Although the Joseph Amble Inn presents a fine breakfast buffet I am forgoing its delights this morning as I have arranged to drive to my cousin Rowland’s hotel to spend a little time with him and his family. Usually Rowly drives up from NJ for the show and goes straight home on the same night, meaning that we rarely get to talk at length, but this year they have decided to stay.
The Staybridge Suites Hotel is but a 4 minute drive, and I find Rowly in the lobby wrapped up preparing to huddle outside in the cold for a cigarette. I grab a coffee and go and sit with him on a bench under the main entrance canopy. As we talk Rowly notices that directly above the ‘Smokers Outpost’ stand provided for people to stub their cigarettes out on, is a ‘No Smoking’ notice.
After a few minutes Rowly’s middle son Toby comes out to announce that the rest of the family are ready for breakfast, and in we go. It is a lovely family time with Rowly’s wife Andrea (Andi), eldest son Sam, Toby and Rafe.
Sam takes on the duty of chief waffle maker and soon places a stack that resembles the leaning tower of Pisa on the table. We all tuck in as we talk.
Toby in particular is developing a keen interest in the stage and has already appeared in a number of productions. He asks me all sorts of questions about my show, including ‘what are you thinking about when you are doing it?’ Interesting! When I am performing I have various different thought processes going on, at different levels. The basic level is to think whatever the character I am portraying is thinking – not pretending, but actually thinking it. If Scrooge is angry, so I am angry. If Cratchit is distraught with grief, them I am distraught with grief. On another level my brain is working on a practical level – oh, the scarf has fallen off the stage and I need it for a scene at the end of the play, how best can I retrieve it without it being too obvious? I am also watching and listening to the audience to try and gauge their reactions so that I can tailor the show to this particular group – make it darker or funnier or develop the pathos more.
While Toby has an interest in the stage, then young Rafe has a fascination in cars, which I equally enjoy talking about, and I get pictures of my old Lotus which I hope will impress him, however his passions lay in huge monster trucks with tyres the size of Rhode Island!
Sam is currently learning to drive so once again we can chat easily, as I used to be a driving instructor. It is fascinating to hear about the American system for obtaining a drivers licence, and it seems a lot more comprehensive and sensible than the UK one. There are nigh time curfews in place for young drivers, and limits on how many passengers they can carry. However the system is flexible enough so that if a young driver works at night, so a dispensation can be granted for him to drive to his home from his place of work.
Rowly has worked in New York City for goodness knows how many years (20 or so I believe) and whilst he and Andy are still very much Brits abroad, their accents are holding up well, all three boys were born here and are very much American kids, albeit with a very British heritage.
This morning is the first time I have ever got to spend much time with them and it is a delight. Rowly and Andi are great company and they should both be proud of their three fine sons.
As the family has to drive back to New Jersey and I have a little work to do back at the hotel it is soon time to hug our goodbyes and I drive back to the Ambler Inn. My first show today is at 1, so I need to back at Byers Choice before 12 to make sure that everything is in the right place and ready.
There is another lovely deep bath in my room, and I decide that I shall have a long hot relaxing soak before I go out, so I start to run the water, and lay on the bed with the TV on as I wait for the tub to fill.
Suddenly there is the sound of a key in the lock which I assume is housekeeping, despite the fact that I had put the privacy please sign on my door, but it is not: a lady, presumably a hotel employee as she has the key, is bringing an entire group in to look at the room! Not only has she ignored the Privacy sign, but obviously feels that it is OK to look around an occupied room filled with the resident’s belongings and papers even if he is absent. She mutters a rather inadequate apology and leaves. Fortunately I was not actually ready for my bath, if you get my drift, but it is not an impressive moment for the Joseph Ambler Inn.
I put the chain on the door and have my bath which is indeed relaxing and luxurious.
Most of my belongings are still at Byers Choice, so all I need to take is an extra shirt and a pair of black socks (making sure I haven’t picked up the rhinestone teacup ones from Lenox).
Before I leave I stop by the front desk to mention the issue of the intrusion this morning, not to complain, just to let them know it happened and that it wasn’t really good enough. The lady behind the desk says ‘Oh, that’s bad’ but doesn’t actually apologise. Maybe she will mention it to the manager and he will deal with it later.
As I arrive at Byers’ Choice I drive to my usual car parking spot, but it is filled, I go to another lot at the front of the building, also filled. Eventually I am directed to the loading bays outside the shipping department and am let in a back door. The Saturday afternoon audience are arriving so early that not even the performer can park!
