This week my travels took me to Lincolnshire and the beautiful, and beautifully named, town of Market Deeping, where I was to appear as part of the Little Deepings Literary Festival. I had been contacted last year by Michael Cross and after a series of emails he engaged me to perform ‘Mr Dickens is Coming!’ on the Friday night of the festival.
I was to share the bill with a group of musicians called The Bookshop Band and Michael’s original idea was to connect us so that we could work out a programme that would feature us performing together, me performing a passage followed by them performing some music, but the logistical problems of co-ordinating such a programme meant that it was decided that they would take the first half and I the second.
The drive to Market Deeping was awful in one sense and beautiful in another. It was the Friday night of a bank holiday weekend and everyone was on the road. In England if you want to drive north to south or south to north it is relatively easy, for there are quite a few major trunk roads to chose from, but as soon as you need to go left to right or right to left things become rather more difficult. On this particular Friday evening I left plenty of time for my journey, thinking that I would be able to get to my B&B and have a shower before heading to the venue, but as soon as I set the maps on my phone I saw dire warnings of congestion and traffic which would delay me by over an hour.
My Android phone is loaded with Google Maps and it did its best to find me an unaffected route, and it was these efforts that gave me the most beautiful drive across the countryside, through small towns and villages, passing farmland and yellow fields of buttercups smudged with poppies.
As I passed from Northamptonshire and into Lincolnshire I seemed to enter Festival country as there seemed to be posters promoting a whole range – The Sausage and Cider Festival looking as if it may be the most interesting.
After more than three hours on the road I began to see signs for the Little Deepings Lit Festival and shortly after that I let out a quiet cheer as I was welcomed to Market Deeping itself.
I drove straight to the Deepings School and as the reception was locked I looked around until I found an open door. I walked in and saw a small group of people at the far end of the room bustling around a table and some boxes, they didn’t look like they were setting up for a festival but one gentleman turned and politely asked if he could help?
‘I’m looking for the literary festival,’ I told him. ‘I am performing here tonight.’
‘Oh, I don’t know about that, this is the food bank, I think you may be in the main hall, let me show you the way.’
And in that instant the lovely, safe, middle class world of literature festivals was put into sharp relief by these few good people caring for the many who desperately need it – a cause that Charles Dickens would have approved of, supported and championed.
In the main hall the preparations for our evening were in full swing and as I walked in Michael greeted me with a warm handshake and a big smile. On stage The Bookshop Band were working through their sound checks and far from being a group of musicians they were a couple whom I soon discovered to be Ben and Beth.
The set up for the band was all at once simple and complicated, Beth and Ben sat in a couple of chairs surrounded by a bewildering array of stringed instruments, there were 4 or 5 guitars on bespoke stands and a similar number of ukuleles on rather smaller bespoke stands. There was also a harmonium and a cello. Each instrument was plugged in and besides that amplification two microphones were rigged up for each performer, one for voice and one for whichever instrument they happened to be playing. As I arrived a technical team were carefully tweaking each audio channel to make sure that all of the sounds emanating from the stage were perfectly balanced, and that each of the monitors that relayed the sound back to Beth and Ben were at a suitable volume.
As the sound check progressed so I got to hear The Bookshop Band for the first time, and what a beautiful sound it was, their style is folky but with overtones of theme tunes to Scandinavian dramas such as The Bridge. Every now and then they would stop playing to request that ‘the ukulele channel be a little higher’ or ‘the monitor for the cello be a touch less’ It was a very involved and professional sound check.
Mine by contrast was less complicated, I stood on the stage and the sound engineer stood at the back of the hall. I said ‘Throughout my lifetime as boy, youth and man I have derived a love of the stage. Today I am fortunate to stand upon the stages of the great theatres of the world.’ At which point I asked ‘can you hear me ok?’ The engineer said ‘Yes’ and that was it!
We now had about an hour until the audience was due to arrive so we all disappeared to get changed and wait for the show to begin. I was stationed in a music theory classroom surrounded by various posters telling me about musical dynamics, and how an orchestra is made up. The classroom was over the corridor from a gymnasium where there was a karate class and the violent grunts and crashes on to the floor mats were in stark contrast to the gentle music and vocals of The Bookshop Band.
Michael and his team had obviously done a superb job marketing the festival, and our event, for soon the hall was full and extra seats were being sought. At 7.30 the lights were dimmed and Michael took to the stage. Usually at events such as these an organiser briefly welcomes the audience, talks about the festival, points out highlights of forthcoming events and maybe does a brief airline steward ’emergency exits are…’ speech. Michael did all this, but with such presence, panache and style that he really could have stayed up there all evening doing a stand-up routine! As well as imparting all of the information that he needed to Michael was a great warm up man for Beth and Ben and he had the audience in the perfect place for the beginning of their show.
