Sunday 15 December marked the last day of my 2019 American tour. My flight was due to depart at 9.45 pm so in previous years this would have meant checking out of a hotel as late as possible and trying to find something to do with my day. On Sunday however I had the perfect diversion in the shape of one final show.
It has become a tradition for Bob and me to meet for breakfast on the day after my last Byers’ Choice show and on this occasion we had arranged to meet at 8. Before meeting I sort of packed my case, although I couldn’t really do it properly for I would need to put my costumes, top hat and cane in when the day’s professional activities had been completed.
Bob was waiting for me in a deserted restaurant and as we ate fruit, scrambled eggs and bacon we discussed how the tour had gone, how we will organise the 2020 one and various other subjects including the political state across the globe.
I needed to be on the road by 9.30 so after an hour of chatting we had to call an end to our musings and say goodbye for another year. I put a few final things into my case, making sure that I had shirts, black socks and all the other bits and bobs that I would need for the show in my roller bag and checked out of the Ambler Inn.
My venue for the final performance was a new one (the only new venue on tour this year) and it was in Lakewood New Jersey, a drive of about ninety minutes, or the same length as a complete performance of A Christmas Carol lasts. I hadn’t listened to the Audible recording of His Dark Materials for a few days, so I decided to get back to Lyra and Will and their adventures.
My route took me past dear old Burlington, where I usually perform at the Broad Street United Methodist Church, and onto the New Jersey Turnpike – cue loud tuneless singing of Simon & Garfunkle’s America.
Lakewood is on the Jersey Shore between New York City and Atlantic City and soon I was taking the exit and driving through the outskirts of a town that I didn’t know. At one junction I was unsighted by parked vehicles and incurredthe wrath of a red sports car drive who appeared from nowhere, accelerated hard so that he could slam on his brakes and then he waved at me (I think he was saying that there could only be 1 car on that road, or that it was 1 way: whatever he meant, the gesture only utilised one of his digits.
I found The Strand Theater easily and fortunately there was a parking spot right outside, which had no time limitations on a Sunday. I unloaded my two suitcases and two costumes, as well as the hat, scarf and cane and knocked on the door. As soon as I was inside I was aware that there was a great sense of excitement and anticipation, and I was instantly taken to the stage where I got my first view of the most beautiful and majestic auditorium that you could imagine.
The Strand Theater was opened in 1922 at a time when the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and DuPont families were busy enjoying the fruits of their various industries up and down the east coast of America. Today, after a period of restoration The Strand is looking as impressive ever, all lit by sparkling chandeliers.
I was met on stage by Chris who would be overseeing my technical requirements for the day. As we chatted the rest of the team were busily plotting lighting cues and testing the sound system in readiness for a cue to cue technical rehearsal. As I peered into the gloom I became aware that somebody, no, more than that, somebodies in the auditorium were watching me, and then I saw them: sitting in a private box high to my left were two of my theatrical heroes who had arrived early to watch, and no doubt heckle about, my show. Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show looked critically down upon my preparations.
Of course they famously played Jacob and Robert Marley in the 1992 film version of A Christmas Carol so would no doubt be viewing my efforts with a critical eye.
Back in the real world I thought that it might be a good idea to check that the script that the tech team were using was the current one and it was just as well that I did for the copy they had was a couple of years old and had a completely different opening.
Having tweaked the lighting plot to match the new script we were ready for our rehearsal. I performed each section where there was a technical cue so that Hunter (sound), Victoria (lighting) and Tom (all-powerful overseer) could be confident in the timings of the piece. Chris meanwhile showed off his pride and joy – a huge dry ice machine situated behind the fireplace which would coat the floor with an eerie mist at relevant moments in the show. With a little practice we realised that I could WHOOOOOOSSSSH forward at the entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and create a huge bow wave of fog that would gently disperse. Dry Ice is fabulous because it clings to the floor, rather than rising, obscuring the view and choking everyone as smoke does.
When we had finished the run-through I returned to my dressing room and changed, then sat quietly to wait for the advertised start time of 2pm. Just before 2 Chris popped his head in to say that we were holding for 5 or 10 minutes as there were major issues with parking and people were late getting in as a result: subtext, we had a big audience!
At 2.10 I waited in the wings. The house lights went down, the music started, the fog seeped and an eerie blue light covered the stage, I walked on into the pool of light at and began the story.
It is always interesting to perform for a new audience who don’t understand what the format of the show is or how it is going to work (although there were a few sniggers from the darkness that told me that fans from other venues had made the trip). On Sunday there was a definite period when people didn’t quite know how to react, but soon (mainly after I had descended into the audience and used someone as a hat stand), things began to relax.
I only made one mistake in the delivery of my lines and that came about because I found myself staring straight into the eyes of Statler and Waldorf, I kid you not, and it unnerved me for a moment leading to whatever slight fumble I made. I half expected to hear ‘He’s terrible! Awful! Get him off!’ But the two gents had obviously mellowed with age and behaved impeccably.
The other issue was with the microphone, I was wearing a head mic which hooked over my ear and Chris had bonded it to my cheek with a sort of adhesive layer of extra skin
Unfortunately as I got hotter and hotter so my sweat effected the unit but Hunter busily tweaked levels and adjustments on his sound board to ensure that I could be heard at all times.
The show worked superbly and all of the technical effects enhanced the beauty of Charles Dickens’ language. When I wished every one ‘Merry Christmas’ and left the stage the noise was terrific with shouting, and whistling augmenting the applause.
Although there was no specific signing session planned, the front of house manager popped her head into my dressing room to say there were some people who wished to say hello, and when I reached the foyer there was quite a crowd, all of who burst into spontaneous applause. I found a table and chair and settled into the familiar routine of smiling, chatting, signing and posing.
It was around 4.15 when I returned to my dressing room and was able to finally pack my cases completely for the journey home.
I said goodbye to Chris, Tom, Victoria, Hunter and the rest of the team, thanking them for their amazing work during the afternoon. The stage has been cleared and the only sign of my performance was the dry ice machine with a length of aluminium ducting laying on the floor, a puddle of water at its end making it look like an elephant with a rather bad cold.
Making sure that I had all of my bags and cases I left The Strand and climbed into Franz for our final journey together.
The drive to Newark airport was about an hour and occasionally I could see the twinkling lights of Manhattan peeping at me from behind buildings. The unmistakable smell of large oil refineries and the huge neon BUDWEISER sign guided me to the airport and little Hertz signs took me to the spot where Franz took our leave of one another. I wondered where my companion would go next? He had started life in Michigan and yet when I chose him he had been at Logan airport in Boston. Now he was being dropped off in New Jersey. Where would the next leg of his adventures take him? It would be a fascinating study to trace the life of a single rental car and track it’s progress around the country.
I checked in for my flight and was soon waiting in the security line. I had so much time in hand that of course I didn’t mind being asked to stand aside whilst a lady was pushed passed us in a wheelchair, accompanied by her husband wearing a large neck brace. However once they were at the front of the line she was out of her chair and he removed his neck brace for scanning and I have to say they looked quite sprightly as they went through. Maybe if I have a very tight connection on future tours I need to pull the same stunt…I’ve often thought hobbling through on Scrooge’s cane and seeing if that would elicit any expedition of the process.
I am absolutely sure, by the way, that I was doing the couple an injustice and that they really did suffer from the ailments and infirmities that they displayed.
I sat down in the vicinity of my gate and the hours passed slowly by. Shortly before boarding I was somewhat alarmed to hear an announcement: ‘Virgin Airlines is paging passenger Jack Richard Bauer, please see the agent.’ Jack Bauer? I have watched all the seasons of 24 and I know that when Mr Bauer of CTU is about thinks don’t tend to go well.
It was looking as if it could be a rough flight……
Perhaps Jack Bauer, like Statler and Waldorf has mellowed, for the flight was smooth and I even managed to sleep a little. Having circled over South London a few times we made our final approach and touched down. I was home.
For my final musical accompaniment I am leaving A Christmas Carol behind me and choosing a more personal tune: ‘There’s No Place Like Home For The Holidays.’