Today has a similar shape to yesterday, in that I don’t have to be in Sutton until 12.30, so have the morning to myself. The first job is to get breakfast out of the way before the Grand Prix starts at 8am. I get up and am down at the restaurant by 7.15, only to discover that at weekends they don’t open until 7.30, which means I run the risk of missing the start of the race. Instead of sitting at a table I therefore load a plate up with pastries and fruit and take it back to my room.
The race itself is tense and fascinating. To win the world championship Lewis Hamilton has to win the race with his team-mate, Nico Rosberg finishing lower than third place. Hamilton duly gets into the lead, and as the race nears its conclusion starts to go slower and slower, thereby letting all of the other cars catch up and heap pressure on Rosberg. The Mercedes team management don’t seem impressed, and their team orders get stronger and stronger, but Hamilton persists in his tactics: to me it is perfectly legitimate, as it is the only way that he can influence the championship result. He doesn’t drive dirty, just slowly. In the end it is irrelevant anyway, for Rosberg holds the second place and secures his first championship win.
Once the race is finished, I turn off the TV and complete a full run-through of The Signalman, before getting ready for the day’s performances, and driving towards Sutton.
The gang are all there to welcome me: Gary, Judi, Karen, Bob, Luke, Anna and of course Nate who is once more the centre of attention on stage.
Before getting ready for the first show, I turn my attention to the staging of the evening performance. When Judi puts the stage together for a Christmas Carol, she creates a wonderful warm set, complete with a fireplace, window, curtains, Christmas decorations, and a chandelier. However, The Signalman is set in an austere, cold signal box, with sparse furniture and functional telegraphic equipment, so everything needs to be re-thought.
I look at the stage with Judi, and we begin to make our plans. Firstly, we will rid the set of all the decorations; the plushly-furnished chair will go, although the plain wooden stool will stay. The chandelier can come down. Next, Judi will cover the light blue curtains with long black drapes, to suggest the sombre entrance to a railway tunnel. Having made the decisions, I walk around the store, which is an Aladdin’s cave of props, and find a bizarre mechanical brass item, with a clock on a stem – this will serve as the ‘telegraphic instrument with its dial, face and needles’. An upturned pewter bowl will represent the ‘little electric bell’ and a beautifully bound copy of Punch magazine can become the ‘official book.’ Improvisation is a wonderful thing!
With a bit of time in hand, I decide to do a complete run through of the show, which is useful.
When my rehearsal is finished, I turn my attentions back to A Christmas Carol. The audience for the 2pm show are starting to arrive, and I go to my dressing room to get ready. The crowd sounds good, and the burble of conversation from the hall is loud. I wait at the door until Gary has made his introduction, and then make my entrance.
For some reason it is a very difficult show to get going. This audience don’t seem to respond to the script as some others do, and the hall is quiet. I have learned over the years not to panic in situations like this, for that leads to trying too hard, which in turn destroys the rhythm of the show. I maintain my composure, but it is quite nerve-wracking nonetheless.
Slowly, gradually, the tide turns and from the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the reactions become more vocal and spontaneous and the show becomes more intense again right to the end. Phew! That was hard work.
I change and go to my signing table, where there is a good long queue waiting for me. Everyone is enthusiastic about the show, which is a relief. Finally, at the end of the line is my old friend Robin McFee, who comes every year and who always furnishes me with a goody-bag for the road: this year it contains Walnut Whips, and mint Humbugs (very apt!). She is also clutching a copy of The Signalman, which makes me think that I need to rehearse again – I must get it right!
I change into regular clothes and Judi, Luke and I work to convert the set, and soon we are in a wooden hut, rather than a sumptuous parlour. I put the props in place, and everything is ready for the evening.
With that it is time for supper – another amazing spread provided by Mary and her family – and then a short time relaxing (more accurately going over certain passages in The Signalman), before getting into costume and preparing for the show. Luke wants to take a couple of pictures, so I start rehearsing the story again on the stage, as he shoots away. This impromptu run through also allows Randy to tweak the sound levels to suit the different style of delivery.
The audience has gathered, so I leave the stage and let them take their places. It is an audience of around 80, and almost all of them have seen my shows before (many over the last two days), so are hardened fans.
I begin by explain the circumstances of the great Staplehurst rail disaster of 1865, and the effect it had on Dickens, who was one of the only survivors. He wrote his dark ghost story the following year, and it has a personal intensity which bespeaks the truth of his trauma.
There is such a wonderful atmosphere in the room and the whole story is played out in an almost breathless silence.
I finish the tale itself and then go onto to explain the ghostly coincidence that, while he was not killed in the Staplehurst crash, Dickens did die at the same time of day, on the very same date, exactly five years later. There is an audible gasp, before the applause begins.
It has been a very satisfying show, and as we have a bit of time, we turn the hall lights on, and have a question and answer session, which is great fun.
I go back to the table, where there are a surprising amount of programmes to be signed (we assumed that almost all of this audience would have bought theirs earlier in the weekend). In fact at the end of the signing Gary only has a few left, which he has me sign to sell in the next week – or to offer them next year, so that people who want to have a complete collection, but missed out in year one, can purchase them next year – at a premium, I am sure!
And so the Vaillancourt weekend has come to an end. I change and collect up all my belongings, before saying good bye to all of the staff in the store.
Gary and Judi are taking me to dinner in Worcester, and I drive away from the mill for the last time this year.
The three of us meet up at Via on Shrewsbury Street, and order light snacks from the bar menu. All of the male employees at Via are sporting impressive beards and moustaches, growing them for charity, and include a particularly impressively waxed Dali-esque moustache, curling around into two little Os.
We chat over the events of the weekend, and the impressive audience numbers to all of the shows. The conversation turns to next year, and what show I should do in the Sunday-night slot: the feeling being that Gary and Judi would like me to perform A Child’s Journey with Dickens once more. As we talk, the chat takes a somewhat maudlin turn: what if one of us is not here next year, what if…… Oh, my, The Signalman has certainly left its mark on us all.
We say our fond farewells, and hug on the street and I head once more for The Beechwood Hotel, and to my bed.