In the empty theatre I chat with Bob, as is our custom, and I set the stage for the start of the show, making sure that the stool and the cloth are where they should be. As I am bumbling about a group of very young children, probably 3 years old I would think, come in with their mothers, or nursery school carers, I am not sure which. They are all dressed smartly and Dave asks me if I wouldn’t mind saying hello which I am happy to do. Each one shyly shakes hands, and then they all present me with plaster ornaments that they have made and coloured, as well as beautiful cards with pictures of carefully drawn Christmas trees. It is a beautiful moment and makes me think of home.
The rest of the audience are ready to be let in, so I go to my dressing room to change. The 1 o’clock show is the biggest of the tour and their will be a capacity house of around 700, which is an exciting prospect. As usual I return to the auditorium with about 20 minutes to go and watch the seats fill up. We wait for the last shuttle bus to bring the last guests from the furthest car park, and it is a little after 1 when Bob and I make our way backstage to thank the choir once more and start the show
As you would expect with such a big crowd it is a wonderful show and I work hard. About half way through though I begin to feel slightly light-headed as though I need a sugar hit, but theres nothing I can do about it. I work through it and keep going.
A slight change today is to develop Mr Fezziwig’s dancing a little. Up to now the new musical cue has come in, and I have simply carried on the narrative but today I choreograph a little country dance for Mr F to perform. It is rather jolly! I am not happy with Mrs F’s role in the proceedings however and I must give her something better to do than the current manic twirling finale.
It is a good feeling to stand on stage bowing to 700 people who are on their feet clapping and shouting and making strange whooping noises. Oh yes, it is a good feeling!
The show has been very good, and now it is time for my backstage sprint to prepare myself for the signing. Having read yesterday’s blog post Bob talks for a little longer on stage, allowing me more leeway to get back to the board room.
When I arrive at my signing table the whole crowd, orchestrated by Pam, breaks out into a loud rendition of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow!’, which is terribly embarrassing but also rather nice.
The signing is long. Oh it lasts a long time but everyone in the line is so patient. I am sat in the centre of the visitor centre’s Nativity room where the queue of people ends at my desk; from there the serpentine line winds back around the perimeter of the room and out into the museum section of the building, meaning that I have guests on all sides of me.
As ever Pam is on duty at the head of the queue, chatting and taking people’s phones or cameras to perform photographic duties. She is superb in this role and has such a great rapport with all of the guests that I am sure every one of them feels as if she is their new best friend by the time they leave.
There is a jolly atmosphere in the room and I make sure that I put just as much energy into being cheerful and approachable as I do into my performance on stage. It seems as if this session will never end, and I rather think that some of the audience for my second show have taken the opportunity to join the end of the line, so that they don’t have to wait later, however I am wrong for every guest, right to the very end, mentions how much they enjoyed my performance.
One gentleman who has come for multiple years asks me if I felt a little too rushed today? ‘I don’t want to criticise, but I felt you were a bit too hurried. In particular the snoring. Usually you pause before you snore, but today you went straight into it!’ Wow, I knew I’d tried to cut down on some of the pauses, but I’d never realised that the snoring one was something to be considered! It is amazing the changes that regular attendees notice.
At last the final signing is done and I have a 90 minute break before I am back on duty again for show number 2.
I go back the stage and re set everything and chat briefly to Bob about the changes for this year, especially the sound effects. He said he was sceptical at first because he felt that too much intrusion might take away the simplicity of the storytelling, but in fact thinks they work well.
Here are the sound effects I have introduced, and the reasons for including them:
1: The opening music has been a feature of the show for a few years now and creates a good mournful atmosphere leading to the sombre opening line: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’
2: Sir Roger de Coverley at Fezziwig’s party: I have wanted a greater sense of celebration and party in this scene and recently found a lovely recording of a single violin playing the old English country dance. It is a jolly tune and just underscores the whole passage, without being intrusive. It has also enabled me to dance a little on stage, and that is something I never thought I would write!
3: A church clock striking three-quarters: After Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present have been on the worldwide adventures Ebenezer notices that the spirit is ageing. ‘My time on this globe is very brief, it ends tonight. Tonight at midnight’ and then suddenly he says ‘My time draws near’ before revealing Ignorance and Want. In the book itself the narrative says ‘The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.’, and it is for this purpose that I wanted the chimes to sound, so that the ghost has a reason to speak.
