A year ago I was in Llandrindod Wells in the middle of Wales, appearing at the town’s annual Victorian Festival.
Thanks to the influence of my good friend David Hawes, I first appeared in Llandrindod in 2015 and have performed there annually ever since. Llandrindod is a sleepy Victorian spa town, rather off the beaten tourist track, that comes alive each summer thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers and a crowd of eager supporters all of whom don their Victorian garb and partake in a variety of events.
There is a large green space in the centre of the town and this is filled with small marquees, sideshows and fairground rides forming the hub of the festival.
Over the years I have performed Mr Dickens is Coming! Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations – even A Christmas Carol (despite the August date). They have seen The Signalman, The Murder of Nancy, Doctor Marigold and A Child’s Journey with Dickens, and as I packed up my things last year I realised that I had nothing left in repertoire to perform.
My first thought was to bring To Begin With to Wales. To Begin With, as regular readers will remember, is the show based on Dickens’ writing of The Life of our Lord and I have performed it for two seasons in Minneapolis, where it was written and produced. The stumbling block in my plan was that the producer, Dennis Babcock, was keen to premier it in the UK with all flags flying and bugles sounding prior to a national tour which would eventually take the show to the West End…..He was not keen on my performing it in mid-Wales and without his permission my plans foundered.
(By the way, there are as yet no firm plans for me to perform To Begin With in the UK – on tour, in the West End or anywhere else for that matter!)
So, I had to go back to the drawing board, and in what seemed like an inspired moment, I told Chris Hartley (who runs the Llandrindod festival) that I would write an entirely new show based on A Tale of Two Cities and that it would receive its world premiere at the festival. Chris pounced on the idea and within hours his Facebook page proudly broadcast the news: I was committed.
Now, in the usual course of things this wouldn’t have been too much of a problem as I had the best part of a year to prepare, and after all the source material was not alien to me, but there were other things going on in my life that would make this one of the most difficult and stressful shows I have ever embarked upon.
Almost two years ago Liz and I decided to explore the adoption process. My son Cameron is now 19 and away at University and we were keen to experience the joy of parenthood in our little house in Oxfordshire together. At first we put all the obstacles that we could in our own way – age, the fact we are both self-employed performers for whom time off means no income, size of house, lack of immediate family close by to be a support network etc etc. Oh! The problems we found. In the end we decided to go to an introductory meeting held by the local adoption service and see what was what. After that we decided to start stage 1 of the process and let the professionals tell us we were unsuitable – which we were sure that they would.
And so we leapt on board (well, rather slowly crawled on board) the wagon that would take us towards parenthood.
This is not a blog about adoption, but the various stages and processes began to dominate our lives as it became apparent that the authorities were not going to say ‘no’, but instead seemed extremely anxious to move us onward.
My Christmas tour came and went, and as the winter transformed into Spring we were completely consumed by workshops, seminars and interviews. Focussing on anything else was proving to be difficult, if not impossible, and in the middle of all this the thought kept nagging, that I had to write A Tale of Two Cities.
Chris, in Llandrindod, had told me that they were building me a guillotine for the show, and that it would be in pride of place on the stage – would that fit in with my script? The truth is that as I didn’t have a script anyway it neither fitted nor didn’t fit.
Our minds were bursting with the information and case histories that were being given to us, not to mention all of the official paperwork that we had to complete, but little by little I began to create my new script.
There is a famous photograph of Charles Dickens sitting in the garden of his Kentish home Gad’s Hill Place, he is flanked by his daughters Mamie and Katie, reading to them; the book in his hand is ‘The French Revolution. A History’ by Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle’s work had inspired Dickens with its vibrant account of the Reign of Terror and when he was searching for subject matter for a new novel the French Revolution inspired him.
I decided that this picture should be the inspiration for my storytelling (although the dates don’t actually work, as the novel was written in 1859 and the picture taken in 1865, but I made the decision to flash my artistic licence a little.
The decision to use Dickens as narrator had two benefits: firstly it meant that I could fill in any holes in the plot that might have arisen from the editing process, simply by having Dickens explain it to his daughters: ‘Now, we leave the dingy garret in Paris and return to stuffy old Telson’s Bank in London’, for example.
