gesture – we are both very moved and grateful.
Joyce Byers (Bob’s mother, whose artistry and vision lies behind the Byers Choice success story) joins the celebration, as does David who looks after all of my technical requirements here. It is the most remarkable welcome.
But there is still a show to be done, so David and I go to the theatre to get ready. The entire production are is cleared of work stations each year, a stage erected and seven hundred seats laid out. Dave rigs theatre lights and installs a sound system and suddenly a factory floor becomes a place of entertainment. Dave knows the script almost as well as I do and prides himself in using subtle lighting effects to enhance my performance.
He shows me where all of the ‘special’ lights are focussed: the most important one is a tight spotlight downstage centre which will flash up when Marley’s face appears in the door knocker, and again at the very end of the show. There is a particular pattern in the rug upon which I must stand if the light is to have its full effect.
We test the microphone for a while, but it crackles and distorts, thanks to a loose connection. We swap it for a replacement pack and all is well.
The logistics of getting nearly seven hundred people from the car park and into the theatre is huge, so seating starts an hour before the show. Liz and I retreat to my dressing room – the company’s board room, where we manage to spread ourselves out within minutes of arriving.
With twenty minutes to go we walk back to the room which is filling up now. On stage the Bucks County West High School Choir entertain the swelling audience, watched proudly by their director of music Joseph Ortz,
Bob decides to delay the start slightly as people are still being ferried from the car park, so it is not until 7.15 that he gets onto the stage to thank the choir (who have been loudly applauded), and introduce me.
As Bob leaves the stage, Dave brings my music in and bathes the stage in a cold blue light representing the cold churchyard of Marley’s grave. It is a superbly atmospheric and theatrical opening to the show.
I concentrate very hard on my performance tonight, trying to correct a few things that Liz had noticed during my performance at Winterthur last night. Liz has a superb eye and ear, and I completely trust and act on her advice. In this case she pointed out that I have been losing some of the hard consonants at the end of some words: ‘Marley was Dea…’ instead of ‘deaD’. Also some of my dramatic pauses have become too long, thereby losing any drama they may have had. I make a real effort to keep the pace up and enunciate well and as a result I am very very pleased with the performance.
The lighting is fabulous and Dave makes little changes here and there: warmer for the Cratchit’s celebrations, cooler as the Ghost of Christmas Present slowly ages, and positively chilly for the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
The response from the audience is quite amazing, with seven hundred people standing and cheering. Goodness, what a fine life I lead!
Of course a large audience makes for a long signing line, and having changed in the boardroom I make my way through the company museum to settle into a comfy chair, behind a smart desk. The patience of audience members is amazing, as they wait in line. Pam does a great job chatting to everyone and making them feel special.
After about forty minutes Bob appears with a tray of water, and walks along the line handing them out, he is followed a few minutes later by Joyce carrying a trash can for the empty cups. Those moments sum up Byers Choice completely – Bob could easily have snapped his fingers for an employee to distribute water and provide the rubbish bin, but that is not the sort of people the Byers are.
Time is moving on and Liz is patiently waiting for me to finish. By the time we get back to the hotel the restaurant will be closed and so she and Bob phone ahead to ask them to put a couple of sandwiches aside. There follows the most remarkably obstructive and difficult phone call as the staff at The Joseph Ambler Inn claim not to know of Gerald Dickens or Byers Choice. It is unlike the Inn and rather disappointing.
When we finally get back to the hotel we are rather grudgingly told that our sandwiches are at the front desk as ‘we had to put them somewhere!’ The level of service has descended to those of an English hotel.
We fetch our boxed sandwiches and take them to the bar, where the staff are cheerful and welcoming, which restores our faith once again. Bob and Liz must just have caught someone at a bad moment in a bad day.
The sandwiches are delicious, and we slowly wind down, before climbing the stairs to ‘Rose Valley’ and getting ready for bed.
Saturday, December 12
We both sleep well, apart from being woken at 2am by a somewhat loud, and presumably well lubricated, reveller who can’t find her room key and feels the need to call to a companion who must be in the adjoining county, judging by the volume of the conversation.
When I wake at 6 I start to write the blog but it is now that I discover that the laptop’s power lead is in my bag at Byers Choice. Liz fetches us both a cup of coffee from the front desk, and we slowly prepare for the morning.
Although the Joseph Ambler Inn serves a superb breakfast we are meeting Bob and Pam in Doylestown this morning. Our assignation is to be at the Cross Keys Diner, which is full and noisy. Bob and Pam are splendidly off duty in their Penn State sweatshirts, and it is nice for all of us to be away from work.
