Being already settled in to the Best Western Inn at Lewisburg I had plenty of time on Tuesday morning which in previous years would have been spent driving from the Hotel Hershey through the Susquehanna valley to arrive for a sound check at around midday.
When I opened the curtains I found that the cloud still hung heavily and the rain still fell hard. I had thought about driving into Lewisburg to explore but the idea didn’t seem very appealing now, so I spent the morning doing some more research into the circumstances of the 1865 Staplehurst rail crash for my book and doing a little proof reading and correction of what I had already written. I also used the time to do a large load of coloured laundry ready for the last few days of my American tour.
My work took me to 11 o’clock when I was due to meet with Missy Swartz for a sound check. I gathered up my costumes and props and walked over to the Country Cupboard Store where the large function room had been converted into a lavish theatre with a big stage, bright lights and two Christmas trees so extensively decorated in gold that they appeared to shimmer. There to meet me was KJ, the brilliant singer who always entertains the audiences before my show, and in a moment Missy joined us too. The three of us have made quite the team over the 9 years I have been performing at The Country Cupboard and it was wonderful for the three of us to meet again (that makes us sound rather like the Macbeth witches, which may not be an altogether flattering comparison to make).
I put on one of my waistcoats so that we could clip the microphone to the correct spot on my shirt and I started performing the opening passages of my script as Missy and KJ roamed around the room to check the sound levels. Occasionally Missy would return to the sound desk and tweak the levels slightly until both were satisfied that the sound was good. With the check finished we all sat down and chatted for almost an hour, until Missy had to leave to welcome three tour buses which were bringing a large portion of our first audience. I went back to the hotel to prepare for the show.
Back in my room I noticed that I was feeling a little shaky as if I needed a bit of a sugar hit so I went to the front desk in and bought an energy drink which did the trick. I got into my costume and walked back to the store, noticing that the rain had stopped at last and the clouds were lifting once more. The audience were starting to take their seats as I slipped into my little green room behind the stage and fixed my microphone on. Last year I had problems with the little clip, it had broken when I was just about to go on stage and Missy and I had improvised with a bulldog clip (binder clip), which led to my now travelling with such items in my roller bag in case, as my literary hero Paddington would put it, of emergencies! This year Missy had ensured that the microphone had a brand new clip to avoid a repeat of the previous year’s panic.
When I was ready I made my way to the entrance of the room where Missy was welcoming guests with the rest of her team and KJ was waiting to start her set. Many years ago I had mentioned that if I have tender throat then black tea and honey does the trick and now every year Missy makes sure there is tea and honey waiting for me. My throat was in no way sore but the tea and honey was a delicious and soothing way to prepare for the show.
With about twenty minutes to go KJ went to the stage slipped her guitar strap over her shoulder and began to entertain the growing audience with song and chat, she has a lovely gentle style of both and soon the crowd were laughing and singing along with her.
At the back of the hall I stood and every so often people would shake me by the hand and welcome me back, proudly telling me how many times they had seen me perform, which is very moving. One gentleman, an eight year veteran of my Country Cupboard shows, also gave me a gift – a copy of Fred Kaplan’s brilliant biography of Charles Dickens. ‘I read this, I had never realised that your great great grandfather was a hero! Saving all those people’s lives!’ It took me a moment to realise that he was referring to Staplehurst, the subject of my book and what I had been writing about just a few hours earlier. It was a very thoughtful gift and I was greatly moved by the gesture.
Shortly afterwards another man approached me and gave me another present, this time a pack of mini Snickers bars, ‘I know that you sometimes need extra energy, so these may help!’ Again he had tapped into a need that I had experienced that very morning. Again, so thoughtful.
The hall was almost full and Missy gave KJ the signal to start her final song so that we could move on to the next part of the show, A Christmas Carol. Missy helped KJ remove the microphone and guitar from the stage and then started to welcome the audience as KJ made her way to the back of the room in order to start the opening sound effect. It is a well honed operation now. I went to make sure that my microphone pack was switched on and as I did the clip holding the pack to my waist band fell off! There must be a microphone poltergeist in The Country Cupboard: there has to be, it is the only explanation for the repeated last minute clip disasters at the venue. With no time to make a repair I just put the pack into my pocket and waited for my cue.
As a large part of the audience, those who had come on the coaches, had never seen the show before it was great fun to surprise them with moments such as the appearance of Marley’s face, which caused a great gasp of fear followed by laughter of relief, the moment doesnt always work but when it does it is very satisfying.
