June 9 is always a very special day in the Dickens calendar and each year I try to mark it in a special way to commemorate the life of my great great grandfather who died on that date in 1870. On occasion I have stood at his graveside in Westminster Abbey at the annual wreath laying ceremony organised by the Dickens Fellowship (this year presided over by my brother Ian, the current President of the organization) and on one particularly memorable occasion I performed ‘Sikes and Nancy’, one of Dickens’s most energetic and violent readings, in the very room where he collapsed and died at the exact time of day he drew his last breath – the shivers certainly went down my spine that evening, to be sure!
This year June 9th was a particularly special day for not only was I able to honour Charles Dickens, but I was able to return to the stage for the first time in many months. At The Revelation Arts Centre in Ashford Kent I would be clambering back into the saddle and onto the horse. The whole process was a strange one for the feeling from beginning to end was one of uncertainty – not because I was worried about actually performing (although naturally there were a few fears in that area), but about the entire logistical process of gathering the correct costumes and props, loading the car, leaving on time, getting the stage set, working with the tech team on lighting and sound, preparing in the dressing room etc. All of those little things that have been such a natural part of my life over the last twenty five years felt awkward and confusing.
I had spent much of the day of the 8th preparing the car and checking off a long list to make sure I had everything for my show, which was to be Great Expectations: the props for the performance include a slim hat stand that becomes a kind of skeleton, draped with white fabric to represent the ever present Miss Havisham. Unfortunately the fabric to create this figure had been stored in a shed and become the victim of hungry mice (which is apt, actually, as Miss H describes her bride cake as having been ‘gnawed by the teeth of mice’), so I had purchased a new length for the show.
I left the house at 9am, and the roads were quiet meaning that I made excellent time. A sign of our current times came to me as I passed Heathrow airport where planes from around the globe used to make their final approaches in a never-ending ribbon of metal and fumes, but on that day I didn’t see a single flight coming in. The virus and resultant pandemic may have decimated the Earth’s human population, but has also meant that the fossil fuel pollution of our atmosphere has been eased, albeit temporarily I am sure.
Onwards around the M25 orbital motorway before spearing off in a south easterly direction towards the town of Ashford in the heart of the county of Kent.
The Revelation Arts Centre is housed within the impressive St Mary’s Church in the heart of the town and as I arrived I was delighted to see that the council had filled its municipal planters with scarlet geraniums which were Dickens’ favourite flowers and which made up the wreath on his grave.
I have performed at Revelation on many occasions and I represent the venue as an ambassador, so it was a great place to restart my career. As soon as I arrived the sense of excitement was palpable, for June 9th didn’t only mark my return to the stage but it was also the first time the venue had opened to the public in well over a year too and the sheer relief of injecting life back onto stage was evident in all. I was greeted by the centre manager Debra, and her front of house manager for the day, Jo. John who looks after the technical side of the operation waved a greeting from his eerie high at the back of the auditorium.
I was actually due to perform twice on the 9th, and the rigours of Great Expectations would have to wait for the evening. The first presentation, at lunchtime, was a talk about the research I have been undertaking for my book about the 1865 Staplehurst rail crash. The great disaster actually took place on June 9th 5 years to the day before Dickens’ death, so my talk was titled ‘The Day That Dickens Nearly Died’. I had prepared a few illustrations to accompany my words, so John and I needed to spend a little time making sure that PowerPoint spoke to the laptop, and the laptop spoke to the projector and the projector shone light upon the screen.
At 12.15 the doors were opened and I sat in my dressing room listening to one of the most beautiful sounds that an actor can hear – the building murmur of a gathering audience. At 1 o’clock Jo told me that we were ready to start and I walked onto the stage without introduction or ceremony, ready to take on one of the most difficult roles: myself. Actors, by and large, are insecure people who relish the opportunity to become someone else but who can struggle when they have to appear without disguise. As I strode onto the empty stage and looked at the well-lit auditorium (I couldn’t even hide behind the darkness beyond the stage), and I immediately felt safe and confident. I took a deep breath and launched into my lecture.
I spoke for about 45 minutes, explaining the circumstances that led to the rail crash and relating my own experience of visiting the accident scene and falling into the river where I briefly floundered submerged up to my neck in the muddy water thereby experiencing a closer affinity to the victims than perhaps was necessary.
