With the approval of my American visa, and the return of my passport to confirm my status, I have been able to confirm with all of my 2021 venues that the tour is on! And suddenly it seems as if Christmas is rushing upon me all of a sudden. That feeling was added to last week with my first performance of A Christmas Carol (and here am I harrumphing at the sight of Christmas cards, decorations and foodstuffs in the shops) of the season.
I had been invited to return to Alderwood Senior School in Aldershot where I performed for the students a few years ago. I have been fortunate in recent years for A Christmas Carol has appeared on the GCSE syllabus meaning that schools have been keen for me to visit and not only perform the story but to talk about the context of its publication too. My previous trip to Alderwood had been slightly difficult in that some of the students didn’t respond positively to the event and in particular the question and answer session afterwards, so this time the head of English, Jaqcui Moller-Butcher came up with a cunning plan! Rather than squeezing the show into available lesson times and forcing it onto an entire year group, she and her colleagues conceived the idea of offering it as a two act theatrical evening which only those who signed up would attend. The event became more than just a rendition of a text to study, but an education of how to behave during a live theatrical show. .
I arrived at the school at 1.15 and was greeted by my old friend, and passionate Dickensian, Glenn Christodoulou who had put all of the wheels in motion to make the day happen. Glenn and I have known each other for many years and I have performed at various schools where he has worked. As I drove through the school gates Glenn was standing ready, guarding a reserved parking place for me, and welcomed me warmly. We unloaded the car together with the help of a student who offered his assistance unbidden, which impressed me, no end. Having signed in at the school’s reception desk and proudly bearing my sticker announcing that I was a VISITOR, we made our way into the main hall which was laid out with chairs. At the far end of the hall the stage rose above the floor waiting to be filled with Victorian London, but the front had been decorated by the English department with various quotes from A Christmas Carol. ‘At least,’ I thought, ‘that if I forget a line I can just take a look at the banner to remind me of what to say!’
I placed the props onto the stage and was making my way to the little English department office when Glenn introduced me to Jacqui who was busily making final preparations for the show and was in a flurry of excitement. My first job was to spend a little time with a few students from the drama class who had been prepared with some questions to ask. Usually on such occasions I am required to talk about A Christmas Carol to English students, so it was nice for a change to chat with theatre folk for a change. I began by giving a quick run done on my career from cockerel to A Christmas Carol, and then opened the floor to questions, which the class had come up with prior to the session and which were on slips of paper handed out to everyone – thus ensuring that we wouldn’t lapse into the awkward silence which is often a feature of such occasions. The questions were interesting, but the most fascinating one was the very last one: ‘What do you like about being an actor?’ What a simple and yet completely complex question that is! I had to think for a long time before answering and even now with the benefit of time it is difficult to articulate my thoughts.
When I first started in theatre, back at school, it was the whole process of making shows that I loved – the camaraderie, the team spirit, the achieving something that seemed impossible. I loved the creativeness of directors and designers and the ability to ‘see’ the end product. Now, that is all well and good and the theatre students could identify with it, but it certainly doesn’t explain my passion for what I do now. I could have come up with a flippant answer about liking the applause, but that is not it either – I love being able to create a world which is inhabited by an entire audience, through just my words and movements, In my show Mr Dickens is Coming! I have describe a Victorian audience watching Charles Dickens read and the line I wrote, way back in 1995, was ‘They were no longer in a theatre, nor was Charles Dickens on a stage before them. They had been transported as one by the talents of a brilliant performer and were now crowded into a dingy counting house in the City of London, their company that of Ebenezer Scrooge.’ Maybe I was writing, none to modestly it must be said, about myself, for that is what I enjoy – I like manipulating people’s sense of reality and for just a few minutes allowing them to travel to another time and place. And, as I think about it, it is not only the audience who take that journey, but myself as well.
The Q&A session done I returned to the office and changed into the costume that will become a close friend and ally over the coming weeks. The end of day bell rang and the students who had elected to come to the show began to arrive – I was astounded by the amount of people who filed in and politely took their places in the hall (I was standing at the back with Tom, the head of drama, who would be operating the light and sound desks whilst following my script.)
