And so I have made it to the end: today is the last day of a tour that started back in Cambridge. Ohio on 4th November. Over the last 7 weeks I have been criss-crossing America and England performing A Christmas Carol in an amazing variety of venues.
In keeping with the nature of this years’ trip my day will begin with a long drive before performing the Carol to two sell-out audiences.
My alarm is set for 6am, and I write the day’s blog in bed, before getting everything packed into my cases. Breakfast is served at 7 and I am the only person in the hotel to avail myself of the buffet, and have the personal service of five members of staff (none of who seem very keen to actually serve)
I want to be on the road good and early, because there have been weather warnings about storm Barbara, which is due to sweep from Scotland over the north west of England today. A glance outside, however, seems to suggest that Babs is being a little sluggish, and hasn’t made it to Liverpool yet.
I leave the hotel at around 8 and set a heading for Leicester, which is some two and a half hours away. The radio confirms that the storm is only just hitting Scotland, but also warns that today is to be the busiest travel day of the year, and that drivers should expect long delays. I seem to be lucky though, as my journey is only interrupted by a few speed restrictions through sections of the road where construction is (or, to be precise, isn’t) being carried out.
I arrive in Leicester at around 11 am and pull up next to the towering cathedral which is the resting place of King Richard III, whose remains were found a few years ago, beneath a local car park. My venue is the ancient Guildhall, in the shadow of the cathedral, and one that I am very familiar with, having been performing here for a number of years now.
I unload my car, and then drive to the Holiday Inn, which is just a few hundred yards away. I check-in, and then walk back to the Guildhall, via some of the quirky lanes filled with fascinating shops.
In the Guildhall the team, headed by Ben Ennis, are getting everything ready for the days’ events. The hall itself is an amazing timber-framed structure, dating back to the 14th Century. There is a low stage at one end and a huge stone fireplace, with a roaring fire in it, cut into one wall. The room oozes atmosphere, and is an amazing setting for my final shows.
Also here are Derek Grant and Michael Jones, who together run a small theatre production company, and for many years have promoted and staged my shows in England. Although there is no technical requirement for them to be here, they have made the journey anyway, and it is lovely to see them and catch up with their news.
My dressing room is in the Jury room, upstairs and soon I have spread my various bags and costumes out on the various tables and desks. It is very cold up there and Ben has put a few electric heaters in the room to try and warm things up a bit.
After almost two months of travelling, and all of the laundry visits that has entailed, I have just four clean shirts left, which means I can have one for every act today. I carefully hang them all up, and as the day progresses I will work my way through them, like a sort of Christmas Carol shirt advent calendar.
Already I can hear the audience arriving, so I make sure I drink plenty of water before getting ready for the show itself. Just before 1pm I go to the back of the hall, where I wait with Alexa, one of the staff members, who is in charge of the CD player. The audience are all gathered, the room is full, and there is a loud buzz of conversation, which suddenly stops for no reason: no lights are dimmed, nobody stands to make an announcement, but suddenly everyone is quiet as though a ghost had passed across the room. Very mysterious.
It is interesting to stand at the back of the hall looking at the stage, and I notice that nobody can actually see the stool that features so heavily in my performance. People beyond the first three or four rows must wonder what is going on as I describe Cratchit’s little cell where he works.
We are waiting for Ben to arrive to make an announcement, but he seems to have been delayed and Alexa takes it upon herself to get proceedings under way by starting the sound effect, and before I know it I am walking through the Guildhall towards the stage.
Over the last four days, during which I have performed the two-act version of the show, I have noticed how different the two halves are: the first is dark and sombre, whereas the second is playful and fun, before becoming very dramatic. Knowing that there are not many laughs to be had in the first scenes, I concentrate on telling the story simply and letting the atmosphere develop.
I do the full version of the show today, with all of the extra scenes, including the description of Scrooge’s school, which could have been written with this very hall in mind: ‘They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room’.
As I reach the end of the act, and as Scrooge subsides to sleep, following the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past, there is no way to bring the lights down, so I simply announce ‘end of act one’ and leave the stage. The applause that fills the room tells me that all is well with this performance.
Up in the Jury Room I towel down, and put on shirt number 2, before waiting for the audience to return from the temporary bar that has been created downstairs. After 20 minutes or so Ben comes to tell me that we are ready to start again, and I take my place on stage to continue the story.
