Today marks the start of the most intense week of the tour. For the next 6 days I am in a different venue every day, constantly on the move, living out of a suitcase as I dip into communities and straight out again. My six days in The Beechwood will seem like a luxury indeed, when I look back on it next weekend!
My next performance is in Marlborough, Massachusetts which actually is not far from here, so I can take my time in the morning. After breakfast I return to my room and catch up on a little sewing (a back seam on one of my frock coats has come loose and needs repairing), before trawling back through my email inbox, and replying to a few people in the UK about future events.
And now it is time to pack: 6 days have seen me spread myself out through the room, so I am very diligent as I check every drawer, every surface, every wardrobe and every electrical outlet to make sure I don’t leave anything.
I leave the hotel at 11 and begin my drive to Marlborough, which is actually not much further than the drive to the Vaillancourts. I listen to a new Bond audiobook – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which is the second of the Blofeld trilogy, and follows on from Thunderball.
The weather is grey and it is raining; the temperature is low and it feels that it doesn’t need much of a drop to change the rain into snow, which would be festive but not very helpful.
I find my way to Marlborough, and out the other side on the road to Sudbury, until I pull up at The Wayside Country Store, and the Anthony and Joseph Restaurant where I am to perform. I have visited this venue in the past, although not for the last couple of years, and it has always been fun (although very hard work).
The whole venue is made up of four businesses, spread through three buildings: the main country store is based in a wonderful old wooden house which as far as I know has always served the same purpose. Attached to the old shop (it should be an olde shoppe, really), is a candy store filled with luridly-coloured confectionary that would make Willy Wonka’s mouth water. To the right of the main store is a low building, which used to be an antiques barn, but which is now a small function room, where I will be doing my show. The function room is attached to an ice cream parlour. Finally there is the Stephen Anthony restaurant which serves fine hearty home-cooked food to wayfarers and townsfolk alike. There is something wonderfully nostalgic about the whole scene.
I get out of my car and go straight to the function room where I will do my show. Immediately I can tell that I am in for a busy day, for the room is packed with tables and chairs ready for lunch. There is nobody to be found there, so I go next door into the country store, where Deborah Eagar is busily re-stocking some candy jars. We greet each other as if I perform at the Wayside every week, as old friends, and spend some time chatting, before going back to the function room, to wait for Deb’s brother Anthony, who is the owner and chef at the restaurant.
Anthony is always busy, always in a rush, and when he arrives it is as if a strong wind has blown the door open. Another hug and I get caught up in his energy too: it is time to prepare for the show.
The format and layout here is unique, and I have to take some time to remind myself how it all works. My ‘set’ consists of a chair and table placed in the centre of the narrow, long room, surrounded by the dinner tables. I have to make sure that I move a lot around the room, so that those guests at the far extremes do not feel left out. I will be performing chapters one and two of the story, and then breaking so that the main course can be served, before continuing (while the guests are eating), with chapters three and four: another break to clear the plates and serve dessert, before finishing the story with chapter five. It is difficult to keep the audience’s attention, and so there is not a lot of subtlety in the performance – no long intense pauses, or carefully staged positons.
The only space to change in is the public loo, and as that will be busy when the guests arrive, I change early into my costume, placing my new watch on its chain for the first time. I am delighted to see that it is running steadily, and accurately.
The team of servers are swarming around the room now, filling water glasses, and placing bread rolls. Systems are being discussed so that the service element of the event will be quick and efficient – we do not have much time to spare.
The crowd is beginning to arrive, and are huddling outside in the cold rain. Final preparations are made, and the doors are opened. The welcoming of guests is quite an operation in itself: tickets have to be checked against a master list, and then each guest is given a slip denoting what their main course choice is (blue for sirloin steak, yellow for haddock); A server then leads them to their table.
There is still an hour before the show starts so I drift around the room chatting to the guests, some of who have seen the show before, others who are here for the first time. I meet a lady originally from Canterbury in Kent (the county of my birth); she has been in Massachusetts since 1964 and her English accent is still impeccable!
There is a lively atmosphere in the room, as everyone settles down. The bar is doing a good trade, and Anthony and his wife Sarah are controlling the whole thing efficiently.
The time ticks on (literally, as my new watch has a very satisfying tick to it), and soon we are ready to begin. Poor Deb has been given the job of announcing me, and she is very scared at the prospect – but she does a fine job, capturing the attention of the crowd and reading the introductory notes clearly. I am welcomed to my stage – my space – with a generous round of applause, and begin to perform.
As I mentioned before, the staging and subtlety of my usual show goes out of the window, but what I lose from that, I gain by being able to involve the audience much more closely in the show. For example, I can pick on a gentleman to represent Scrooge, a young girl for the Ghost of Christmas Past, A white-haired man for Fezziwig. I can trip over someone’s foot in the city street, and can use a whole table to be the Cratchit family: it is hard and hot work, but great fun.
I also have to keep an eye on practical matters too: the rest room is situated at the back of the room, but to the right-hand side, which means anyone sitting at the left end of the room needs to walk through the stage area to reach it. When this happens, I try to move the action away to another part of the room, so that the individual doesn’t feel as if they are interrupting too much. During the afternoon performance it seems as a lot of people to the left need to pay a visit, so I am roaming around among tables a great deal of the time.
I successfully negotiate the first section of the show, and the dinner service starts: lots of bustle, lots of noise, lots of congratulations about the show. I hover at the side of the room waiting for the signal from Anthony to start again. The second session is more difficult, because people’s attention is divided between their food and me, but the story continues well, until it is time to break once more, for dessert.
A look at my watch tells me that I really should have edited the story more: it is nudging towards five o’clock as I perform the last chapter, and the evening group is due to be seated at six! I finish the show and take the applause, before sitting down to sign (no opportunity to change out of my damp costume today). As I chat and pose, the servers are frantically clearing the tables, stripping them of their linen cloths, replacing them with new ones and re-setting for dinner – it is a truly impressive operation.
The afternoon audience finally drifts away into a wet evening and I immediately get changed into my dry costume, ready to do the whole thing again. Of course, I have a little time, as there is an hour between welcoming the guests and the start of the show, so I go next door to the restaurant and have a crab cake salad, which helps to boost my sagging energy levels.
The evening crowd are energetic and lively, and more of a dinner-theatre crowd, than the afternoon group. They are smartly dressed and definitely out for an evening’s entertainment. The reaction to the show backs up that impression, and they are right there in the story, and pull a very physical (and hot) performance from me.
The applause at each break is as long and loud as if it were at the end of a show, and lots of audience members come and talk to me and say how much they are enjoying the evening, which just spurs me on all the more. One interesting and recurring comment is that I don’t seem to have an accent when I perform. Of course, as far as I am concerned, I don’t have an accent anyway, but the audience is from Mass, and mean I sound like them. Curious. It is a lovely show and at the end everyone joins in with ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’
Once again I am consigned to my signing table in a damp (rather more than damp) costume, and I just have to hope that I don’t get a chill. People are so generous in their praise, but I am beginning to feel the effects of a very hectic afternoon and evening and the adrenaline is running low.
Finally the audience leaves, and I am able to change into my street clothes. The staff have waved their magic wands and the room is clear; we all sit around (everyone has worked so hard today, and we are all tired) and chat, as Anthony works out their wages and tips.
I am really flagging now, so say good bye to everybody and drive the short distance to my hotel, where I check in. It is 10.30, and as soon as I get to my room I slump onto the bed and almost instantly I am asleep.