This morning I have a fairly early, but not a horribly early start, as I have a hundred-mile drive to Winterthur in Delaware. I start packing the case and realise that I haven’t unwrapped a gift that one of the audience gave me last night: it is a beautiful book, published in 1904 called Familiar London. It contains watercolour paintings of the great city by Rose Barton, along with some fascinating-looking history. What a special gift, and thank you Daniel for your thoughtfulness.
I hang my two costume suits and take them to the car, (what am I going to do when I have to fly again? I will have forgotten how to pack properly) and then go to the hotel lobby for a very quick breakfast of fruit and waffle, before returning to my room (not forgetting to collect all of my costume shirts, which have been in the drier overnight – oh, my, that could have been quite a disaster…..)
It is a cold, misty morning as I drive away, but there is no snow on the roads, although the grass verges and banks along the way are still white. Even the fog co-operates and hangs only over the surrounding hill tops, leaving good visibility on the road itself.
But it looks as if conditions may have been worse earlier, as I pass quite a few wrecks along the way, including the remains of a blue car that has vaulted the barrier and rolled itself into destruction. The roof is smashed and the front is gone. I can’t see how anyone could have survived a crash of that magnitude, and the fact that the car has no snow on it suggests it happened within the last few hours: what an awful thought.
The snow on the verges becomes more sparse and by the time I reach Allentown there is no sign that winter had ever made an appearance.
I drive on and cross the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, which reminds me that today is actually Pearl Harbor Day, and I have a quiet moment of remembrance for the terrible events of 75 years ago.
I have made excellent time this morning, so stop off for a quick coffee before driving the last few miles to the Winterthur Estate. Winterthur was one of the DuPont homes and it sits magnificently in beautiful landscaped grounds: a statement of wealth and importance in the same way as The Breakers was in Newport (although Mr DuPont obviously had rather better taste than Mr Vanderbilt).
As I drive into the car park, my final Bond audiobook, You Only Live Twice, comes to an end. There is an interview with Martin Jarvis, the reader, and he talks about being an actor and ‘an inhabitor’. That is an interesting word, and although rather arty, sums up how I feel about my show: when I am performing a Christmas Carol I try, as far as possible, to ‘inhabit’ each character completely, rather than just represent them.
I unload my costume, and walk into the Winterthur visitor centre, where I am welcomed by the event organiser, and good friend, Ellen, along with the retail manager Barbara. It hardly seems a year since I was here last….and it isn’t, for I did a few shows at Winterthur in the Summer: the venue seems very familiar and comfortable to be now.
Ellen proudly takes me into the auditorium to show off the new addition to this year’s event: the estate carpenters have been hard at work to build an amazing set for me to perform in. It I spectacular and features a fireplace, a window, some beautiful furniture, while the walls are painted in an elegant Georgian blue. Everyone is justifiably proud of the construction, and even as I am admiring it various volunteers come to look and take pictures.
The set will make a great difference to the show here, for the theatre is actually a lecture hall, and the stage can appear a little sparse in its natural state.
Ellen, who is an avid reader of the blogs, has been worried about my throat and voice, but this is one of the easiest venues to speak in on the tour; even though it holds 400, I do not need to use a microphone for the acoustics are quite remarkable. We do a quick sound check, in the same way that Charles Dickens used to with his manager George Dolby: I speak on stage as Ellen moves around the auditorium checking that she can hear. With hardly any voice-projection the words fill the space, and everything is settled: no microphone needed.
I now settle into my dressing room, which is actually Barbara’s office. A desk has been cleared for me, and there is a large bowl of fruit, as well as tea bags and a bottle of honey. In a cooler there are bottles of water and soda – Barbara likes to fuss over me and make me feel at home, in which effort she certainly succeeds admirably.
The audience is already gathering even though the doors won’t open for a while yet, and I can hear the chat outside. Ellen is doing a great job working the line with the programmes and hopefully they are selling well.
I get into costume and stand at the back of the hall watching the crowd gather – over 200 this afternoon, and they are chatting and laughing, which means that they should be a fun group to perform for.
At 1pm Jeff, who is in charge of the archival research, as well as interpretation and presentation of history at Wintertur, walks to the lecturer’s podium and makes an eloquent introduction.
I walk to the stage accompanied by my good friends in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and begin. As always here, despite my successful vocal check earlier, I have self-doubts about doing the show without amplification; but then I remind myself that I DO have amplification, that the hall itself is as effective than any microphone (and quite a lot more effective than some). I relax and concentrate on inhabiting Scrooge and the rest.
The show goes very well and the audience seem to greatly enjoy it. There is a wonderful ovation at the end, and lots of congratulations as I leave the hall (which means walking past the rows of seats to the door at the back).
As I get changed, I notice that there is an email on my phone: it is a message from my brother Ian telling me that his grandson Joe has just finished performing as the narrator in his school’s nativity play: he was on stage for the whole show and had more dialogue than anyone else in the cast, and all on his 5th birthday: The Dickens gene is still as strong as ever.
The signing line is mainly filled by familiar faces, including Mary Jane from the Philadelphia Dickens Fellowship branch, who has brought a large family group this year; the executive chef from the nearby Merion Golf Club is back too, reiterating his invitation to visit and play at the club if I am back in the summer – as a taster he gives me a bag of ball markers and pitch mark repairer from Merion. I will be the envy of Oxford Golf Club as I casually toss one of the markers onto the green: ‘Merion? Oh, yes, am good friends with the exec chef there, you know…!’
After the signing, I am free for the rest of the day: what luxury. I hang my costumes up, and drive the short distance to the lovely Fairville Inn, where I am shown to the room that has become my home over the last 5 years (and one that I have shared with Liz on a few occasions, which gives me a pang of melancholy that she is not here yet). The room is a such a nice change to the generic hotel pods that make up so much of my stay, and I set the fire burning in the grate, before working through a few emails that need replies.
I also unpack my costume shirts, which had been rather unceremoniously stuffed into a bag this morning, and carefully fold them, setting aside three for tomorrow’s shows. I iron a few things, and then lay on the bed and have a brief nap, loving the feeling of relaxation in this little cottage room.
In the evening I have arranged to meet Ellen and the Rob, the Finance director at Winterthur, for dinner and at 7.15 I get into the car to drive to the perfectly-named Pizza by Elizabeths restaurant.
The restaurant was created by two women called Elizabeth, and the entire décor is styled to the name: two large prints of Queen Elizabeth II and Bette Davis dominate, and the are other pictures on the walls featuring every Liz, Betty and Eliza that you could imagine (Taylor and Boop among them)
The menu carries the theme forward, as every pizza is named after a famous Elizabeth: Barrett Browning is disappointingly a rather plain Margherita, whereas the Davis is a spicy blackened chicken, bacon and fire-roasted pepper.
There is only one Elizabeth missing from the evening, and she is the most important one. However, in three days’ time she will be with me!
It is a lovely, relaxing evening: Ellen and Rob are great company and we talk about many things as we eat our pizzas (Shannon for Ellen, Montgomery for me and I am not sure what Rob ordered).
Our plates are soon cleared away and It is soon time to go to our various homes. We say our goodbyes in the parking lot and I drive back to Fairville, and am in my room before 10. I turn the fire on and put the NBC live performance of Hairspray on, but as the flames flicker, I fall asleep very quickly. When I wake there is a completely different programme on. I have no idea as to the time, but getting ready for bed seems to be a sensible option. I turn the lights out, snuggle into the pillow and soon am drifting away to wherever it is that I drift to at night.