In the audience was a couple with a very young baby who was cuddled, rocked and comforted as the show went on. When the infant became noisy they took it out, until it slept again allowing them to return. The child cried loudly twice during the show, both times when Scrooge visited the house of The Cratchit family.
On the second occasion Scrooge was in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Bob Cratchit returned home alone. ‘It was quiet, very quiet.’ The baby cried a little. Bob explained to Mrs Cratchit how green a place the grave site was. The baby cried louder. Bob broke down, and went upstairs to where Tim’s body lay. The baby still cried and I could see the father standing to leave the room. Bob needed to say goodbye, to release Tim, to let him go, and at the exact moment that he kneeled to kiss the little face, at the exact moment that the innocent little soul left the house, so there was no more crying and the room became silent. So poignant.
Actually that scene left me thinking about a change that needed to be made, because the red cloth that represents Tim’s body, which is laid on the table remains there to the end of the show, and when the narrator tells the audience that Tiny Tim did NOT die apparently his body is still laid out for all to see. I needed to find a way of removing that cloth somehow. At the beginning of the show the cloth is draped over Scrooge’s chair and becomes his bedclothes when he retires for the night, so I decided that when he wakes up on Christmas morning and discovers that he is back in his own room, it would be natural for him to gleefully grab his blanket and fling it back over the chair, meaning that everything is back to how it should be. It worked beautifully and I will include that bit of action in the show from now on.
The show came to its end with the audience unaware that they had witnessed me directing a completely new scene. I took my bows and then disappeared into my green room to change.
I hung my damp coat, waistcoat and shirt over three chairs before re-emerging refreshed ten minutes later for what was a very short signing session (the bulk of the audience had been with the coach tours, which had been scheduled to leave straight after the performance). As Country Cupboard were not selling any merchandise most of the signing was of tickets and programmes although a few people had brought along their own books. Many simply wanted to shake hands and say ‘thank you’
Between shows it is a tradition that Missy, KJ and I enjoy the fantastic dinner buffet in the restaurant so when I had changed out of my costumeonce more I joined them and heaped spaghetti and meatballs onto my plate. Earlier in the day when we had been chatting at the sound check KJ had mentioned that when she was a little girl her grandmother had tried to teach her to use a knife and fork ‘like the English do’, for it was, in her mind, more refined and elegant. Over the years the lessons had been forgotten but KJ wanted to learn again and I had promised her that at dinner we would hold a masterclass.
After a little confusion as to which hand should hold the fork and where the index finger should be, my student succeeded: ‘By George, I think she’s got it! as Henry Higgins declared in My Fair Lady.
After dinner I returned to the hotel where I napped for an hour before getting ready for the second show. There was another large audience waiting when I returned and KJ was already on the stage doing her thing. I was extra careful when I put the microphone on so as not to have any further clip adventures.
The evening show had many more returnees than the afternoon one and we all had great fun together.
It was hot and intense work but most satisfying with all of the business working well, including my new section. At the signing table a young man told me how much he had appreciated how I ‘place’ the other characters in the scene, meaning that he could clearly picture where everyone was standing, even though there was only me on stage. I really appreciated his comments for that is something that I have worked hard on over the years and in which I take a great deal of pride.
The signing line was longer in the evening and as I chatted and posed so the theatre was being dismantled in the background. The decorations were taken down, the fireplace dismantled, the stage folded up and removed and the room that had been filled with warmth, laughter and applause just an hour before was now a large, empty function room once more. At the very end of the signing line was Dawn, a lady who always brings me very thoughtful gifts. This year my little bag contained a lovely little copy of David Copperfield, a red bow tie, and quite astoundingly a set of cufflinks and a lapel pin featuring my photograph! Amazingly generous.
It was now time to leave so I hugged Missy and KJ and the witches parted once more, ‘When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain?’ well, hopefully in nice warm sunny weather, and probably in twelve months.
I wearily, very wearily, returned to the hotel and took all of my costume shirts to the laundry before making my way to Matty’s bar again where Missy had arranged for me to have dinner. When I returned I transferred the shirts to the drier where they would remain through the night, and went back to my room. I would have a fairly early start the next morning, so I set an alarm and very soon was asleep.
The musical choices are getting trickier now, but let’s return to the scene Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present are on their worldwide travels: ‘They stood on foreign lands, and they were close at home ‘ The song playing is Feliz Navidad.