I settled down at the back of the hall to watch the start of the show, both for my own entertainment but also to gauge the audience and the room. Ben started the set by explaining what The Bookshop Band are and it is a good story, they don’t play the music circuit, but perform mainly in small independent bookshops or at festivals such as this.
Each song in their repertoire is influenced by a novel and I felt very good about myself when Ben announced that their first offering was based on the novel ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, which I read a few years ago.
The audience were transfixed, and listened closely to the lyrics (perfectly audible thanks to the rigorous sound check earlier). I was just settling in for an enjoyable evening when a gentleman with a camera came up to me in the dark and asked me if he could photograph me for the local paper. He scarcely bothered to whisper, so I went with him out of the hall before we disturbed the rest of the audience too much.
The photographer had obviously been doing this for a good few years, and stood me against a wall in the school corridor. ‘Now, do you have your book that you can hold?’, he assumed I was an author and was going to be talking about my new novel, he seemed disappointed when I explained I was here to do a theatre show and therefore didn’t have a book. It was as if I were ruining the composition of his shot!
I posed in a pose he has posed a thousand times before, and he went away to chat with Michael before leaving to shoot his next job.
As I was out in the corridors of the school anyway I decided to pace a bit and run through my lines. The script of Mr Dickens is Coming has been deeply ingrained over the years, so it flows easily, but as I got to the end a strange, and artistically dangerous thought, came into my head. A few weeks ago I introduced a new passage from Great Expectations into the show, featuring Pip, Miss Havisham and Estella and it worked well, but that was just a one off and I hadn’t looked at it since, but now I began to think ‘why not do it again?’
I had no script for the passage with me, so it was just a case of relying on my memory. After a few false starts I discovered that the words were still in my head and eager to be used! Yes, I would include the Great Ex passage. Probably.
Having done a little more work I slipped back into the hall to listen to more Of Ben and Beth who were performing a piece made up of opening lines from novels, featuring the ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….’ passage particularly strongly.
Great Expectations was still playing in my mind, so at the next round of applause I slipped out to rehearse a little more until the first act finished and the audience emerged and headed to the temporary bar.
I went to the stage and congratulated Ben who was starting to pack all of the instruments and equipment away and when he had finished so the tech crew moved in to wind up all of the cables and pack up the microphones and speakers until the stage was empty and ready for me to move my reading desk, screen, hatstand and chair into their required positions under the lights. When everything was as it should be and I was confident that all of my props were in place I returned to my dressing room, drank some water and wondered if I was being stupid in changing the script at the last minute.
The interval ran its course, soon the audience were back in their seats and Michael was on stage to welcome them back and introduce me, which we did with professional grace.
Instantly I knew that I was in for a good evening for the atmosphere on the stage was perfect – the combination of the hall, the lighting, the words of Dickens and the magic that occurs when a completely random collection of individuals come together to form a single living entity called an audience, all worked to make last Friday night thoroughly enjoyable.
As I worked through the script I still hadn’t fully decided whether I would be brave enough to include the Great Expectations passage but when I got to the edge of the precipice I decided to jump, and it was the correct decision. The end of Mr Dickens is Coming is vastly improved by having a more serious and literary passage nestling in it and the pace of the piece is a nice contrast to the rather more frenetic material that precedes it.
Somehow a literary festival such as Little Deepings deserved Miss Havisham .
The end of the show features the anecdote of Charles Jnr finding his ageing father performing the Murder of Nancy in the gardens at Gad’s Hill Place a few days before his death. After describing a pale, grey, lined, pathetic man I suddenly become a violent villain ‘MURDERING NANCY ONE LAST TIME!’ Last Friday I became so energetic that as I ‘struck’ the imaginary Nancy I fell to one knee and put my hand on the ground to steady myself and in that moment I realised that Charles Dickens had assumed the famous pose of Marvel Comics’ Iron Man.
Never before have these two cultural icons met!
I took my bows to lovely applause, left the stage and was called back again for a second time. Michael bounded into the light and thanked me, Ben and Beth and after reminding the audience of what was coming up in the festival he bade everyone goodbye.
I got changed and then returned to the stage to tackle the less glamourous part of my job which entails packing up all the props and loading them into my car. It’s one thing doing it at home when I’m going to a gig, but after a show when I’m hot and the adrenaline is still flowing it can lead to a very sudden come down and weariness sets in easily.
Eventually everything was loaded and I said goodbye to Michael, Ben and Beth before we got into our respective cars to head off. I drove in convoy with Ben and Beth who were staying at the same elegant B&B in the town centre. We said goodnight once again and I went to my room where I fell into a very deep sleep.