Yesterday was supposed to begin with a 5.15 alarm call, although that became irrelevant as I was already awake thanks to my body clock not fully being readjusted yet.  Not only is it not properly adjusted, it feels like it could do with some new batteries, or a good winding.

The early start was necessary because I had to make the 90 minute journey back to Charlotte airport to catch a flight at 9.20.  I reckoned that if I left at 6am I would be at the airport by 7.30, and by the time I gave my rental car back I could clear security and have time for breakfast before flying.  When I had driven to Greenville two days before I had noticed some roadworks which would possibly have delayed me, and I was also aware that Charlotte airport is a major hub, so the security lines might be long.  All reasons to leave early.

I had packed my cases the night before so it was just a matter of closing them up and taking them to the car.  I grabbed a coffee from the hotel lobby to accompany me on my journey, and went out into the darkness to load the car up.  The atmosphere was still humid and damp and the air was filled with the sound of crickets , or maybe cicadas I never know which (and Liz and I never know how to pronounce the name of that insect, is the middle syllable long to rhyme with car, or is it very short as in mat. Does it rhyme with aid – cic-aid-a?  What a conundrum).

The early morning drive was not too bad and there were no specific traffic hold ups, although the speed limit was restricted along certain stretches.  I passed the Peachoid again, proudly floodlit in all its glory and headed on through the gathering dawn.

I arrived at the airport in good time and left my car in the Hertz garage (there was no one there to check the paperwork, signs just told me to leave the keys and go, so I did)

At check-in I discovered that my big suitcase was slightly overweight so I had to move things around a bit between my other bags, so as not to incur any extra charges, as it was I had to pay $30 for the privilege of having a case put in the hold.  I was hungry now, and was in good time for breakfast, so off I went to the security line……long, slow, frustrating.  We inched forward, one step at a time, our world filled with the shrieking voices constantly reminding us to take off jackets, belts, remove laptops and tablets. Dante must have another circle of hell waiting for people standing in early morning security lines.

Eventually I was spat out the other side of security into the terminal building and I still had half an hour in reserve to eat.  I found a table in a NASCAR Café and ordered some eggs and bacon, as well as an orange juice and coffee and at last began to feel ever so slightly human again.

The flight was a direct flight to Newark NJ and it was very full, but the boarding process went smoothly and in no time the 737 was up into the clouds, heading north towards New York, where we landed a few minutes early.

As I disembarked I decided to stop in a rest room before getting to baggage claim, as it easier to navigate those moments without a huge suitcase in tow, and the thought of sitting in a car for an hour or so with a large glass of orange juice and a mug of coffee sloshing around was not a pleasant one.  Having successfully relieved my bladder and washed my hands I was ready to leave when I was faced with a poster – ‘How was your restroom experience today?’  Goodness!  Quite successful all in all, thank you.

At baggage claim I was met by George Byers, Bob and Pam’s youngest son who had kindly volunteered to drive me back to Chalfont in readiness for the afternoon’s show.  On the journey we picked up some sandwiches for me to eat in the car, as I wouldn’t have time for lunch when we arrived.

Byers’ Choice is my home in America (officially so as the address always goes on my immigration and customs forms as my place of residence when I am travelling), but it was strange to see the statues of children in the grounds without their Christmas hats on.  George helped me get my cases in, and I thanked him for being such a great chauffeur.

I went straight to the theatre where the Byers brothers Bob and Jeff were putting the final touches to the auditorium, and judging by the amount of chairs laid out they were expecting a goodly crowd.  David Daikeler, he who looks after all my technical needs at Byers’ Choice, was bustling about the stage, fiddling with lights, looking at the script and generally making final preparations for the afternoon.  I was to be performing Great Expectations once again and as this was a new show for the Byers team everyone wanted to get it right, there was a sense of nervous energy in the room.

