For the final part of my Aurora trilogy I would like to tell you about my professional life on board and how my shows were performed.
I had been booked by P&O cruises last year to appear on this particular leg of the South American Adventure. A quick look at the itinerary showed me that I would be on board over multiple sea days, and assumed that my performances would be part of the daytime lecture programme to pass the long hours as we headed southward. I first performed on a cruise ship in October 2006, and then a couple a year for the next few years, and I had always been booked to perform during the day, which was a situation I greatly enjoyed.
I was somewhat surprised then, upon joining Aurora, to discover that my first show would be in the evening of our one and only port day, and it was in the main cabaret slot at 8.30 and 10.30. Yikes! I am confident in what I do, and I know that my shows work for a cruise ship audience, but this was an altogether different thing. Within an hour or two I was talking to the production director on board so that he could understand all of my technical requirements in good time: Lighting? Did I have a lighting plot, and a fully marked up script for his team to use during the show? Umm, really just general stage lighting, if that’s OK. Alright. Now, the orchestra, do you have the parts for your musical arrangement with you, and will you be needing a hand held microphone for singing? Umm, no orchestra, no music, and really just me talking. OK, will you be using the screen for slides and images. Umm, no, just the tabs closed behind me please. OK, How about follow spots? Umm, don’t really need them, but I suppose we could. OK, Will you be introducing guests during the show? Umm, no, just me.
It didn’t sound very cabaret!
That night I made sure that I went to watch the cabaret show, both to enjoy the entertainment, but also to study the reaction of the audience so as to fully understand their expectations and the relationship to the performer. The show was given by harpist Rebecca Mills and she delighted the audience with her superb playing and her great banter. Rebecca is from Tyneside and after playing two beautiful pieces she welcomed the audience in her broad Geordie accent and proceeded to tell us her life story (including the brilliant fact that her first car was a converted hearse, it being the only vehicle that her harp would fit in). Back to the music and the pieces became more flamboyant and virtuosic, which impressed the audience. At the next chat break Rebecca told us how as a girl she had been inspired by watching Marx Brothers films with her grandfather and of course most particularly by Harpo. Then she introduced an old Marx Brothers video clip featuring her hero, and left the stage whilst we all wallowed in nostalgia. When Rebecca remerged she was in a new dress and then proceeded to play a duet with Harpo from the screen – brilliant!
So my show, Mr Dickens is Coming, was looking rather timid and limp in comparison.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it is not that I had doubts about the show, for I have performed it many times before and know that it is always well received and greatly enjoyed. My doubts were how it would be received by this particular crowd. Usually audiences come to see Mr Dickens is Coming because they have an interest, or the very least a curiosity, about Charles. The cabaret audience go to the Curzon theatre because they have just enjoyed a delicious dinner and now want to be entertained, no matter who is on stage. However if the fare on offer does not satiate their appetite word very soon goes around the ship: ‘Did you see the show last night? Very poor, very disappointing, not the standard we expect!’
So that was my mind-set as we made our way south. My first job was to go through the script and come up with a lighting plot to make everything look a little more theatrical, I even managed to find some places to pump smoke onto the stage (another staple of the cabaret performer’s arsenal). With the script all marked up I sent it to the Production Office so that they could be ready for my show.
If truth be told I was probably making far too much of an issue of a problem that didn’t really exist: I had performed on the main stage of Aurora, Oriana and Arcadia many times and the shows had always gone down well, what bugged me was this ‘cabaret’ label. I made sure that I went to all of the other shows and watched all of the performers, trying to picture myself in their shoes. What all of the acts had in common, apart from their artistic prowess, was the connection to the audience – almost flirtatious – so in my mind I worked out how to deliver my lines in such a way as to build that same relationship.
On the day before our arrival in the Falklands I went to the theatre at 11.15 to listen to ex marine Tony Green give the final account of his 1982 experiences and the theatre was packed. We all listened until the end and then applauded enthusiastically. Tony bowed modestly and left the stage, to be replaced by John the Cruise Director who announced that Tony had agreed to do a question and answer session in Carmen’s Lounge on the following evening (ie, the evening of my show in the Curzon) at 7.30 and 9.30.