The second benefit is that Dickens would be dressed in the light day suit that features in the picture which would negate to need for 18th century costume and wigs at a stroke. I would have a few ‘dressing up’ props to hand such as a scholar’s gown which could be used in the courtroom scene and a fancy cloak for the Marquis to wear as he drives in his carriage to the Chateau, but otherwise the suit would suffice.
And so I started the script. It opens with Dickens sat on his chair, perusing a copy of Carlyle’s history, a brief exchange of letters between the two men, an idea forming in Charles’s head, calling to his daughters: ‘Mamie! Katie! Do you remember how when you were young I would read you stories, and you would tell me what you thought? Well, I have a new story. Sit down – it begins like this….’ And now I could introduce the most famous opening lines in literary history ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of reason, it was the age of incredulity….’ Etc.
The time constraints imposed by the ongoing adoption process limited the amount of time I could spend on the script, but I caught time when I could (usually early in the mornings), and created scenes that would lead Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay to the prison cell in Paris. The novel is almost like a modern screenplay in its pace and structure, so it was easy to take the characters from scene to scene.
Eventually I had a script. It was too short for a 2 act show, but it told the story.
In February Liz and I went to the adoption panel. The decision as to whether we would be allowed to adopt would be made.
We nervously sat in front of the official group and answered their questions as clearly and honestly as we could (from the start of the process we had decided to be up front and open, and not simply to ‘talk the talk’ just for the purposes of getting through the system)
Having had our moment in the spotlight we retired as the various luminaries discussed our future. When we were called back into the room the chairman of the panel began his sentence with: ‘We are delighted to inform you…..’
If we thought that life was full on up to that point, then we had to re-calibrate our thoughts, for things were ramping up a step.
We were required to attend a long series of parenting skills workshops, which certainly proved to be an eye opener, and we were shown and taught many strategies and tricks that would help in the inevitably difficult days ahead. Our tutors kindly told us that they would give us a toolbox of techniques to draw on. But as one of the other people on the same course said ‘we don’t want a toolbox – we want an arsenal!’
One of the most important messages from the workshop was that we MUST look after our own wellbeing if we were to be of any use to vulnerable children, ‘filling your cup’ it was called. My mind was becoming more and more panicked about the thought of doing any more work on the show, and it loomed large as a major barrier to me. I had to find time to work.
As we attended the workshops, so moves were being made behind the scenes to find us the perfect child or children, and soon our social worker presented us with details of siblings (Obviously I can’t go into detail and I am sure you will forgive me for intentional vagueness).
After another series of meetings and interviews we returned to the panel, and once again the chairman said ‘We are delighted to tell you…..’ And now it was real!
For official reasons there would now be a 14 day hiatus before we could start the introduction phase of the process, and as both our cups needed filling we thought we’d see if our favourite cottage in the Highlands of Scotland was free – amazingly it was. So we booked it and ran away to Cromarty for relaxation, a few deep breaths and the chance to do nothing.
It was here that I was able to start working on the script again. On most days Liz would stay in the cottage or do some shopping, while I walked up and down on the large green expanse of grass known as The Links, overlooked by the two amazing headlands that protect the Cromarty Firth, the Sutors.
Every day, with my black ring binder that held my script in my hand, walked in these beautiful surroundings, head down, oblivious, talking to my self in a variety of accents. The Links is a favourite spot for dog walkers, and I was vaguely aware that there seemed to be more each day, and that they would gather in a little group chatting. I supposed that being such a small town this must be a good meeting spot, but I’d never noticed such groupings of people before. Eventually one dog walker ‘accidentally’ threw a ball very close to me and came to fetch it (just beating his dog in the race). ‘I’m sorry, but we have to know: are you from the Highland Council? Are you surveying for a new toilet block on this land….?’ My perambulations had caused great alarm in Cromarty!
I got a good deal of work done in Scotland but didn’t get to the end of the script, and things were about to get much more difficult.
Two days after we returned home the introduction process would begin. This meant driving to the children’s foster carers house and meeting them for the first time, and then taking them out on trips, cooking meals, reading them stories, getting them to bed etc etc.
We had been warned that introductions were intense but nothing had prepared us for being completely wiped out at the end of each day. We would sit, staring at each other, talking through the highs and lows, before retiring to our bed at about 9pm.
