Where am I? It has been that kind of week. I wake completely unaware of the layout of the hotel room (and stub my toe on my suitcase as I stumble to the bathroom to prove it). I don’t know what city, or even what State I am in. Slowly I come to my senses, and remember that I am in the Marriott hotel in Connecticut, and this morning I have a drive to New Jersey for two shows at the Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington.
I write the blog, and make coffee. I am feeling a little under the weather; it feels as if a cold is beginning to take grip, and I’m feeling very tired. I make sure that all of my costumes are hung up, so that I can take them to the car before having breakfast.
The Marriott lift is up to its tricks and I have to travel to floor 5 before being allowed to the lobby (maybe once you could say that I had got into a lift that was already called going up, but this is 6 times now: I push the ‘down’ call button, and the ‘1’ button, and sure enough it goes to 5.)
In the restaurant, there are people scattered about at various tables, and I head for one near the wall that has a knife and fork rolled into a linen napkin. Immediately the server is by my side asking if I’d like juice or coffee, and then asks me if I am a priority of gold medallion member. Apparently the rolled napkin is the hotel equivalent to the little curtain on regional jets, which separates first class from rabble. I obviously look respectable, because I am allowed to stay even though I don’t belong to those august orders. I can look pityingly at the less-fortunate diners who have to make do with paper napkins. As far as breakfast itself is concerned there is no advantage and I queue up for a fairly average buffet (although they do have a bowl of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, as well as the usual melon chunks.)
I finish and return to my room, ready to get on the road as early as I can. My phone map app tells me that the journey to Burlington should be 2 hours and 44 minutes, but I know that I have to cross the George Washington Bridge, and that could double the journey time in itself. The weather is bright and crisp, and I am soon on the road as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service reaches its climax.
The SatNav still says that my time of arrival will be at 9.44 (I don’t have a sound check until 12), so I may go via the hotel and see if I can check in there, before going on to the church itself. As I drive on, so the blue and white licence plates of Connecticut are replaced by the blue and yellow of New York, and still I am making good progress. I pass a sign to Rye, where I performed for the Golden Glow conference back in the summer, and smile at the memories that had been hidden in my mind until this moment.
And then it happens: twenty miles before reaching the George Washington Bridge I hit traffic. Lots of traffic, slow, crawling, lane-changing traffic. I am surrounded by huge trucks belching out fumes.
For a while the slow pace keeps up with the distance remaining and my time of arrival stays at two hours, but as I get closer to New York itself so the optimistic arrival time begins to slip back.
Eventually I get to the bridge, and have my first glimpses of the Manhattan skyline, although I am trying to concentrate on being in the correct lane, so can’t admire it much.
The GW Bridge has two tiers: the lower one of cars only, the top for trucks too. I want to be on the bottom, but being hemmed in by 18-wheelers means I am unable to get over to the right, and I am funnelled up with the big boys. As I finally clear the bridge (all of the trouble seems to have stemmed from a broken down truck being towed slowly), my time of arrival has changed from 9.44, to 12.10: VW – Get me to the church on time.
I am on familiar a roads now: the New Jersey Turnpike, and the view of New York City on this clear and bright morning is magnificent. I make up a little time, but am dismayed when an electronic sign flashes up the message: ‘FIRE AHEAD. ROAD MAY BE BLOCKED. As it happens the road is empty, but I do flash past the completely burnt out shell of a car being loaded onto a truck: that must have been frightening.
My journey continues unhindered and in the end I pull up outside the Church at exactly 12 o’clock (a journey of four hours and fifteen minutes)
I am welcomed at the door by the event organiser, and good friend Laura, and we go up into the gorgeous, historic sanctuary to check the microphone. There are two things to mention about this sound check: firstly for many years the sound was looked after by Bob, who set up the church’s microphone system and understood it like nobody else. He would sit on the balcony and play with the levels until it was perfect. Very sadly Bob died last year and we will be doing the show without him – we all hope that his spirit is looking down on us and guiding us!
The second issue is the clip: the little lapel mic has no clip, so Laura ha thoughtfully provided three bulldog clips for me to attach the wire to my costume (I imagine that bulldog clips are not called bulldog clips in the USA, so any translation will be gratefully received). I select three small clips, and clamp the wire to my shirt, which should do the job.
Laura and I (with Bob’s help) do the sound check, and everything seems to be fine. I am worried by the effect of the cold on my voice, and to be honest am not feeling 100%
The audience start to arrive, so I take myself to my little dressing room beneath the stage and relax as the plumbing gurgles and rattles around me. The Broad Street United Methodist Church was built in 1854, and is a quirky old girl, to be sure: beautiful, but quirky!
