This week my travels took me just a short distance down the A34 road to the little village of Sutton Scotney near Winchester in the county of Hampshire, to perform Great Expectations.
A few years ago I was attending a lunch in Portsmouth, to celebrate Charles Dickens’ birthday in the city of Portsmouth. I was with my brother Ian and after the festivities were done we started to drive home. Unfortunately the aforementioned A34 is a fickle highway and on that particular February evening it was choked with heavy traffic, necessitating a change of route to speed our way. That route fortuitously took as past an attractive village hall, with a bell tower on the top, which bore the legend ‘The Victoria Hall’.
‘That would be a good place to do a show’ I said to Ian and then made a mental note to send an email to the committee and propose that I come and perform.
That email was sent about three years ago and my first show featured the double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold, and whilst very successful and much enjoyed it wasn’t hugely well attended but I had found two good friends and allies in Eryl and Alistair who together form a formidable team. Eryl is a professional actor who has done a great deal of work on television (including a recurring role in one of my favourite comedy sketch shows), whilst Alistair is also very theatrical, writing, producing and directing a series of village pantomimes (including the most recent one based on A Christmas Carol).
I was invited back to perform my own, conventional, version of the Carol last year and the hall was filled to capacity, proving what a superb job the dynamic duo had done in spreading the word. Straight away the question was asked: ‘when will you come back and what can you do for us?’ The resulting answer was Great Expectations on Sunday 13 October, 2019.
It was wonderful to be back and no sooner was I in the door and been hugged by Eryl than she proudly showed me a copy of the Hampshire Chronice newspaper featuring a full page picture of me in dramatic flight, along with an inside article promoting my show. Alistair had approached the paper and they had responded enthusiastically – I had even stolen top billing from Elton John, which was quite impressive.
There was more excitement too, for a member of the community had created a special Miss Havisham flower display which dominated one corner of the auditorium: the flowers were white and lacey, and the arrangement was adorned with a collapsing cake, scattered champagne glasses and white sugar mice. Not only was the display remarkable in its own right, but it was on the correct side of the hall to become part of my Miss Havisham scenes.
Although the show was not due to start until 7.30 the first of the audience started to arrive at 6, so I retreated to my dressing room where I was able to do a complete run through of act 1 to satisfy myself that the lines were firmly settled.
The buzz of expectant conversation and laughter from the auditorium so was so loud that I seriously doubted that I had remembered the start time correctly and I got into my first costume early just in case Alistair should appear at 6.55 to give me ‘the five’. I was not mistaken however, and the party continued until 7.30.
When everyone was in their seats Eryl got on the stage and before she even said a word there was a loud cheer and a round of applause. That boded well. Having finished her opening remarks (which included a cleverly constructed and Great Expectations-themed fire exit briefing: ‘If anyone should spontaneously combust during the performance you may leave by the front door…..’), Eryl left the stage, the lights faded to black and Alistair played the recorded narration which begins my show.
The audience at Sutton Scotney have always been generous and lively but my natural performer’s pessimism made me doubt if they would enjoy the darker, more intense material of Charles’s later works – after all I had already heard that they were a party audience, out for a good time. I shouldn’t have worried for they listened intently, hung on every word. The script has an interesting, and unplanned for, rhythm in that the early sequences of Mrs Joe Gargery scolding both Pip and Joe encourage laughter, but as soon as the overwhelming presence of Miss Havisham appears the tone becomes more sombre.
During Pip’s second visit to Miss Havisham’s house I could fully use the brilliant flower display, for the dialogue runs:
MH: So! the days have worn away, have they This is where I will be laid when I am dead. They shall come and look at me here. What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?”
P: “I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”
MH: “It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!
I was able to point my walking cane directly at the tumbled down cake set among the flowers, surrounded by cobwebs, it added a greater realism to the whole scene.
The first act came to an end and the loud applause assured me that everything was going to plan. I made sure that I drank a lot of water and then got into my second act costume, before waiting for Alistair to come and tell me that we were ready to go again.
The second act is, if anything, even darker than first, although the mood is occasionally, and essentially, lightened by the character of Mr Wemmick and his Aged Parent.
Soon it all kicked off (this paragraph may contain a few plot spoilers): Magwitch appeared at Pip’s lodging, Miss Havisham burst into flames, Pip was attacked by Orlick, Compeyson was drowned, Magwitch died, Pip became delirious and suffered a 3 month fever, Joe and Biddy married and had a child whom they called Pip, Pip met Pip and showed him the grave of Pip, Pip returned to the ruin of Satis House and found Estella there and together (thanks to the revised ending suggested by Edward Bulwer Lytton), they walked away into a future not shrouded by mist.
All the time the audience listened and concentrated and became more and more involved in the story and the applause that greeted me as I returned to take my bows was amazing indeed. Usually I will take a bow, then bow one to the audience on stage right, once to the audience on stage left, one more to the centre and then leave the stage, but on Sunday the clapping went on and on so I came back and a huge cheer went up as I reappeared. It had been a successful evening indeed.
Eryl had asked me if I would be happy to mingle with the audience as they left which I was happy to do. So many people shook me warmly by the hand and told me how much they had enjoyed the evening. Great Expectations is still a show that fills me with doubt, and one which never fails to surprise me with its reception.
I packed up my props and loaded them into the car and then said my farewells to Eryl, Alistair and the rest of the volunteers with promises to return soon.
As I drove home through the night I glanced at the passenger seat over which my costumes were draped: they were flat, lifeless and dead, but the realisation came to me that an hour or so before these clothes had been vibrant and alive and filled by a cast of characters. Never was the nature of my profession so profoundly illustrated to me.