10 days of introductions. 10 days of no work. The end of July was approaching, and the world premiere of A Tale of Two Cities was less than a month away. I started having stress dreams, which involved a variety of scenarios, but basically involved being on a stage not knowing what to do….funny that, I wonder what they could have meant?
Liz was worried for me and was extremely anxious to give me time, and help me, but we were hurtling headlong towards the day when the children would arrive at our house and time was a commodity we did not have.
On a Friday night at the end of July the children spent their first night with us. We had five weeks of summer holidays in front of us – a perfect time to build bonds and create a new family, but an awful lot of hours to fill for two children who need constant stimulation.
The first days were manic and hard and tiring. Our life as we knew it was turned upside down and there were tantrums and fights and crying. But also there were hugs and stories and giggles and love.
In the background though……radio interviews about the brand new show, questions from the theatre about technical requirements, queries from David about costume (that is his metier). There was no way I could get this show done. The only time of day I had was at 5am in the morning, and I would pace around the kitchen trying to commit at least the sense of the script to memory – the specific words could come later if I had time.
The children would wake early though, and my time was limited. I became more anxious. Liz became more anxious and one day she bravely said that she would take them out for a couple of hours, on her own, to let me have time. I paced in the garden, worrying about her, wondering what meltdowns were occurring, listening for the slamming of a car door…but, no! They were perfect with her, as they fed the ducks on the river, and played in the playpark, and helped with the shopping, whilst I had committed more of the script to memory. There were still passages that absolutely refused to be remembered, and I had to start referring to old tricks. For example the phrase ‘Destructive upheaval’ came in an intense description of the Reign of Terror and I stumbled at it every time. I had to convince my memory that the initial letters of the passage were D and U and in my mind all I could think of was the Irish Political Party the DUP. (The Democratic Unionist Party was formed I 1971 and was active throughout the Irish troubles of the 70s and 80s, so perhaps was a suitable choice of prompt for the French Revolution).
We were able to repeat this exercise a few times, and Liz was simply amazing – as were the children, who knew that daddy had ‘to work for his show’
And suddenly one day, or morning, I was at the end! There were a few sketchy passages that I needed to go over again and again, but I could start and the beginning (or, as Monsieur Defarge says ‘commence at the commencement’) and end at the end. I had a show.
Staging was a little more approximate, however, and I had no idea how the show would look – how I was going move around, and of course I had no perception of what the guillotine would look like, or how much it would dominate the stage. All of that I would have to improvise. I knew I wanted to base everything around the garden furniture featured in the Gad’s Hill Photograph and I was fairly sure this would work apart from the problem that I do not own any Victorian garden furniture. My problem was solved as I drove past our local florist, Fabulous Flowers, who always mount superb displays outside their shop in Abingdon, I happened to notice that they were featuring a wrought iron table and chairs which would look perfect. I popped in and asked if I could rent or borrow the furniture for a couple of days and the owners were delighted to oblige (one of the partners happened to have been brought up in Rochester and is quite the Dickens fan).
The biggest problem I now faced was the length of the show. The main script came in at around an hour and I didn’t really want to break it for an interval. One of the main features of the novel is the sheer pace that it moves (thanks to it being published in a weekly, rather than monthly periodical) and I wanted to preserve that sense of energy and pace leading toward the famous ending. Also, of course, they would have been two very short halves and I certainly didn’t have time to write and learn any extra passages. What to do? In the end I came up with an instant, short-term fix, which would get me through the first performance at least. Inspired by Rowan Atkinson and Joyce Grenfell (For those of you who do not know Joyce Grenfell’s ‘Don’t do that George’ monologue, I entreat you to track it down online and listen. It would be one of my Desert Island tracks, along with Gerard Hoffnung’s ‘The Bricklayer’) I would perform a largely improvised monologue.
I decided to introduce the audience to some of the influences that inspired Dickens to write AToTC in the first place. I would take the stage as a crusty old British schoolmaster welcoming his English Literature class back after the Summer break.
I created a script that was essentially 30 minutes of improvisation, and in which the master would ask the boys what they had discovered about A Tale of Two Cities . The fact that there would be a huge guillotine in the centre of the stage was explained by congratulating ‘young Brunel on his exciting art installation….’ The script was going to be a bit silly, with lots of jokes in it, but amongst all of the froth I would talk about Carlyle’s French Revolution, Wilkie Collins’ The Frozen Deep (in which the main character, played on stage by CD, sacrifices himself for the good of others), Benjamin Webster’s play Dead Heart (which was set at the time of the French Revolution and featured a swap at the foot of the guillotine so that a life could be spared whilst another was taken. Dickens knew the play and Webster took him to court for plagiarism), and Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni in which the titular character cannot fall in love without losing his immortality. Of course he DOES fall in love and eventually loses his earthly life to the blade of the guillotine, as the book is set during the French Revolution.
