You left us in the departure lounge of Minneapolis airport, ready to fly back to the UK. We got home on Sunday morning and it was lovely to see the house again after so long. I had just a day and a half before I was back on the road, so the first job was to choose the perfect tree and decorate the house.
In our quest for the tree we certainly succeeded, finding a wonderfully bushy and full one which maybe is a little larger than usual, and will take up a large amount of our living room, but looks magnificent. The simple of pleasure of discovering all of the old tree decorations, checking the lights and beginning the process of hanging them cannot be described, but the afternoon (accompanied by the Christmas playlist, of course), was truly special – and, yes the tree is perfect!
However on Tuesday 20 December it is time to get on the road again. Early in the morning Liz and I sorrowfully say goodbye once more and I start the three-hour drive to the ancient Roman city of Chester which nestles between North Wales and Merseyside.
The drive is mainly spent rehearsing lines, which may seem odd seeing as I have been living with A Christmas Carol for almost two months, but the version that I will be performing over the next few days is the full 2-act theatre version and there are a few additions to the standard tour show. Jacob Marley gets more of a look-in: there are additions to the door-knocker scene as well as to the actual conversation between the two men. The second addition comes with the Ghost of Christmas Past, who shows Scrooge all of his school friends travelling home for Christmas, and there is also an extra scene in which Scrooge sees the vision of his little sister coming to take him ‘home, home, home for good and all!’ Mr Fezziwig gets a little bonus by dancing Sir Roger De Coverley, and the Cratchits get to spend longer discussing Tiny Tim before enjoying their Christmas lunch.
The actual line learning isn’t difficult, as the words are familiar but trying to settle them into what is a finely-honed script is the hard bit. By the time I am approaching Chester I am confident that the longer script will work succefully.
I drive my way into the centre of Chester and pull up outside the magnificent Town Hall which is my venue here. I am performing on behalf of Age UK, Wirral and am greeted at the door by Malcolm who is running the event. He helps me in with all of my furniture, costumes and boxes of programmes, before I take the car to a nearby car park.
The main hall is a wonderful space, although with somewhat boomy acoustics. I do a sound check with the microphone, which although I don’t need from a volume point of view, does allow the sound to be directed down towards the audience rather than up into the soaring barrel-roof.
My dressing room suite is luxurious, made up of two actual dressing rooms, complete with lit mirrors and showers, as well as a large green room with a sofa to spread out on. The large windows look out over Chester Cathedral, and the bustle of Christmas shopping.
The afternoon audience is fairly small, around 130, and so that the room doesn’t feel too cavernous and empty the Town Hall staff have a rigged up a black screen half way back, so that everyone is gathered together at the front. This is a sensible precaution, although it does cause a few problems for James, the tech guy, who is stuck at the back of the hall with the sound and lighting desks, but with no view of the stage: all of his queues will be managed by guesswork.
The show goes well, and all of the additions fit in seamlessly, which is a relief. The audience are quiet to begin with but as the second act gets up to speed (The Ghost of Christmas Present and all of his frolics), they start to join in and relax. The two act show is a much darker and more sombre version, even though the script is not that different: I assume that it is the extra Marley passages cast a dark pall over the story.
The applause at the end is very nice and there is quite a line in the foyer waiting to shake my hand and have me sign programmes.
My hotel is just five minutes away, so I leave all of my costumes at the hall, before checking into the quirkily-named Roomzz, and resting in my colourful suite (complete with little kitchen) for an hour or so.
Back at the Town Hall I know I am tired, and I try to ‘shut down’ so as to preserve energy. As I sit I can hear a very mournful carol singer outside my window. Looking out I see he has a small CD player and is moaning tuneless tunes. Maybe I am making assumptions, but I imagine he is homeless. The crowds of bustling Christmas shoppers give him a wide berth, as if they are ‘other creatures bound on other journeys’. It is a sad sight, and the messages that Dickens tried to convey are obviously just as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1843.
The show is due to start at 7.30 but I am not on for a while, as a local choir takes to the stage and performs for twenty minutes or so. I sit at the back with James (who can now see what he is doing), and enjoy the singing, as well as studying the audience trying to gauge what they will be like to perform for.
When the choir file off the stage, taking their keyboard with them, I wait for James to start the music, and I walk down the centre aisle, making sure that my shoes and cane make a rhythmic click-clack on the wooden floor.
The audience are very quiet throughout, and the show is very dramatic and sombre. I am not sure if they are enjoying it or not, until I arrive at the interval and the loud applause follows me back to the dressing room, which is a relief. I come out for the second act in a positive frame of mind and continue to tell the story in the same style.
There are laughs at Mrs Cratchit and old Joe, but the crowd are still quiet and intense, but when I sign off with ‘God Bless Us Every One’ there is a sudden explosion of sound. The room is standing, and stamping and there are cheers and whoops and bravos filling the air: what a wonderful feeling!
It is a strange thing, but with my new, easier style of narrating I have found that the show has become much more physical again, maybe I am putting more into the characters now, I don’t know. But a quick costume change is necessary before going to the foyer and greeting the long line of people, all clutching programmes for me to sign (this has been one of the best sales days since the programme was published!)
When everyone has left I am wearily starting to pack up, when David, from the Town Hall, suggests I pick all of my things up in the morning. I gratefully agree to his suggestion and walk the short distance back to my hotel, where I collapse onto the bed. Of course I don’t sleep straight away, as the adrenalin is still in my veins, but thanks to an episode of Lewis that I have seen many times before, I drift away eventually.
Tomorrow I make the short journey into Liverpool, where I will be performing at St George’s Hall, on the same stage that Charles himself used, to tell the same story.