Last year Leicester’s football team, Leicester City, was riding high in the Premier League (and indeed would go on to win the title). I had made use of this local success by giving Scrooge the team’s football scarf when he dressed all in his best. Of course this got a huge reaction and cheer, and I am keen to do something similar this year. Unfortunately the Foxes are not doing so well this season, but the city is still immensely proud of their achievements; so, how to include a football reference? I have no plan, but the solution comes to me in a flash. As Mrs Cratchit produces her Christmas pudding I always encourage the audience to greet it with a loud ‘Ohhhhhhhhh!’ If a certain crowd respond loudly I will congratulate them, saying how much better they are than the previous audience. Well, of course the previous audience was in Liverpool – one of the great football powerhouses of Europe; so when the Leicester crowd enthusiastically join in I am able to say: ‘Oh, well remembered! Much better than Liverpool,’ and then follow up in the style of the BBC reporter who announces the official football results on a Saturday afternoon: ‘Liverpool 1 Leicester City 2!’. My honorary citizenship of Leicester is assured.
The show comes to an and as is greeted by another explosive standing ovation. These last few days have seen some incredible responses, and I am sure that the changes I made in Williamsburg have created something very special.
Having taken my bows I go to the Jury Room and change quickly into shirt number 1, which has been airing in front of a radiator, before going to meet some of the audience. There is no formal signing session here, as I ran out of programmes in Liverpool, but many of the audience simply want to say ‘thank you’, and to shake my hand, which is lovely.
There are four hours now before the evening show, but rather than return to the hotel, I am invited to join Ben, his family and some of the staff from the Guildhall for a Christmas lunch. Derek and Michael are here too, and we all sit down to a magnificent meal of roast turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, roast parsnips, mixed vegetables, including Brussel Sprouts.
Ben’s mother Janet has provided Christmas Crackers, and we all wear paper crowns, and read out terrible jokes (mine is: ‘What do you call an elephant that flies? A Jumbo Jet’. As Janet points out, someone is employed in an office somewhere to write this stuff!)
The lunch is delicious, and the company convivial, but I do have to remember that I have another show to prepare for, so after the Christmas pudding has been served, I absent myself and walk back to the hotel. I walk across a square that is dominated by a huge white ferris wheel, brightly lit against the dark sky. It is called the wheel of light and it is an extraordinarily captivating sight.
My rest time is all too short, and soon I am walking back to the hall, where the audience are already gathering. I get changed into shirt number three, and wait for 7 o’clock to come around.
The evening audience are a little quieter than the afternoon group, but I am determined not to overdo things and try to force a reaction out of them, so I just concentrate on the basics as before.
My last show is not the best show of the tour, nor is it the worst: it is a very good performance, even though I make a couple of silly mistakes: after repeating the Liverpool/Leicester line and receiving the approval of the crowd, I mix up my words: instead of saying ‘Everybody had something to say about it’, I begin the sentence ‘Nobody had anything to say….’ And have to backtrack. I am taken off guard by that and compound the error by mixing up Mrs Cratchit and Bob. The line should be: ‘Everybody had something to say about it: Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage’ But for some reason I say Mrs Cratchit…and have to fumble my way through a half remembered line from the book – ‘Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour’. Silly. Very silly.
So, not a perfect performance, but it is certainly one of the most memorable on the tour, thanks to something that happens near the end of the show. During this season I have added a minor joke into the scene where Scrooge gets ‘dressed all in his best’. Having put the coat and scarf on, I spin the top hat up into the air and wait as if I am expecting it to land squarely on my head. Of course, it never does and the hat bounces away onto the floor. As I pick it up I look at the audience, and say: ‘One day! One day.’ And everyone laughs.
But tonight, on the very last show, after performing A Christmas Carol around 70 times, the hat spins up into the air and DOES land squarely on my head! I am completely overcome: the audience cheer and I have to pause the show to take in the enormity of the whole situation. It is a truly celebratory moment, and added to as one wag calls out ‘Now, do it again!’
A wonderful end, to a wonderful tour.
Having wrapped up the story, and taken the loud applause, I go through the routines of packing everything up and loading the car, before returning to the hotel, where I have a quiet drink in the bar, before going to bed.
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I finally drive home to be with Liz.