As you know the last two weeks was spent on my two current projects, the preparation of a new Nickleby script and the new play which describes my father’s assistance in creating ‘The Queen and the Commoner.’
The latter project took up my time at the start of the week before I suddenly realised that my performance of Nickleby was imminent so I had to concentrate on that instead. I put ‘The Queen and the Commoner’ down and returned to ‘The Life and Adventures….’
The issue with my original two act script was at the very start. When I first wrote Nickleby it was as a one act play and it lasted a little over an hour but a few years ago the theatre producers who promoted my work in the UK suggested that I lengthen it so that theatres could make bar profits in the interval. As a short term solution I wrote a long passage about how Dickens actually wrote Nickleby, referencing Sketches by Boz, and quoting Pickwick and Oliver Twist, before moving on to his visit to Bowes where he saw a gravestone that inspired the pathetic character of Smike.
It’s all very interesting, but it was a very clumsy and unwieldy way to start the show and didn’t really match the fast-paced frivolity of the story itself, so my plan was to ditch it all.
In my last blog post I mentioned the new passages that I was including (the job interview with the MP Mr Gregsbury, and Smike seeing the dark withered character of Brooker watching him), but both of these come into the second half, meaning that without the original preamble Act1 was left in a very emaciated state. My answer to this was simply to move the interval, placing it later in the novel at the point when Smike and Nicholas begin their arduous trek from Yorkshire to London, which actually is a more suitable place to break and gives the audience a sense of the journey’s true length.
Having re-jigged the script it was time to start learning the new lines. The main chunk was the three page Mr Gregsbury section and to my horror I just couldn’t learn it! I read, I put the script down, I tried to repeat and nothing was there. Back to the script and try again, still nothing. This was rather a scary moment for it seemed as if my ability to learn new lines had deserted me which would not be good news in the years ahead. I ploughed on and little by little the gist of the lines started to embed themselves and this is an important moment, for if I know vaguely what I have to say it is then easier to perfect the words themselves.
The most productive morning of learning came on a sunny day after I had completed the school run. Instead of heading straight home I walked around the North end of the town using a network of little paths (we used to call them ‘twittens’ back in my childhood home in Kent). For over an hour I walked and muttered, muttered and walked, getting a few strange looks along the way. Maybe it was being away from home, but that hour really put the words into my memory and from that moment I could concentrate on perfecting the sentence structure.
With the new words memorised it was now time to slot them into the script, so I started to rehearse the whole show and it was with horror that I discovered that even with the interval moved the first act was only 25 minutes long! That is just not long enough: an audience would settle into their seats, the lights would go down and they would get comfortable ready to enjoy the show, or to have a discreet snooze, when suddenly the lights would be up again!
It was too late to introduce any new passages, and anyway there really isn’t anything else I’d WANT to include in the first half. I would still have a little bit of preamble to introduce the show, but that would not be enough. I thought the problem through and the only solution I could come up with was to suggest to that the theatre that I forgo the interval altogether and perform it as a one act show, knowing that this would mean a huge lack of bar income. I emailed and waited for the angry reply….which didn’t come; instead the theatre manager Glynn said, ‘that’s fine, we do a lot of one man shows here and they are all 1 act!’ I wish I had know that ten years ago.
The running time was still a bit short, but I suggested to Glynn that I would do a little meet and greet session in the theatre bar afterwards, and all was settled.
I continued to rehearse as the week went on until the new passages felt comfortable and on Wednesday afternoon I loaded the car up and set off for The Market Theatre Hitchin.
It is a great little theatre run by a collective of young actors. It nestles in a little yard in the centre of Hitchin, next to a busy pub which, in previous years, has been showing major football finals meaning the cheers from the patrons could be heard from the auditorium but fortunately this year there are no football tournaments in progress.
I was greeted by Ollie and quickly got my set onto the tiny stage ( the roof is so low here that I was rather worried that as Ralph Nickleby climbs up a small step ladder to ‘hang’ himself at the show’s conclusion he might also give himself a nasty bump on the head.