The ‘class’ which the teacher addresses is made up of various names, some obscure, some more obvious. For example young Hill, Benjamin Hill, named after the risqué British comedian Benny Hill, is constantly coming out with crude innuendo.
Most of the factual information comes from the class swot young Slater (Michael Slater is one of the foremost experts in the studies of Victorian Literature and particularly Dickens). All a bit silly, but it suited a purpose.
I was due to perform A Take of Two Cities on Tuesday 21 August in Llandrindod Wells, and on Saturday 18th I was booked to perform my Double Bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold in Leicester. This was a blessing in that I know that show well and it gave me a chance to remember how to be an actor, as I hadn’t been on stage for a good many months. My appearances in Leicester are regular and the audience is loyal and generous, it was a perfect way to begin the week.
The Saturday trip to Leicester would mark the first day that I had left the children with Liz for a show, and of course they will have to get used to that over the coming years. We talked them through the timetable, and I wouldl phone from the venue and send pictures of the hall and the set, as well as trying to squeeze in a Skype conversation between their bedtime and my show start.
The two short stories delighted the audience in Leicester and it was good to be on a stage again and finding that the timing and voices came easily back to me.
But even as I walked upstairs to my changing room, the applause still echoing, I found myself muttering: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times……’.
Tuesday saw an important meeting with various social workers to assess how the children were settling in with us. Children who have been in the care system are naturally suspicious of authority, as they have tended to represent change and turmoil, so we were uncertain as to how this visit would pan out. Fortunately the meeting was scheduled for 10 and I did not have to leave until 12, so Liz and I could be there together and hopefully cope with any emotional fallout that may ensue.
As it happened the meeting passed fairly calmly, and we soon had our house back with just the four of us. I said my goodbyes and we all hugged and kissed and promised to talk on the phone later. As I drove I started rehearsing again, to that extent that I completely missed the turning for the M6 Toll road, but fortunately the motorway through Birmingham was relatively clear for once.
My journey allowed me to get a couple of complete run-throughs of the script done and as I started winding through the beautiful countryside of the Welsh borders I was feeling a little more confident, although still woefully under-prepared.
Over my years of performing in Llandrindod my home from home has become The Portland Guest House, and I arrived and checked in with an hour to spare before I needed to be at the theatre itself. There is always something very reassuring in returning to a familiar event, and a familiar hotel and in this case a familiar room.
This year I was performing in The Pavilion Theatre for the first time (Llandrindod is fortunate in that it boasts two amazing theatres for such a small town. In previous years I had performed at the Albert Hall). The pit of my stomach felt empty as I drew up outside – I really was entering uncharted waters.
Waiting for me was my friend David, Chris the organiser of the festival, Jacob a film student who acts as my stage manager for my shows at the event and various others from the organising committee, as well as the folk from the theatre itself.
I tried to appear confident and professional but inside I was completely terrified! I looked at the stage and there in the centre was my guillotine: waiting figuratively and metaphorically for me. My sense of panic was not improved by the eerie red light that Jase, the tech guy, was trying at that moment, which cast a portentous shadow on the black tabs at the back of the stage.
Anyway, I had to get on with it. I tried a few passages and they seemed to work. I tried the end sequence using the guillotine which made an incredibly dramatic echoing THUD every time it dropped. The scene takes place against the constant rising and falling of the blade as the knitting women count the number of severed heads. By delivering the lines next to the structure, almost as if I were a guard, I could pull the rope and release it perfectly on cue – it is always nice to be in charge of one’s own effects.
The acoustics of the hall sounded great, which was a relief, and I began to feel a little more confident about the hours ahead. Just a little, mind.
I went back to my dressing room and arranged the costumes, and muttered some lines. Although the phone signal was too weak to allow a Skype exchange, I was able to chat to the children and send them some pictures of the theatre (I hoped the guillotine wouldn’t scare them!), and of me in costume.
