Wednesday, December 16
In an earlier blog (‘A Polite Way of Storytelling’) I opened with the sentence ‘My alarm goes off and I wake feeling ever so slightly jaded. Maybe my evening of great conviviality with Stephen and Sarah Jane was a little too convivial.’
On that occasion I was in Norfolk: there must be something about Virginia, for if I substitute Stephen and Sarah Jane for Ryan and Jeannie, the same is true today.
We surface slowly and start to pack a few things ready for our departure. This morning we are going to have breakfast at the Inn itself, rather than at the Lodge, and feel much more at home as we arrive back in the Regency Room.
We are greeted as old friends by many of the staff and receive nods of recognition from guests who were in the audience last night.
One of the waiters, Don – who has been at Williamsburg for as long as I can remember – comes to the table to chat. Don is a giant of a man, he must be 6’4 at least, and he moves slowly, with great deliberation; when he serves he does so with deep concentration, as if the fear of making a mistake is too huge to bear. He loves to talk, and loves the shows, and tries to watch as many as he can, meaning that he is well versed in the lines. Apparently yesterday when the sound man turned up and wanted to check that the microphone was working correctly Don immediately volunteered to stand in for me and had his moment centre stage repeating the words of Charles Dickens. I would have paid anything to have seen that!
Don’s eyes are sparkling as he recounts the story, but as we talk Leroy, the Maitre D’ comes across the restaurant and reminds Don that he is still working and needs to get on: ‘If I didn’t rescue you he would keep talking to you all morning!’
Leroy is another amazing man and the Regency Room would be a faint imitation of itself without him at the helm. Leroy is short of stature but with a ram-rod-backed military demeanour. For the past few years he has been talking about retiring, which is a terrible thought for the restaurant. As we chat he tells us about his grandson in Houston, who he misses profusely; and a sensitive, loving, caring soul is shown to us. It is a moving moment in which Leroy becomes our close personal friend rather than a Williamsburg employee. Retire! Definitely!
It is a feature of my tours that along the way so many kind, generous, warm, sensitive, talented and fascinating people touch my life and I feel truly grateful for being given the opportunity to meet them.
We finish our breakfast, and after a final farewell hug from Leroy we return to our room to finish packing. The journey today takes us to the little riverside town of Occoquan which lies to the south of Washington DC. We get on the road and settle in for a 2 hour journey that features no corners to speak of. The I295 cuts its arrow-like route through the Virginian woodland, taking us past the Marine Corps base at Quantico.
The I295 becomes the I95, which seems to feature a great deal on my tour running, as it does, for the entire length of the eastern seaboard. To alleviate the massive DC commuter traffic a toll expressway has been built alongside. The Expressway is only open in the rush hours, but now lays silent. To prevent cars using it a series of barriers are down – there must be at least twelve of them at each intersection, and it would be a fantastic scene for a car chase in a Bond, Mission Impossible of Bourne movie. I can see the flimsy poles being pinged into the air one after another as our hero chases down some villainous crook, hell-bent on world domination.
Shortly before 1pm we turn off 95 and head into the little town of Occoquan, where we park next to my venue for today’s shows, The Ebenezer Chapel. The car park is almost full and people are already streaming into the chapel even though my show is not for another hour.
The events of the day are actually put on by The Golden Goose Christmas store, which is a short stroll along Main Street. Occoquan is such a beautiful little town, with the houses looking like models that have been carefully constructed and painted. The Golden Goose is elaborately decorated with swathes of fir and huge Christmas ornaments. As soon as we enter we are greeted by Pat, who owns the store along with LaVerne – they are both further examples of the good and kindly people that we are fortunate to know.
We are ushered into the little back office to relax, and Pat arranges for a quick lunch to be brought in for us: a salad for me and a sandwich for Liz. If there could be a blueprint for the perfect pre-show lunchtime salad, this would be it: simple, healthy and tasty.
I get changed in the stockroom and just before 2 we walk along the street back to the chapel. It is only a small hall, but it is full. Almost an entire side is taken up by a group from the Red Hat Brigade, looking resplendent in a variety of scarlet headwear and purple tops. They are always a fun crowd to perform to, and I have my special ‘red hat’ ad-lib (that they have all heard many times before), ready up my sleeve.
LaVerne makes a wonderful introduction, which includes showing us her old family copy of A Christmas Carol printed in 1900, and I begin my penultimate performance of this year’s USA tour.
From the very start I know this is going to be a fantastic show – not a good one, but a fantastic one. The relationship between me and the audience is electric and every moment works perfectly. The laughter rings from the Ebenezer Chapel, and there are not just sniffles to accompany Tiny Tim’s death but loud, uncontrolled sobs.
