As we suspected, Liz’s sleep patterns match mine from a few weeks ago and she wakes at 2am, and then has a broken night after that.
Today we are driving to Bethlehem, where I will be doing two shows in ‘The Christmas City’. I don’t have a sound check until 11.30, and it is only 45 minutes away, so we are in no great rush. Bob and Pam are joining us for breakfast at 8, which gives us a chance to catch up away from the pressures of the performances. They are already waiting for us as we come into the restaurant and soon we are eating fruit, scrambled eggs, bacon and pastries as we chat. Bob and Pam are such easy company, and it is wonderful to spend this time with them.
This is another one of those days where I feel as if a performance marks the end of a period of the tour and I have to remind myself that I have to get up and go again, for there are more audiences waiting along the road.
Having said goodbye to the Byers for another year Liz and I pack up our cases and load them into our little Tiguan, which now has its rear seats down so that it can take all of our luggage. There are little flurries of snow in the air and everything feels much more Christmassy. As soon as the engine is fired up I connect my phone so that Christmas tunes can accompany us to Bethlehem: first up? ‘I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ – all is well in our worlds!
It is a journey we have made together on a number of occasions and it is lovely to share old memories and see new sights as we drive, signing along loudly to Bing, Perry, Dean and the rest (although Liz takes a professional dislike to the Johnny Mathis recordings!). In no time we are crossing the Lehigh river and pulling into the parking garage of The Hotel Bethlehem, which is a venerable old Hotel that oozes style and charm.
In past years we haven’t been able to check in as we arrive too early in the day, but today we are fortunate and can take our bags up to our room on the 5th floor, before almost immediately leaving again to walk the short distance to the Moravian College, where I will be performing today.
We are greeted by Fred, who is supervising the hall and looking after us, and as no one else is here we all get to work in moving the furniture onto the set.
As we are working Lisa Girrard from the Moravian Bookstore arrives, and warmly greets us (as Liz says ‘you know when you’ve been hugged by Lisa!’). I have been performing in Bethlehem for quite a few years now, and Liz has often been with me, so we are all old friends.
There are a few issues to be overcome, however: firstly the power sockets on the stage don’t work, so the faux fireplace will not glow and flicker. Eventually we run an extension cable from another outlet to the fire, and have to tape it down to tidy everything up. Next, the microphone system doesn’t work, and Fred doesn’t really know how to correct it. While he is making phone calls I start doing a few lines while Liz stands at the back of the hall – this is a concert hall and the acoustics are excellent, so we decide that I will be able to perform with no mic. There is also no way to play my opening sound effect, so I must revert to the old version of the show that begins with Dickens’ preface to the first edition:
I have endeavoured, in the ghostly little book, to raise the ghost of an idea which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.’
For a college that specialises in performance, everything seems a little disorganised this year.
While I am getting ready on the stage Liz is exploring behind the giant acoustic screen that doubles as the back of the set and discovers all sorts of percussion instruments, and suddenly the ethereal sound of tinkling magic chimes fills the auditorium, followed by the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, and somewhat anachronistic Spanish maracas. If only we had more time we could create a radio-style performance of A Christmas Carol, with Liz on sound effects – that would be fun!
The audience are ready to be let in, so I settle into my small dressing room, discarding the dead microphone, while Liz pops into town to buy some fruit and salads (the latter of which I will eat at the hotel after the show).
At 1 o’clock I walk out onto the stage and look into the auditorium (the house lights have not been dimmed), appraise myself of where I am projecting to: while most of the audience are grouped towards the front, a few have decided to sit in the upper tier, and one couple in the very very last row: thanks for that! As I work through the opening passages I try to notice for any signs of people struggling to hear, or restlessness but everyone seems very content, so I rely on the good acoustics and don’t try too hard.
The performance is a good one, and there is plenty of space on the floor to move around the set. The crowd, including those in the Gods, respond well and are fun to work with. I am always aware when members of an audience have seen the show before and as I become the panicking Mrs Cratchit, giggles pre-empt the fun and games that follow.
By the end of my show I haven’t over-worked my voice, which is a huge relief, and everyone has enjoyed it.
There is a slightly curious situation here in Bethlehem, in that the signing session is actually held in the Moravian Bookstore, up the street, so I have to change into my second costume and then walk with Lisa through the snow flurries to the shop, where the audience have beaten me to it. The routine is a well-worked one by now, and I sign and chat and pose for an hour or so.
In Bethlehem everything is close, so when the signing has finished I simply cross the street and am back in the hotel where Liz has been resting during the afternoon. I join her in our room, and eat my salad while we watch an old film on TCM. It is a lovely period of relaxing, but 5.30 comes around all too quickly, and it is time to walk back to the theatre. It is still cold outside, and we wrap up warm, as has everyone else on the streets this evening. As we leave the hotel there are a family group huddling on the steps: a grandmother, daughter and two granddaughters (we presume); the children are probably 5 and 2, the latter being bundled up in a white snow suit which appears to have devoured her. We push the doors open to step outside and the five year old is wide-eyed with excitement, and looks at us with huge wide eyes and exclaims: ‘WE ARE GOING TO RIDE IN A CINDERELLA CARRIAGE!!!’ She has obviously just been told and this is the most exciting thing that could happen in her entire life – she had to tell someone, and we were the lucky recipients of her news. She is the stereotypical child from all the Christmas songs, her face is truly aglow. It is one of the sweetest moments I can recall. We walk down the sidewalk smiling from ear to ear (as we make our way from here to there).
We are greeted by Fred at the theatre and he triumphantly announces that the microphone is working now: a period of pushing every button and hoping has produced results. Liz and I talk it through and decide that as I am still suffering from the head-cold it will be sensible to use it, so that I do not have strain at all. The audience is much smaller this evening as quite a few people were worried about bad weather and switched to the afternoon performance instead.
I am slightly worried that it will be a difficult show, with limited response and I will end up over-doing things anyway, but it actually proves to be one of the best so far, and the audience are fabulous. There are shrieks of laughter as Topper flirts with a lady in the front row, whose teenage daughter is torn between acute embarrassment and a rather touching protective streak for her mother.
The audience are a good ol’ American whoopin’ and hollerin’ crowd, so my bows are taken to a chorus of cheers and shouts, which always makes a boy feel good.
The smaller audience means a shorter signing session, and I am finished within thirty minutes. Liz and I say goodbye to Lisa and the staff in the book shop and return to the hotel. As we walk into the lobby a group from the audience are waiting to dine, and I get another round of applause, which is extraordinary. Very generously they ask us to join them for dinner, but we gently decline, preferring to enjoy only each other’s’ company this evening.
Having changed we walk up the street until we find a steak and seafood restaurant called Corked: to be honest it tries a little too hard to be edgy and cool, with constantly changing neon lighting effects on the walls, which make reading the menu, or even seeing what you are eating, rather difficult! But the food (we both have lamb chops) is delicious and the company perfect.
Tomorrow is going to be one of the longest and most tiring of this leg – a four-hour drive followed by two shows – so we need to get some good rest tonight. We return to the hotel and slip into the luxurious bed, before turning out the lights and going straight to sleep.