As Charles Darnay counts down the hours to his execution, so I watched the clock remorselessly turn, moving on towards 7.30.
Every event at the Llandrindod Festival is graced by Her Majesty, Queen Victoria and she is always welcomed with great ceremony. On this occasion A master of ceremonies (David) asked the audience to rise and in a great triumphal fanfare the Queen made her stately way to her front row seat. Before I could panic any further, the show began.
In my schoolmaster’s costume I walked slowly from the back of the auditorium, the audience completely unsure how this related to A Tale of Two Cities. They sat in silence as I walked on to the stage. I looked at them. They looked at me.
‘QUIET! QUIET! QUIET! QUIET PLEASE.’ Pause. ‘QUIET!’ A few giggles, oh good. ‘QUIET!’ (The first act is rather short, so the longer I can keep this opening gambit going, the better!) ‘I can wait, I have all day!’
And then I launched into the script. They got it, thank you Llandrindod, they got it! As I named each of the pupils – (Ah, Mr Blanc, Im glad to see you here and not in the Home economics kitchen as usual: so what can you tell me about the French Revolution? That you plan to remove sugary and fatty foods from your diet this year. You want to give up smoking, and especially those awful gauloises. You will help your mother more and keep your rooms tidy. That’s very interesting, but I think you are talking about your French Resolution, not Revolution.) -they chuckled. In the meantime I managed to explain all of Dickens’s influences in a comedic and non-threatening way, preparing them for the drama to follow.
After just twenty minutes or so I left the stage with laughter and applause filling the theatre. Half the job had been done.
After the interval I took to the stage in the light day suit that David had sourced, sat in the garden chair, the lights came up and I began.
I couldn’t have dreamed that the script would work so well. The characters and the drama moved the plot along, and the audience were hanging on every word. I improvised movements, previously untried, for example as Monsieur Defarge leads Mr Lorry and Lucie up to the little garret room, I clambered over the garden furniture. I use the various bits of costume that David had found to represent the Marquis and lawyers in the courtroom. So the plot raced to Paris and the Reign of Terror, the lighting became a reddish hue, and a single spotlight picked me out as I slowly backed towards the guillotine. The first execution..rummmmmmmble THUMP! A gasp from the audience as I held the imaginary head aloft. I had thought of trying to do something with water melons, but was worried that it would just provoke laughter, which would ruin the atmosphere.
Second execution. Carton and the little seamstress move towards the guillotine. She is taken up and with no pause ‘CRASH!’ is gone. And then Carton’s turn. ‘CRASH!’ And now, in a low tone I channelled my best Dirk Bogard:
‘It is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a far far better rest I go to than I have ever known.’ ‘CRASH!’ Blackout. Get off stage. Red light up over the solitary guillotine. Fade to black.
The audience reaction was everything I could have wished, there were calls of ‘Bravo!’ A process that had begun a year before was completed successfully
I have written about developing shows before but thanks to our amazing new life, this time had been much more of a struggle.
One wonderful side effect of trying to learn a show over such a length of time is that various passages were attached to various memories. For example as I performed the sequence in the French Court I could feel the sea breeze and recall the beautiful views across the Cromarty Firth, and one of the script pages is crinkled due to a sudden rainy squall one day.
Back in the dressing room I took a few deep breaths and calmed down. I had never felt so under-prepared before walking onto a stage before and it is not a feeling I ever want to repeat, but I suppose in a theatrical version of an extreme sport the extra adrenaline rush made the performance all the more exciting.
After a minute or two I returned to the stage for a most important ceremony, which considering the subject matter of A Tale of Two Cities was ever so slightly surreal. It had been arranged that thanks to my five years of performances at the festival I would be awarded with the KCVO (Knight Commander of my Victorian Order). The Queen rose and I duly knelt on a cushion as the ceremonial sword was passed to her (I’d escaped the guillotine, could I survive this second assault?). For all of the pantomime and silliness this was a very generous thing that the festival did for me and as we posed for pictures I knew I was among true friends.
So, there we are: a tale of two major developments in my life.
I am due to perform the new show again at the Leicester Guildhall in October, so there is more work to be done, but I know I have the foundations in place.
As to the other: well every day is an adventure, as our new family forms and develops. There are dark times and there are amazing times. But taking all things into consideration these are indeed the best of times!