Sunday 15 September was the day on which I was to perform A Tale of Two Cities at The Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington, New Jersey. Rather than staying nearby I was to commute to the church from The Joseph Ambler Inn, meaning that I was able to spend a nice relaxing morning in familiar surroundings, rather than packing everything up and moving on yet again.
Having had an early morning coffee and then a nice buffet breakfast I came back to my room to do some final rehearsing on the A Tale of Two Cities script. To be perfectly honest this day has been haunting me all Summer, I have been dreading it and have been very nervous and tense about it. Way back when Pam was putting this schedule together I should never have agreed to do two major shows in as many days, both of which needed re-learning from scratch, neither of which I had performed in over a year: it was a monumental task which would have been difficult at the best of times, but a difficult summer for us at home simply added extra pressure to the process and at times I was close to abandoning the whole idea and just saying no.
In life there are occasions when fate, the world, God – whatever or whoever you want to call it – comes along to help. maybe an event that is in some way impossible unexpectedly cancels, or circumstances change and they want a different show after all. I don’t mind admitting that over the last few weeks I was almost hoping for such a quirk of fate to intervene and change yesterday’s commitment.
I was scared.
No such intervention arrived and that in itself sent a message – you have to do it. You will do it. You will do it well. So I worked harder and completely committed myself to preparing properly and professionally.
One huge bonus was the venue. I have been performing at The Broad Street Methodist church for many years and a nicer bunch of people I could not hope to meet. Laura, Joe, Phyllis, Marcia and the rest of the team go out of their way to make everything right for me and do it with genuine kindness and affection. Actually onto that list I will add the building itself, the old church is light, airy and welcoming. It is very much a safe place and one which I love to perform in.
The audience too are a loyal and friendly bunch so I knew that there would be no animosity or harsh judgement from that quarter.
So, back to the Joseph Ambler Inn and my rehearsals. Rather than running the whole script I concentrated on those passages that have proved troublesome over the last months and once I was satisfied with them I out the script down. It would have be very easy to over do it and it is important to know when to step away. For the rest of the morning I made sure I had my costume in place and the various props that I use during the show.
When I first performed A Tale of Two Cities in Llandrindod Wells the organisers decided that they would build me a giant guillotine which dominated the stage, and which actually worked (well not to the extend of striking people’s heads off, but the plywood blade rose on a strong length of rope and then fell with a huge dramatic bang). I had worked the beast into the script and it became essential to the success of the show’s ending. Via Pam I had asked Laura if such a thing could be constructed for my performance in Burlington and was assured that it would be done, but I knew that it wouldn’t be like the Welsh one, partly because the dramatic bang of the blade falling was thanks to a bare wooden stage with a void beneath the boards making the whole thing a big base drum. The ‘stage’ at Burlington is carpeted, so even if the new guillotine were the same the effect would be lost.
In preparation for this I had sourced a sound effect of a guillotine, featuring a metal blade sliding down, a rather grisly crunching sound, followed a moment later by a little thump as the supposed head fell onto the floor. I made sure that I had the effect on a memory stick and packed it into my case. I was as ready as I ever would be.
The journey to Burlington was about 40 minutes and I thoroughly enjoyed driving Bob’s Audi, although I had to relearn how to drive, which was a very strange experience. The Audi has a manual gearbox (stick shift for my American readers) which is rare over here. Back home I have always driven manual cars, I love them, I feel more in control with them, I like being able to choose what gear I use, when. But now the gear lever was on the wrong side, I was operating it with my right hand and not my left, and it felt completely alien to me! It was the strangest experience and I felt like a novice driver again, having to concentrate hard on the sheer mechanical action of changing gear. After a while I worked out what the issue was, and it was a simple one, when changing from 3rd to 2nd gear at home I bring the leaver to the neutral part of the H and then PUSH it over before slipping it down into 2nd. Now I was having to PULL it over and it felt wrong. Muscle memory is an extraordinary thing.
I reached the Church at 12, just as the morning service was finishing and the congregation was flocking out. In amongst the crowds my ‘team’ were already starting to prepare the stage and get everything into place. Laura was at the centre of things giving orders and making sure everything was in its place. Soon I was part of the stage crew too, making decisions, asking for this or that to be moved, let’s have the screen for a slide over there, and the furniture placed just so, and a trunk for my props behind it, and so on.
‘Where do you want the guillotine?’
Oh, yes, there was a guillotine and I was about to be introduced to it. There was great drama in the whole process as the monster was carried through the church in its component parts.
Onto the stage and into the spot I had selected and it was constructed before my eyes and a magnificent edifice it proved to be! 8 feet tall, towering over me, strong and sturdy. The ‘blade’ had been fashioned from card and tin foil, so wouldn’t actually work, but as you know I had prepared for that with the sound effect.
When the set was as I wanted it Laura and I started to prepare the technical side. We needed a laptop and projector for the image of Charles Dickens reading to his daughters, which is the inspiration for the telling of the story, and we needed another computer to run the sound effect through.
After much anguish and effort we got everything set up, and Laura would be sat in the front row carefully following the script ready to give me my four guillotine falls as demanded by the script. The thought came into my head that she could also act as a prompter, but that was a dangerous thing to think and I banished it straight away.
The audience were already arriving as we made the final preparations, and a good crowd it was too – around 160 people taking their places in a very hot sanctuary on a very hot day.
We were ready to start: all the anguish, all the nerves, all the self-doubt had brought me to this moment. Laura went onto stage wearing a rather rakish red beret (purchased at Harrods, she told me, which sounded rather aristocratic – possibly a dangerous thing when there was a revolutionary guillotine close at hand). I was welcomed onto to stage with warm applause and I knew at that moment that I was safe.
I began by reading an old blog post of mine describing the various literary influences that may have led Charles Dickens to using the French Revolution plot
(It Was the Best of Times….Losing Heads and Hearts: https://wordpress.com/post/geralddickens.wordpress.com/7558)
When that was finished I became Charles Dickens as he described to his daughters, Katie and Mamie, his ideas for a new book. The show starts with me recreating the pose in the photograph, which would watch over me for the entire performance.
It went well. I did not dry up. I did not freeze, I did not run from the stage and sob in my dressing room. Some lines got slightly tangled up, some came out in slightly the wrong order, but not to the extent that anyone but me, and Laura with her copy of the script, would notice. As the story progressed so I threw myself more completely into it and by the time Defarge was marshalling his comrades to arms I was in full passionate flow, screaming the ‘hated word’ BASTILLE!!! with as much volume as I could muster.
And then the end. As Sidney Carton is carried towards the Guillotine in the tumbril he holds hands and comforts an innocent little seamstress. He holds her hand until the moment she is taken up the steps and beheaded. I think this is one of the most tender moments of the story and adds greater poignancy to the famous end that is to come. I used the curve of the altar rail at floor level to represent the streets of Paris, and played the scene so that the girl always had her back to the guillotine as we approached it. There are steps up from floor level and these became the final climb towards her death. The sound effect came in perfectly and I stooped to hold her imaginary head high for the knitting women to see.
I delivered Carton’s prophetic thoughts from beneath the guillotine and as I delivered some of the finest closing lines ever written I turned to face the blade, looked up to the heavens and as the sound effect came in I slumped my head forward.
Long applause. Standing applause.
I was quite overwhelmed, not only at the reaction of the audience but by the knowledge and realisation that this whole process had not been easy and I had pulled it off, I had conquered my fears and faced them. I can’t describe the relief and lightness that filled me in that moment.
Once I left the stage I went downstairs to my dressing room and stood breathing deeply for a while, before drying myself off and getting ready to do a signing session.
As at Byers’ Choice the day before there were a lot of familiar faces and old friends in the crowd. I signed and I smiled and I laughed and I posed. There were lots of very positive and gushing comments about the show, one of the nicest was a gentleman who said: ‘we had no idea how you were going to pull this off, we didn’t know how you would perform this book. Oh, we knew that your performance values would be superb, that was given, so we knew we were in safe hands…..’ I am glad that in the run up to the show that he had faith in my abilities, and more perhaps than I did!
When the event was over I changed and then a group of us went over to Francesco’s Italian restaurant for an early dinner. We usually dine there between the matinee and evening performances when I perform A Christmas Carol , but as we only had one performance yesterday there was very much an after show party feel to our celebrations.
The best part of the conversation was hearing about the creation of the guillotine. Laura and Marcia had taken on the roll of carpenters and no one else helped them. Were they skilled carpenters? No. Had they ever built anything like this? No. Had they ever used a power tool in their life? in Marcia’s case a definite and belligerent NO!
The dynamics of this working party were spectacular, as became apparent during the meal.
Laura is for ever running about doing things, constantly organising, taking charge which means her days are packed from morn until morn, a whirlwind of energy. For a while she tried to find a guillotine, she approached the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia to see if they happened to have one as part of their Hallowe’en displays. They used to have one, apparently, but no more. Laura tried various other venues, and even asked Pam to keep an eye and an ear open, but no guillotine was forthcoming. My event was getting closer and she decided to build one.
Marcia is a planner, she likes things to be organised a long time in advance, she likes to know how and when a project will be achieved. When Laura approached her with just a few days to go before my visit and showed her a tiny sketch on a torn scrap of paper Marcia’s reaction was ‘dear God, no!’
Friday afternoon, as I was performing Great Expectations at Byers’ Choice, saw Laura and Marcia wielding circular saws, hack saws, and power drills as they tried to convert a pile of lumber into a free standing creation. Apparently Marcia was tentative with the drill prompting Laura to say ‘you need to put more weight behind it, then it will work.’ ‘I cant put any more weight behind it, I haven’t GOT any more weight!’
As I listened I had a wonderful image of Marcia holding the drill and spinning round and round, whilst the screw remained stationary. It would be perfectly illustrated by Quentin Blake in a Roald Dahl novel.
There was much laughter as the two of them regaled us with their story and I really think between us all we made a little bit of Broad Street history yesterday.
It had been a wonderful day. But I wont lie: I am glad it is over.