Glynn arrived soon after and we set the lights to give me a nice warm sunny glow and a cool melancholy one, as well as a couple of ‘specials’ for certain specific scenes.
When everything was set I spent some time on the stage going through the new passages again and then retired to the little green room, which is actually a store room, wardrobe and workshop all rolled into one.
My performances at The Market Theatre are part of the Hitchin Festival and over the last few years I have performed ‘an Audience with Charles Dickens’, ‘Great Expectations’ and the double bill of ‘Doctor Marigold’ & ‘The Signalman’. The shows always sell well and this year was no exception, the audience began to arrive early and took to their seats as Liz’s CD ‘Play’ serenaded them.
At 7.30 the house lights dimmed, Liz’s beautiful playing faded and the stage lights came up, I walked to the centre of the stage and an unexpected round of applause broke out, which is always a good way to start!
I went into my Nickleby preamble, and the audience responded well giving me the confidence that this would be a good evening. With all of the changes and additions it was important for me to remember that Nickleby is a well established show which has been successful for me over many years. Sure enough through the first ‘half’ all of the familiar business worked well and the audience responded just as I like them to.
The plot rushed to Yorkshire with Nicholas, a brief interlude with Kate Nickleby in London, and then back North as Nicholas beats Mr Squeers before running away with Smike. This is where the interval should have been but now I plough straight on into my new scene, the job interview with Mr Gregsbury. The words came to my lips easily (a couple of vocal fumbles and stumbles, but I’d built that into the characterisation anyway as an insurance policy), and before I knew it the two and half pages that caused me so much grief in the last couple of weeks came and went and I was back to familiar territory in the company of Mr Crummles and his troupe of actors.
The rest of the show passed in a blink, although my ‘hour and 10’ turned into an ‘hour and twenty-five’ so I felt that after all I hadn’t short-changed the audience. I took my bows, re-used the ‘chapter 2’ gag that I’d introduced in Rochester and after the laughter died down announced that I would be in the bar for a chat in a few minutes time.
Back in my dressing room/green room/store room/workshop I towelled myself down, re-shevelled myself a little and then headed to the little bar.
On the way I was waylaid by an impressively bearded gentleman (who reminded me of the actor Griffith Jones who played Tim Linkinwater in the old RSC production of NickNick), who took great delight in studying the coin on my watch chain and deducing that it was a copy of a commemorative coin struck for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, and then asking if my cufflinks represented the red rose of Lancashire. I was able to correct him on the latter point explaining that they are a representation of a scarlet geranium, the emblem of the International Dickens Fellowship.
In the bar there were only a few people but we had a lovely chat about the show (one lady had actually been at my Rochester performance a few weeks ago and loved the additions, in particular ‘the job interview’ which made me feel very good). I showed them some original monthly instalments of Nickleby, bound alongside the blue (they were green when new but have faded slightly over the years) covers. Everyone was fascinated by the advertisements which not only give a snapshot of 1838 society but also ensured that Charles Dickens had an extra income stream over and above the sales of the book.
Time and Tide wait for no man, and soon we all said our goodbyes and I returned to the auditorium to change and load the car. As I said goodbye to Glynn and Ollie we chatted about the possibility of returning next year and Glynn said that having me perform during the festival was always ‘an easy sell’.
With those uplifting and cheering words in my mind I started the journey home.
Now it is back to The Queen and the Commoner, as well as starting to write a show based on ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and re-learning Great Expectations….
BOZ FOR HOW LONG?
An interesting question popped up on my Twitter feed this week, and that was ‘did Charles Dickens still use the name of Boz all the way through the Pickwick Papers?’ The simple answer to this was ‘yes’, but it set me scurrying around the internet to discover exactly how long he did publish under his pseudonym. This research is by no means academic and if anyone wishes to put me straight then I am happy to be corrected, but as far as I can tell the monthly instalments continued to be ‘Edited by Boz’ right up to and including Martin Chuzzlewit, which was published between 1842 and 1844. However he did use the name of Charles Dickens for American Notes (1842) and the Christmas books which began with A Christmas Carol in 1843.