4: the clock striking twelve: Having had the three quarters just a few lines earlier, it would seem odd to have no chiming bells when the narrative talks about the clock striking twelve, and the slow ponderous tolling adds to the sense of impending doom that comes with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come
5: Christmas morning Church bells pealing: In the book when Scrooge realises that he is in his own room and that he is as light as a feather, as merry as a schoolboy and as giddy as a drunken man, he is drawn to the windows by the Church bells ringing, and it is such a joyous bit of writing:
‘He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell! Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash. Oh, glorious, glorious.’
In my original thoughts I had asked Dave to keep the church bells ringing throughout the whole time that Scrooge is in the streets, right up to the moment he finally leaves Church, but that proved to be too much and too intrusive, so at today’s performance Dave faded them gently out quite soon which worked much better.
Aware of my low sugar levels during the show I make a raid on the refreshment counter at the back of the hall, which has been manned throughout by Joyce Byers who created this entire company. There are cookies there. Lots of cookies. Cookies on plates, cookies in boxes, cookies on racks.
I fill my hat with a goodly selection and return to the boardroom where I eat a salad and some fruit, and just generally relax. Even now there is a little work to be done as two large bags filled with books and carollers have been left for me to sign, which I do between bites of apple and cookie.
Also on the desk is the perfect display of Dave’s professionalism and care, for my microphone is laid out with a reassuring little note telling me that new batteries were put in at 3.30 pm
With a little time to go I sit in a chair and begin to play Angry Birds on my phone, I get to a particularly tricky level and cant get the three-star score that I want. I know there is a way of doing it, I just have to work out the correct order and strategy. Over and over I fire the little birds into the air, and over and over I come up short. There MUST be another way, and so it goes on over and over, until at last the last little green pig explodes and three yellow stars appear on my screen. Phew! Oh, I suppose I should check the time – ONLY FIFTEEN MINUTES TO THE SHOW!
I pin my microphone into place, make sure that I have everything that I need and go to the hall where another huge audience is gathering. The routine is well set now and at 5.30 Bob and I go back stage to thank the choir (a different one this evening), and start things rolling for the final time.
This is the best show of the three in my opinion, it is strong and dramatic and pacey and there is a superb connection with the audience. I also make sure that I pause properly before snoring!
At the start of the performance I was slightly worried about my voice and throat (too many cookies no doubt), but I hold back a little and everything is fine.
Once again the ovation at the end is amazing, and I have tears in my eyes as I bow.
Big audience and good show equals a long signing session, and I am feeling very tired by the end, but I love this interaction with the audiences and it would be much more worrying if nobody stood in line afterwards. Pam does her usual sterling job, and Bob offers cups of water to those waiting patiently.
And at around 8.15 my duties at Byers’ Choice end for another year. Bob accompanies me back to board room, lest I should be accosted and waylaid by any other audience members and I start to change and pack. I seemed to have accumulated a lot of stuff in the board room including various gifts to take home, not to mention the clean shirts that Pam has laundered for me and it takes quite a feat of balancing to carry everything back to the car.
The theatre is a theatre no more, for the stage has gone, the lights are down and all of the work stations are being wheeled back into place ready for production of the carollers to recommence tomorrow. In A Christmas Carol we read about young Ebenezer and Dick Wilkins clearing Fezziwig’s warehouse ready for the ball, but we never hear about them putting it back together again. Here in the 21st century version everyone is involved: Bob and Jeff Byers, the finance director Joe, all of the guys who have been ushering and manning the carparks, they are all rebuilding Byers’ Choice.
I say my goodbyes, putting down my hat and scarf to do so, before letting myself out of the back door and going to the car. Instantly I realise that I have left my hat inside, but I cant get back in without a key. I have been very proud that I haven’t lost or left anything anywhere throughout the whole trip, so this is rather annoying, but it is not an issue as I am meeting Bob for breakfast I the morning and I send him a message asking him to bring the two items with him then.
Back at the Ambler Inn hang up my damp shirt to dry. I was wondering if there may have been a note under the door, or a message on my phone regarding the events of this morning, but there is nothing. I am very hungry after an very active and intense day so I go to the bar and order a steak and brulee, which proves to be a perfect end to a very good day.
Tomorrow I have one more show to perform, before driving to the airport and getting in a plane to take me home.