I looked back at the audience and realised that in all probability Tony’s show would be much better attended than mine, as he had built up a following over the past few days, whereas none of the passengers even knew I was on board yet! I made my way back to the technical booth where I told John that Tony should be in the big venue, and I would perform in Carmen’s instead. He replied that he had already thought of that but couldn’t decide if it would be the right thing to do, but to leave it to him.
The strange thing was that by this time I was rather looking forward to trying my show (complete with lights and smoke) in the Curzon slot, but I really did genuinely feel that Tony deserved the larger venue and that there would be a lot of disappointed passengers if he was put in the smaller lounge.
That evening, when the Horizons newspaper was delivered to be my cabin I discovered that sure enough Tony Green would appear in the Curzon Theatre at 8.30 and 10.30, whereas Gerald Dickens would perform Mr Dickens is Coming! in Carmen’s Lounge at 6.30 and 9.30. I’m glad that Tony had been more careful when he was in the Falkland Islands than I had been during that day – I appeared to have shot myself in the foot!
I have described my day on the Islands themselves in a previous post, so I shall pick up the story on the quay side, where I found myself at the back of a very long queue waiting to join a tender and suddenly the wisdom of coming ashore seemed questionable! I was due to have a production meeting in Carmen’s an hour before the show and it was looking doubtful as to whether I’d even be back on board the ship in time for it.
The P&O Crew were efficient however and in no time I was at the front of the line and boarding the little craft ready to bump my way back to the mother ship. Without even going back to my cabin to dump my coat and camera I rushed straight to Carmen’s where the production crew were patiently waiting for me. I made my apologies and we got down to the meeting. The guys had a copy of my new script, with all of the lighting changes and smoke added, and are worried that they will not be able to give me all that I required, so we reverted to the original plan and I asked just for a plain lighting rig. The room in Carmen’s is more of a dance venue, so has a very small stage at the back (where a band can be housed behind the curtains), and then a large circular dance floor, surrounded by seats and tables where I would do my stuff. I did a microphone check and paced around the floor as I would during the show and discover that in the very centre of the floor, under a dome, there is an odd acoustic spot where everything echoes, so I had to be sure not to stand there too much during the performance itself.
Finally we did a quick safety briefing so that I would know where the exits to the deck were, and having signed an official document saying that I had been thus briefed, I went back to my cabin to shower and gather my costume, etc.
I returned to Carmen’s in plenty of time, and it was still deserted. Would anyone want to come to my show? Would anyone be interested? The waiters arrived ready to sell drinks to the audience, and there were twelve of them spread through the room patiently waiting for…..no one!
I sat in a corner wondering if the stewards would actually outnumber the audience, when they started to file in: slowly at first, one by one, but soon Carmen’s was filling up and by the time the 7.30 start time came around there was a goodly crowd waiting for me.
I waited to one side of the stage whilst my introduction was made and then I walked onto the dance floor to the warm applause. The show starts with a rather serious and stuffy ‘quote’ which, I explain, is taken from ‘the words of Charles Dickens,’ and which explains how Dickens wanted to pass his legacy down to ‘his family: those members known to me today and those descendants whom I shall never meet. May they take the pleasures that I have taken from the institution of The Theatre!’ When the quote is over I lay the book down, look to the audience: ‘As I said those were the words of Charles John Huffam Dickens. Sadly for me he never actually used them in that particular order, but they were all his words at some time or another!’ Lots of laughter, ice broken and we can get on. That is the plan, anyway, but in Carmen’s, just as I launched into the speech, so the Captain decided to make a long announcement which was broadcast throughout the ship, and I just had to stand waiting patiently until he signed off. It was rather an anti-climatic start to the evening.
However the rest of the show went well. The audience squirmed along with Uriah Heep, and laughed when I produced the toy white cat at the end of the James Bond spoof; they gasped in disbelief to hear that Charles refused to meet Queen Victoria on multiple occasions and were silent during the final lines from The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
In short the show was superbly received and I could breathe a huge sigh of relief!