One thing that I was delighted to see was a large black curtain hanging on the wall behind the stage.  Earlier in the week David had sent me a picture of the set asking me if it was ok, but with a huge expanse of white behind the few pieces of furniture, it looked very stark and sterile, not capturing the claustrophobic and intense settings of the book.  In my reply I had asked if there was any chance that a black drape could be hung?  Not really.  That would be difficult. Probably not, was the message that came back.  But I know Byers’ Choice better than that, and it should not have been a surprise that Bob and David had moved mountains to give me what I’d asked for: it looked fabulous.

I set the stage as I wanted it and David and I ran through some of the lighting cues for the show, giving me an opportunity to rehearse again, which was useful.

Miss Havisham (a brass hat stand draped with my white cloth) looked amazing in front of the black and she would certainly be a sombre presence throughout the show, which was my original idea when I first came up with this script

Time was moving on and Bob was keen to open the doors to the public, so I took myself off to my conference room changing space and got ready.    When I returned to the auditorium a very goodly sized audience was gathering, most of whom were regulars from my annual performance of A Christmas Carol.  As I watched them take their seats from David’s sound desk I had a wave of fear and self-doubt – Great Expectations is very different from the Carol and I was worried as to whether this generous and loyal crowd would embrace the long, dark and rather brooding script.

There was only one way to find out!

Bob made his welcome announcement and then David faded the lights to black,  In the darkness the recording of my voice began and the opening lines of Great Expectations filled the room.  I took my place on the stage waiting for my cue, when suddenly the narrative stopped.  Silence.  Nothing.  I knew that David would be searching for a quick solution, but what to do?  Should I just start with Magwitch’s attack on Pip, and hope that David would follow me and bring the lights up?  Would he take the initiative and flood the stage in light thereby encouraging me to start?  The silence seemed to last for an age, and then suddenly the sound came back, the narrative reached its conclusion and we were back on track.

The first act certainly seemed to go well and I was very comfortable with the show now, getting fully involved in the characters and the scenes.  David was doing a great job matching the lighting effects to the scenes as I moved around the stage.

I got to the interval and left the stage to a nice round of applause.  Yes, everything was going OK.

I hurried back to the conference room, got changed and was soon ready to continue the story.  As soon as I returned Bob encouraged the audience back to their seats by employing the old technique of flashing lights on and off, and off we went again.  The second act although longer, is faster moving as the plot ramps up and again I got very involved in the story, so much so that when I dragged Miss Havisham’s flaming body to the floor I felt the hat stand break beneath me.  Bob, I am so sorry!

The applause at the end was loud and people were standing to clap.  All of that hard work over the last few weeks was worth it.  Having left the stage I went to my signing table where a constant queue of people kept me busy for quite a while, although of course it wasn’t as manic as Christmas.  Most people in line were long time supporters and as we posed for pictures they would tell me how many times they’d seen me, and that they would be coming back at Christmas.  Everyone in line told me how much they had enjoyed the show.

As ever Pam was looking after the signing session, marshalling the line and one surprising feature was the amount of people who complained (too strong a word), that I wouldn’t be visiting their particular venue at Christmas this year – we had folks from Pigeon Forge, Hershey, Burlington and Bethlehem all of whom were disappointed.  Although hard to listen to it is rather a compliment too.

Eventually the last people left and I gathered up all of my things before going to thank Bob, Pam and David for everything they had done for me during the day.   I said my goodbyes and walked with Bob to the parking lot were I was entrusted with his rather nice Audi which will be my car for the next few days.

I drove back to the Joseph Ambler Inn where my cousin Rowland and his wife Andi were waiting with their sons.  I quickly checked in, dumped my bags and then joined them for a very relaxing alfresco dinner.

It was a perfect way to end a long and stressful day and we shared lots of laughter and stories into the evening until they had to drive back to New Jersey.  As I returned to my room I found myself muttering under my breath ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ in readiness for Sunday’s performance of A Tale of two Cities, another show about which I am rather nervous, but that is another story and one which will be told tomorrow.