On Christmas morning Scrooge makes his way through the crowds wishing everyone Merry Christmas, until he catches sight of the Red Hatters: ‘Hmm, I think that you should shop in different stores to one another!’ A huge guffaw of laughter and a round applause greets the line; and another one follows when Scrooge goes to church and realises that ‘they even named it after me!’ They are both old well used ‘ad libs’, but the audience at Occoquan look forward to them as much as ‘God Bless Us, Every One.’
If I could bottle up the joyfulness within the Ebenezer Chapel this afternoon and sell it, I would be a rich man indeed. When, at the end of the show, I stand at the door to say goodbye to everyone there is a most amazing sense of Christmas energy flowing into the streets. It is an unbelievably precious moment, and both Liz and I are moved to the point of tears.
When the audience has left the Church we walk back to the store for the signing session. Liz sits in the office and I make my way through the displays of trees and ornaments to a small room at the back of the shop. The Christmas Spirit is still alive and well, and everyone is happy.
When the signing finishes I just have time to change before we are taken out to supper by Jean, her husband Peter and Joe, all friends of Pat and LaVerne, who have become my regular dinner companions here for the last few years.
Jean is an avid fan of British television, and chats eagerly to Liz about the final season of Downton Abbey, as well as series that are less well-known in the USA such as Granchester and the original version of House of Cards.
Joe and I talk about Washington DC, and what Liz and I could see on our day of tourism tomorrow – he suggests many things, including the Smithsonian Museum of American History on the Mall, which sounds fascinating.
Time rushes on all too quickly, and soon I am changed and ready for the final performance. The chance of it being anything like this afternoon’s adventure is slim, but I want to go out on a high note, nonetheless.
Back at Ebenezer the audience are packed in once more. LaVerne makes her introduction and for the final time on US soil this year I say ‘Marley was dead, to begin with!’
Right from the start I know that I am a little slow and slightly fatigued, but certainly not badly so. The show is going well enough, and the pace is beginning to return when I am aware of movement in the audience. A gentleman sitting about four rows back is obviously not feeling well, and the people around him are trying to help. I keep an eye on proceedings, in case I need to stop the show, meaning that I am performing on automatic pilot, just letting the words continue.
Then the man slumps forward, and his companions, lift him up, and manage to get him to his feet and lead him out of the little hall. Of course the audience are watching this drama unfold, which is just as well, because my continuing narration has become devoid of any real emotion now.
With the patient out of the hall (followed by LaVerne, Liz and another member of the Golden Goose staff), faces turn back to me, and we all settle down to return to the story once more. I give myself a metaphorical kick with metaphorical spurs, and metaphorically break out of a trot to gallop once more.
From this point on my performance starts to gather rhythm and energy once more – even when the wailing cry of the ambulance is heard outside, and the red lights flash through the stained glass windows directly in my eye line.
Liz and LaVerne are back in the hall, so I assume that things are as good as they can be, and the flashing lights are a permanent reminder that the gentleman is in good hands.
I get to the end of the show, and to the end of the tour – not quite the easiest of performances with which to finish, but a good reminder that you can never relax until the fat lady has sung (or the little boy has God Blessed).
At the back of the hall I ascertain from LaVerne that the gentleman fainted, and was thoroughly checked over by the paramedics, but refused to go in the ambulance to hospital. It is a huge relief that the situation was not more serious.
Back at the store the signing line is less frantic than earlier (a lot of the second audience had joined the first audience’s queue earlier), and in no time I am changing back into my normal clothes again. The Frock coats and waistcoats can be hung up for the last time – well, for three days, as I have a series of performances in the UK, but for now there is a definite feeling of closure
We say good bye to Pat and LaVerne and wish them well for Christmas and the New Year, until we meet again in this magical shop in this magical town. As we walk to the car Christmas lights are twinkling from gables and windows. Some are white, some coloured, some subtle, some bold; some outside, some in. Yes, Occoquan is definitely magical tonight.
After dropping my costumes and bags into our car, we walk to Madigan’s restaurant and bar where we order two deserts and a bottle of wine, and we quietly toast the conclusion of another successful USA tour.
This will not be the final blog post of this year for I shall look back over the tour soon; but for now:
‘Happy Christmas to all and to all a good-night!’
William Laramie said:
Mr. Dickens, we were in the audience for your last performance when the gentleman became ill. Your professionalism in your performance was superb! The situation in the audience did not appear to impact the program. You are indeed a consummate thespian. We have been in attendance for approximately 8 years and look forward to many more of your performances. Safe travels and thank you for the opportunity to relive the magic of, “A Christmas Carol.”
Mr Dickens and Liz, safe travels back home and a Very Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year!
Steve Wrzesien said:
When you mentioned “It’s not over until the fat lady sings”, it might be referenced to Kate Smith singing “God Bless America”. Merry Christmas !