The next day my identity on board changed. From being the rather curious man travelling alone, I was now ‘the Dickens man’, as in: ‘Excuse me, but aren’t you the Dickens man, who did the show?’ People came up to me on deck, in restaurants, or as we sat in the audience at other shows and complimented me, told me about their particular memories of reading Charles Dickens and most importantly asked: ‘when is your next performance?’
Our sail around Cape Horn and through the Beagle Channel took up the next two days and as I have already described it was stunning. My second show was to be back in Carmen’s at 3.00pm on my last day before leaving Aurora in Punta Arenus and the ship’s grapevine was working overtime. One gentleman was indignant, ‘You shouldn’t be in Carmen’s! That’s ridiculous, I’m going to see the Cruise Director to have a word!’
In the meantime I had work to do on my programme, as I had to be confident with the changes that I had made to it. The show was to be Doctor Marigold, which was one of Charles Dickens’ most popular readings in his time, but which is little-known today. The story is told by the titular character who is a market cheapjack. At the start he addresses the audience directly, as if they were a crowd at a country fair, and he is on the back of his waggon selling his wares. The patter is fast-paced and funny and the audience settle down to be entertained in the same manner. After a while however Doctor Marigold decides that he can trust these people and begins to recite his life-story and the audience are suddenly brought crashing back to Earth when he admits that his wife had been an alcoholic abuser who beat their little daughter who subsequently died. Despite this, and other, tragedies Marigold is man of great resilience and the story continues to describe his adoption of a little deaf and dumb granddaughter and how they learn to communicate.
The only problem with the show is that it lasts for 60 minutes and the P&O slot is a strict 45, so every day I found a place on the ship (my outside for’ward deck was not an option in the cold and high winds of the Cape, not to mention with the crowds gathered on deck to admire the views), to rehearse. I discovered that Carmen’s itself was quiet in the morning, until the dance instructors turned up at 9 to give private lessons, so each day Doctor Marigold was to be found on the dancefloor perfecting his patter.
On the morning of the performance day I rehearsed as usual and then spent the day walking and reading. Lots pf people came to ask when I was on again ‘Carmen’s this afternoon, at 3’. Eventually a lady who was at my dinner table approached me and said ‘are you sure its Carmen’s because the Horizon paper says you are in the Curzon’ A quick check proved her to be correct! The grapevine had done its work and in a reversal of two days before I had been ‘promoted’ into the large theatre.
As before I had a technical meeting an hour before curtain up, and I found a set of two steps back stage which would perfectly stand in for the footboard of Marigold’s cart, and that is all I required from the team. The auditorium filled up and by 3pm there was a goodly audience waiting to listen to a piece of Dickens that none of them knew.
‘I AM A CHEAPJACK!’ Instantly I (or more accurately he) had the audience’s attention. The Curzon stage was a perfect setting for this show, and in my mind’s eye I was looking over a muddy fairground entertaining the revellers and gentry who had gathered to watch.
Whenever Dickens performed a new piece in his repertoire the press would review it as if it were a west end premiere , and one of the contemporary reviews of Marigold mentioned that the crowd audibly sobbed during the final passages. I am glad to report that the passage of time has not dulled the sentimentality of the human race, for as I uttered the relevant line, so I could hear little gasps from the audience.
Marigold had worked its magic as it always does, and I left the stage to great applause. My professional duties on board were over and both shows had gone well. I have not performed on a cruise ship for around three years now, but I greatly enjoyed my time on board Aurora and hope to do more trips with P&O in the future.
All of the entertainers who had joined in Montevideo were leaving the next morning, making our ways back to our various homes, so a group of us decided to meet for dinner at Sindhus, which is the signature restaurant designed by Michelin-star celebrity chef Atul Kochha. And so it was that Tony and Jill Green, Rebecca Mills, David Fairclough and myself all dressed up in our dinner jackets and ball gowns (in due deference to the formal night status on board) toasted to a very successful and very happy cruise!