Coffees are brought in a collection of randomly selected mugs (mine bears the legend ‘I Love my Grandpa’ and Liz’s is from a local garage.)
We both order pancakes and syrup, while Pam selects Scrapple, a great Pennsylvania breakfast delicacy. ‘What is Scrapple?’ we ask. From the outset her description doesn’t sell the concept to us at all. It is made from all the bits of pig that are unusable for anything else, which are mushed up with cornmeal, boiled and finally fried. We decide to stick with the pancakes (although of course we come from the nation where black pudding and haggis are revered)
The portions, as one would expect from an American diner are huge and defeat us completely, but it has been a lovely way to start the day.
Pam says that she will drive us into the centre of Doylestown, so that we can explore before driving back to Byers Choice for the matinee performance. Before dropping us off she takes us to chez Byers to show off her ‘Bunny Garden’ a little enclosure that is the home to Budda and Summer.
Pam is creating quite the homestead here, as there is also a large chicken run, complete with strutting cockerel.
In Doylestown itself Liz and I spend an hour or so looking into various shops, and particularly spending far too long in the book store. We but lots of little trinkets – some of which will become Christmas presents for others – but mostly for us. We also find a copy of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, which we buy for Pam and Bob.
We have to be back at HQ at around 11am, as the 1pm show is even busier than last night, so the seating has to begin early.
I do a quick sound check with Dave and make sure that the stage is set correctly, before handing the room over to Bob and the front of house team. Liz and I sit quietly in the boardroom, reading (in her case) and playing backgammon (in mine). Soon it is time to get into costume and start the preparations for the show once more. It is extraordinary to see the huge audience from the back of the hall, and it is just as well that I don’t get phased by large numbers (in fact, quite the opposite: if I had to address a meeting of twelve around the boardroom table I would be a hopeless, gibbering wreck.)
Once again the start time is delayed, but soon Bob is welcoming the audience, and the show starts again. As with last night the large audience is responsive and vocal, and the show is strong and energetic. There may be the first little signs of tiredness in my voice (the charity collector, the carol singer and Mrs Cratchit’s voices are all slightly broken), but it is not a major issue. I again concentrate on my consonants and pauses, so as not to fall into my default mode of speech.
‘God Bless us, Every One!’ A wonderful ovation – there never WAS such an ovation (well, not quite true, as last night’s matched it). It has been another great success at Byers Choice.
There now comes a difficult period of the tour, as the signing line will be big and the day’s second show is early, leaving very little time between the end of one and the start of the other. Pam does her best to keep the line moving and I try to keep the chat to a minimum, so as to save both time and voice.
By the time I sign the last autograph, the next audience is gathering in the store. Bob, Pam, Liz and I sit together in the kitchen and eat a salad and some soup, but in no time Bob is off to start seating and I need to get ready again.
The evening audience is slightly smaller (‘only’ 400) but the Bucks County West choir receive generous rounds of applause from them.
The show starts and it really is a case of dragging a rather weary body back to the levels that the story demands. It is actually a good show, not a great one, not an amazing one, but a perfectly respectable one. Silly things go wrong, as is often the case in such circumstances: I flick the rug up with my foot and almost trip on it, and then have to find an inconspicuous moment to flatten it out again; when I throw my coat towards the chair it misses and falls off the stage, and I have to make sure I have time to retrieve it before Scrooge gets ‘dressed all in his best’. Nothing major, but irritating little things, which all take the concentration away from the performance itself.
The audience are with me throughout though, and give me a suitably rousing Byers Choice farewell.
The signing session is not too difficult, as between us Pam and I have a good routine going now. The end of the queue comes surprisingly quickly, and this long, tiring day is at an end.
Almost at an end, for there is one more ceremony to be performed: Wendy has gathered as many of the staff who are still about as possible to witness the cutting of our Wedding Cake! Bob, Pam, Joyce, David and others give us a celebratory round of applause as the knife sinks through the icing and into the sponge below. We take a large chunk with us back to the hotel to enjoy for our dessert.
It feels as if it should be about 11pm, but actually it is only 8.15. The car park of The Joseph Ambler Inn is packed, and we struggle to find a space, but fortunately the bar and restaurant are surprisingly quiet. Having hung my costumes in our room to air, we sit and enjoy a plate of steak and fries in a corner of the bar.
We return to our room and enjoy our wedding cake before getting ready for bed.
The two days at Byers Choice never feels like work (although goodness knows this second day is a tough one), it just feels like a happy time spent among dear friends – which is exactly what it is!
Tomorrow we are on the move again, journeying to Bethlehem.