The show is due to begin at 1pm, and shortly before ‘curtain-up’ Laura and her husband Joe come to the dressing room, so that we can co-ordinate the opening. Laura will make the introductory speech, I will be at the back of the hall, and Joe will be back stage with a CD player, ready to play the music.
Laura begins by asking how many people have seen my show before, and a forest of hands go up, well over half the audience. That’s nice. Then she asks how many people have NOT seen me before, and a forest of hands go up, well over half the audience – that’s confusing! She plugs the souvenir programme, and makes all the necessary pleas for the turning off of cell phones, and then it is time to start. Joe hits his cue, and the music accompanies me down the aisle and onto the stage.
As I feared, I am not in particularly good form during this first show. I just feel lethargic and my movements are heavy and ponderous. I struggle to get long sentences out in one breath (something of a disadvantage, when your script writer is Charles Dickens), and really don’t do myself any credit.
The audience laugh and join in where necessary, and those loyal followers who have seen me multiple times are definitely helping me along. The applause at the end is lovely, and they stand for me, but I am not happy at all.
I change from a particularly sodden costume, and go into the little room where the signing is taking place. I am sat at a table with a china teapot, cup, saucer and a plate with Rich Tea biscuits. Suddenly everything feels better again. People say lovely things about the show, and I have to remember that I have particularly high standards for myself, and the occasional off-par performance is still greatly appreciated by those watching. I shake myself out of my low spirits and smile and chat to the people that make my wonderful life possible.
It is a long session, as the church volunteers are serving coffee, tea, cookies and cakes, so everyone sits around chatting.
In the end, I am able to leave the little meeting room, get out of costume and back into my normal clothes. It has become a tradition here that all of the volunteers go and have dinner between the two shows at Francesco’s Italian restaurant, just a couple of blocks away. A straggling crocodile of men and women thus leave the church, cross the tram tracks and head to the eatery.
I am sat in the middle of the table, surrounded by twelve others (didn’t Leonardo DaVinci paint something similar?), but am not at my sparkling witty best. Sat next to me is Marcia, who was married to Bob, the sound man. She has had a very difficult year, and it has not been made any easier today by issues with her aged parents in North Carolina. But very kindly, she fishes some packets of Vitamin C powders from her purse, and promises that they are very good at re-energising one. I am so grateful to her for this act of kindness.
I eat a veal dish, cooked in a lemon sauce and served with pasta: it is delicious. Another great act of kindness comes at the end of the meal, when Laura’s mother Phyllis picks up the bill for all thirteen of us, which is incredibly generous of her.
Back at the church there are almost two hours before the evening show, so I shut the door of my dressing room, lay down on the little couch and sleep. It is a rest that I need, although I don’t feel particularly sprightly when I wake again. I have a mug of Marcia’s orange drink, and try to move about a bit, to get some energy into my limbs, but I don’t feel great.
I can hear the audience arriving, and get into costume, ready to put myself on show again. It is a bigger crowd tonight, and as I stand at the back watching and listening, I begin to feel a surge of Doctor Theatre: it will all be OK!
And, indeed it is. I start slowly, and try not to push too hard; the microphone is picking up my voice well (thank you Bob), and I don’t need to over-project. I concentrate on making my moves and positioning tight, and all of these little things creates a much better performance. The final link in the chain is the audience, for they exude great energy and enthusiasm, and soon I am back to somewhere near my best.
It is with relief and satisfaction that I take my bows at the end. A better show provokes a longer signing line, and this is definitely the case here: people are buying the programme in good numbers, and patiently waiting in line to have it signed, which is how Ian and I imagined things working out all those months ago.
When the last of the coffee has been drunk, and the last cookie eaten, it is time to change and say good bye. The people at The Broad Street Church are so kind and so generous, and I love coming back here each year. I say good bye to the volunteers, hug Laura, Joe and Phyllis; but most particularly hug Marcia – she is so strong, but it is obvious that she feels the loss of Bob very deeply.
My hotel for the night is about 6 miles away, and I arrive there at around 10pm. It is a nice anonymous Hampton Inn and I haul my bags to the counter and wearily check in. Anonymous? No, for the clerk says ‘there is a note on the computer saying you are related to Charles Dickens, wow, that is cool. Tell me what is your favourite movie version of the story?’ And once more I am on show.
I am glad to get to my room on the third floor, which is a little suite, with kitchen, sofa, desk. I will actually be here for two nights, and instantly it feels like home. It has been a long, tiring, difficult day, and I am grateful to get to bed in the knowledge that I do not have to drive anywhere tomorrow morning.