At 1.45 I opened the floor to questions and made sure that I plugged my book by having a picture of the proposed cover art on the screen behind me and by 2.00pm I wrapped up the event and bowed gratefully to warm applause. The first part of my day had been completed successfully.
I now had five hours to prepare for the big show. Firstly I drove to check into my hotel, just five minutes away and had a shower and a bite of lunch, before heading back to Revelation at 4 to ‘get in’. The set for Great Ex is a simple one with sparse furniture arranged on each side of the stage: the right hand side representing Joe Gargery’s forge whilst the left is dominated by Miss Havisham at Satis House. During the first act I have to make some onstage costume changes (more additions rather than changes) so I had to make sure that the required clothing was carefully placed in a condition that I could easily slip into them when the time came. John was working hard at lighting cues and soon everything was in place and ready. It was 5 pm and there was still 2 hours and forty five minutes before curtains, so I decided to go back to the hotel and rest a little more.
Due to the ongoing Covid restrictions the audience would not be seated in theatre style rows, but at separate tables in a cabaret format and judging by the arrangement Deb and her team were expecting a goodly number. When I returned to St Mary’s I spent some time walking around the auditorium looking at sight lines around the great stone columns in the nave of the church. I wanted to be aware of which tables may struggle to see the action when I was at various parts of the stage and adapt my movements accordingly. I was aware there was no possibility of everybody seeing everything all the time, but if I was at least conscious of the limitations I could try to give those to the sides as much as I could.
Seven o’clock, and the doors opened. Once more I sat back stage and listened to the murmur. My script lay open and occasionally I turned to a certain passage that I was running through in my mind just to check the exact phrase or grammar. I had a great sense that not only did I need to give a good performance for my own self esteem, but that the audience who had been deprived live theatre for so many months craved and deserved one too.
At 7.40 Jo came to give me the five, and in no time the auditorium lights dimmed and the recorded voiceover that begins the show boomed out into the hall and as it ended with ….’Pip beginning to cry…’ I leapt into action as the savage Magwitch, grabbing the little orphan: ‘HOLD YOUR NOISE!
Great Expecations, or at least my version of it, is a little lopsided, in that the first act is relatively short compared to the second and takes young Pip up to the point where he leaves the village bound for London. Along the way we are introduced too all of the main characters – Pip, Magwitch, Mr and Mrs Joe, Jaggers, Miss Havisham and Estella and very briefly to Herbert Pocket, Biddy and Orlick.
The interval came and the applause that followed me to the dressing room was wonderful – the evening was going well! After changing from Pip’s rough blacksmith’s clothes into the formal and smart attire in which he would arrive in London, I returned surreptitiously to the stage in order to clear the act 1 detritus which include a scattered pack of playing cards, and various items of costume that had been discarded during the performance.
With everything placed as it should be I returned to the dressing room and waited for the ‘five’ once more.
The longer second act passed by in a blur and in no time I, as Pip, was walking through the ruins of Satis House and meeting Estella once more (this being the second ending that Dickens wrote to replace the incredibly downbeat original). He took her hand and left the ‘ruined place forever’ and after a moment of silence the auditorium of Revelation was filled with applause once more.
It had been a hugely successful evening both for me and the venue, and the audience, so long starved, made their way home hopefully with a feeling that a new phase of life had begun.
Having changed it was time to load up the car (meaning lugging my furniture and props through the dark graveyard, which somehow seemed appropriate) and having hugged all and sundry and said my goodbyes, I headed out to find a take away restaurant in the centre of Ashford. It was 10.15 on a Wednesday evening and it seemed as if everything had closed up shop on the stroke of 10, but I eventually tracked down a Domino’s Pizza outlet and returned to my hotel clutching a 10 inch Pepperoni.
As I drove home the next morning it seemed as if the world was bursting back into life: the fields of buttercups gleamed in the morning sun, shining out from behind the huge fluffy foamy hedgerows of cow parsley spilling over the pavements dotted with the first scarlet poppies of the season. Occasionally I glimpsed a field of linseed coming into flower peeping out with the gunmetal hints of the brilliant blue to come. Yes, hopefully, the World is moving forward into a better place.