There is a scene in Ron Howard’s ‘Apollo 13’ when astronaut Jack Swigert is ready to restart the crippled command module, which had lain dormant for the days of the trip home to Earth from the depths of space. The complicated computers had been shut down to preserve battery power as the crew huddled in the tiny lunar module which had acted as a lifeboat throughout the crisis, but now it was time to bring them online again. Swigert, as played by Kevin Bacon, reaches out a hand in the style of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam but withdraws it at the last moment, for the switch is dripping with condensation. He, quite naturally, asks mission control what are the chances of the entire module short circuiting when he brings power back but the answer is not reassuring, ‘Ah, we’ll just take that one at a time Jack’. The finger is extended once more as Swigert mutters ‘it’s like driving a toaster through a car wash’
On June 9th I will take to the stage to perform Great Expectations at the Revelation Arts Centre in Ashford, Kent and when I picked up my folder to relearn the script I felt just like Jack Swigert reaching out for a dripping switch. For almost 18 months I have hardly performed at all and I have no idea if I am going to short circuit when I finally step onto the stage. The hardware is there but will those complicated neurons align to bring back the performances I used to give?
Great Expectations is a slightly awkward choice of show to reignite my career with, in that it is one of the most recent additions to my repertoire so I don’t have such a large database of experience to draw upon, but it has proved itself as a popular choice as the novel is a great favourite of many readers. I have performed at Revelation on numerous occasions (indeed I am an ambassador for the venue), and I know that the show will suit the space and I know that the audience there will respond well. This particular programme has been on hold for a year: I was due to perform on June 9 2020 but with the closure of the theatres due to the Pandemic the show was postponed. We were hopeful of rescheduling for October but a week or so before I was due to travel the county of Kent was placed in one of the highest tiers of restriction and a further postponement was put in place. Now, here we are a year late but ready to go again.
I have described my line learning process in previous blog posts and the most important part of it is to pace. For the lines to stick I have to move, so the best days to learn are sunny days when the garden is dry and warm. As I mutter lines over and over to myself I wear a little track into the grass, and somewhere on this circuit is a small table with my script on, ready for me to dive back to to check on a particular phrase or passage. If it is raining I will be confined to the kitchen, giving me less room to roam, but leaving me closer to the comfort blanket of my printed lines.
Fortunately I have found that each of the sections has come back to me quickly, so the story of Pip’s progression from scared orphan to successful man, via being brought up ‘by hand’ by his sister, the care of Joe Gargery, the terrifying Miss Havisham, the aloof Estella, the violence of Orlick and Bentley Drummle and above all the discovery of the true identity of his financial benefactor who is revealed to be……(ah maybe not, that would be a plot spoiler!), all seems to be falling into place.
So the mechanics of Great Expectations are safe, but the real test will be standing on the stage in front of an audience on 9th June, a day which holds a very special relevance to us as a family for it is the anniversary of Charles Dickens’ death in 1870. At 6 0’clock in the evening surrounded by his family at Gad’s Hill Place the great author, who had been unconscious for almost 24 hours following a major stroke the evening before, let out a deep sigh and as a tear rolled down his cheek and he gently slipped away. However it was remarkable that Charles even lived to be 58 for he so nearly met his end exactly five years before in a river bed twenty miles away from his home.
On June 9, 1865, Charles Dickens was travelling with his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother on a train bound for London. Just after three O’clock the train sped through Headcorn station where the signals were set to ‘All Clear’ suggesting that the line ahead was safe. Unfortunately and tragically the truth was very different for the rails over a bridge had been removed for repair and various regulatory safety procedures had been ignored meaning that the tidal train from Folkestone plunged into the River Beault, killing ten and injuring many more. That Dickens himself survived was sheer luck for somehow his first class carriage managed to leap the gap in the lines and ended up suspended by its couplings, dangling into the water. Dickens clambered out and assisted in the rescue operation for 2 or 3 hours, comforting grievously injured men and women, witnessing death, loss and tragedy all around him.
For the past year I have been working on a book about the circumstances of the Staplehurst rail crash and it is due to be published within the next couple of months. It seems appropriate that on June 9th I will not only be performing Great Expectations at Revelation, but will also be giving an ‘author’s talk’ entitled ‘The Day Dickens Nearly Died’ at 1pm. Tickets for both events can be booked from the theatre and because we are not fully clear of Covid restrictions both events will be staged in a cabaret style, socially distanced setting.
It will be wonderful to be back on stage and to see if I really can still drive a toaster through a car wash and emerge intact as Jack Swigert did in 1970, 100 years after the death of Charles Dickens.
For further details of the events at Revelation visit their website: