Following the flurry of events during the last few weeks the diary is quiet again for a while and that gives me a chance to look ahead to the summer and do some preparation for events yet to come.
Specifically I have two shows that need some work, so for me it is back to the drawing board, or more specifially to the blank screen of my laptop.
In July I am returning to the Market Theatre in Hitchin and will be performing The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Although NickNick is a familiar show to me, and indeed I performed it in Rochester just a few weeks ago, this year I am extending it and adding some passages. The show itself currently runs at about an hour and a quarter meaning that the first act has to be padded out with a lot of background information. I am keen to lose the blurb and to include more of the novel itself.
The first passage I am adding is a brief description of Nicholas’s job interview with the Member of Parliament Mr Gregsbury. On answering the question what should a secretary do Nicholas muses that he should write lettrs, take dictation and send copies of the great man’s speeches to various periodicals and journals.
Mr Gregsbury concurs but proceeds to add a whole raft of other jobs:
‘This is all very well, Mr Nickleby, and very proper, so far as it goes — so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. There are other duties, Mr Nickleby, which a secretary to a parliamentary gentleman must never lose sight of. I should require to be crammed, sir.’ ‘My secretary would have to make himself master of the foreign policy of the world, as it is mirrored in the newspapers; to run his eye over all accounts of public meetings, all leading articles, and accounts of the proceedings of public bodies; and to make notes of anything which it appeared to him might be made a point of, in any little speech upon the question of some petition lying on the table, or anything of that kind. Do you understand?’
‘I think I do, sir,’
‘Then,’ said Mr Gregsbury, ‘it would be necessary for him to make himself acquainted, from day to day, with newspaper paragraphs on passing events; such as “Mysterious disappearance, and supposed suicide of a potboy,” or anything of that sort, upon which I might found a question to the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Then, he would have to copy the question, and as much as I remembered of the answer (including a little compliment about independence and good sense); and to send the manuscript in a frank to the local paper, with perhaps half-a-dozen lines of leader, to the effect, that I was always to be found in my place in parliament, and never shrunk from the responsible and arduous duties, and so forth. You see?’
‘Besides which,’ continued Mr Gregsbury, ‘I should expect him, now and then, to go through a few figures in the printed tables, and to pick out a few results, so that I might come out pretty well on timber duty questions, and finance questions, and so on; and I should like him to get up a few little arguments about the disastrous effects of a return to cash payments and a metallic currency, with a touch now and then about the exportation of bullion, and the Emperor of Russia, and bank notes, and all that kind of thing, which it’s only necessary to talk fluently about, because nobody understands it.
This is a hasty outline of the chief things you’d have to do, except waiting in the lobby every night, in case I forgot anything, and should want fresh cramming; and, now and then, during great debates, sitting in the front row of the gallery, and saying to the people about —‘You see that gentleman, with his hand to his face, and his arm twisted round the pillar — that’s Mr Gregsbury — the celebrated Mr Gregsbury,’— with any other little eulogium that might strike you at the moment. And for salary,’ said Mr Gregsbury, winding up with great rapidity; for he was out of breath —‘and for salary, I don’t mind saying at once in round numbers, to prevent any dissatisfaction — though it’s more than I’ve been accustomed to give — fifteen shillings a week, and find yourself. There!’
Goodness! I’d want more than 15 shillings just to learn that lot. Nicholas certainly didn’t think that 15 shillings was adequate and turned down Mr Gregsbury’s kind offer of employment and returned to Smike, before the two headed to Portsmouth and a chance meeting with Mr Crummles (thus returning to my original script).
Charles Dickens of course worked in parliament as a reporter and his disdain for all things political is evident in this scene.
The other passages I need to work in, to make the end of the plot make more sense, are to explain the sudden appearance of Mr Brooker, who confronts Ralph Nickleby with the truth about Smike, thereby leading to remorse, suicide and conclusion. In the script’s current form Brooker is suddenly produced by the Cheeryble brothers with no explanation.
In the novel when our heroes are on the road to Portsouth Smike tells Nicholas about a ‘man – a dark, withered man’ who had taken him to Yorkshire when he was young. Later towards the end of the book when Smike is desperately ill he tells Nicholas that he saw that man once more, behind a tree, watching.
By gently weaving those two instances into the current script Brooker’s revelations to Ralph will make much more sense.
So Nickleby is undergoing a stretching exercise but another show is being written from the ground up, and it is really going to be a very special one for me.
For my annual appearance in Llandrindod Wells this year I will be performing a double bill of The Signalman and Sikes and Nancy, so no work needed on those, but for the next day I suggested that it would be fun to perform a short play written by an American actress based on the only meeting between Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria.
Ann Hamilton portrayed Queen Victoria at a Dickens festival in Galveston, Texas and worked closely with my mother and father during the years that they attended. Ann took her role as the Queen very seriously and did as much research as she could, pressing dad for any information he had to offer, and so began a fascinating correspondence between the two.
The play was called The Queen and the Commoner and as the script developed so Ann wrote to dad with questions of fact and etiquette. My father would read each draft of the script and send his comments back, and all of the time the letters crossing the Atlantic were beautifully written, as you would expect from two wordsmiths.
In 2010 , almost 10 years after Ann and my parents first met, she published both the play and the letters in charming volume called ‘Walking with Dickens’. When I read it my father came alive once more.
In Llandrindod there is an actress who portrays the Queen and last year I suggested that we get together to perform The Queen and the Commoner as a rehearsed (or non-rehearsed probably) show. But the play is short, little more than fifteen minutes, so it would need more to justify a place in the programme. I went back to Ann’s book and realised that the letters themselves were so perfect that they had become part of the story.
One of my favourite books (and later the film it spawned) is 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff in which a sassy New York author corresponds with an outwardly stuffy, rather formal antiquarian bookseller in London. The letters that follow bespeak an intimacy and understanding between two people who would never meet.
To recreate that feeling I have immersed myself in the letters trying to edit them (which is difficult for I want to include every word!) so that the audience will fully understand how the play arrived at its finished state and also get to know my father and Ann more fully.
In my mind the set on the stage will be in two halves, one a dressing room in which the character of Ann is sitting at a desk, her Queen Victoria dress hanging on a rail ready to be worn; the other my dad’s study with a typewriter. As the letters progress and the script develops so Ann slowly takes on the character of Victoria, and my dad (who looked more like Charles than Charles did) eventually dons a frock coat and cane to become his great grandfather, ready to be received by his monarch at Buckingham Palace.
It is an exciting project! I hope it works, for next year marks the 150th anniversary of the meeting and it would be amazing to mark it with special performance of the play – possibly with Ann playing herself.
The best part of this script? It gives me a chance to play my dad and that will be an experiences such as I have never had!
I shall keep you updated on the progress of both projects over the coming weeks.