When all of the audience were gathered Jacqui addressed them in a firm and forthright manner that this was an opportunity to experience a live theatrical performance and to that end concentration and quietness would be expected. She informed them that this experience would help with the work they would be required to do regarding the context of A Christmas Carol, for this is how a Victorian audience would have seen the story performed. I was worried when she started a sentence ‘remember, this is NOT entertainment, it is education!’, but immediately she backtracked, stressing that the show would be very entertaining, but the experience of not looking at phones or talking to neighbours would be invaluable to them. Her final advice was ‘to be the best audience that you can be’ and then it was time for me to perform.
So often in schools I have to shoehorn a performance into a rigourously observed timetable, meaning that my script has to be hacked about, but on this occasion Jacqui had asked for the full 90-minute, 2 act version meaning that I could really welcome back the story with open arms. I loved being able to move across the stage, using the blocking that I have perfected over 26 years and it was soon apparent that the show still fits like a comfortable suit (although some of the more recent additions pinched like new shoes they will soon gently mould themselves into the correct form).
At the end of the first act there was nice applause, and by the time I finished the second there was a very generous response as I took my bows, the students certainly had been the best audience they could be and showed a huge amount of credit to themselves, the staff and the school. When I had left the stage Jacqui stood up and proudly congratulated all present and then called me back to offer me thanks and a gift of a rather nice looking bottle of wine – ‘Look at the label, its not just any old bottle.’ I investigated and discovered that the label bore the legend ‘Ebenezer Seppeltsfield’. Brilliant!
While the audience had been impressive with their behaviour during the show what transpired afterwards was even better for many of them set to and assisted in putting all of the chairs away. As the tidying was going on I left the hall, cross the reception area to return to the English department office, where I could change. The cleaners were out in force and the large expanse of floor was shining where it had been washed. It may been the result of a guilty conscience but I was certain that one of the cleaning staff looked at me in a most disapproving manner as I crossed the clean expanse, and she re-engaged her polishing machine in my wake. Unfortunately that was premature, for I discovered that the office door was locked meaning I had to return to the hall to find someone with keys, thereby necessitating a further two trips (there and back) over the glistening floor earning additional scowls. When I was changed, I packed everything in my little roller case and made my way back to the hall to say goodbyes – another set of footprints and a pair of wheel tracks! Incandescent cleaner now, and it was best that I made a quick escape before I was savaged with a wet mop! Having got the car loaded I said goodbye to Glenn and headed back for home.
As soon as I had finished in Aldershot it was time to start re-learning two more shows – Mr Dickens is Coming! and Doctor Marigold, which I was due to perform the following weekend at The Victoria Hall in Sutton Scotney. Although all of these shows are regular parts of my repertoire, they have, like all of the others, lain dormant for two years and it is as if I am learning them again for the very first time. Even as I drove home from Alderwood School I was quietly trying to piece Marigold together in my mind.
For the next few days I had the script permanently open on the kitchen table so that I could repeatedly go over tricky passages whenever I had a moment spare and as the week progressed I began to feel more and more familiar with the old scripts again.
Saturday arrived and it was time to load the car up with all of the pieces of furniture that I would require: the replica of Dickens’s reading desk, a chair, a stool, a set of old wooden steps, a wooden crate packed with a kettle a bucket, a blanket and an iron shovel. Along with two costumes I can report that this collection fills an entire Renault Kadjar, with no room for passengers.
I arrived at The Victoria Hall at 5pm on Saturday afternoon and was greeted by Eryl Holt and Alastair Black who have looked after me during my many visits to the hall. Over the years my shows at the hall have become very popular and well supported within the village and this year’s was no exception, having sold out earlier in the week. Eryl is a successful professional actor in her own right and with Alastair they have galvanized the community into supporting the arts. The couple have staged very successful home-written pantomimes over the years as well as producing outside events, such as my shows.
I loaded all of my furniture onto the stage and set up for Mr Dickens is Coming! (remembering to hide my newly purchased white cat in the wings). Throughout the week most of my line preparation had concentrated on the quite complex Doctor Marigold, but as I had plenty of time before people were due to arrive I decided to do an entire run of the first act, just to be sure that all of the different sections (Micawbers, Uriah Heep, The Bagman’s Uncle, Miss Havisham etc) were fully in my mind. There is something exciting about rehearsing in an empty hall and I loved every second of the run through.
Preparations complete I withdrew into the large meeting room, which doubled as my dressing room, behind the stage and ate a small salad and read a motorsport magazine before getting changed with 30 minutes to go, I could hear the audience gathering and it was a pleasingly noisy atmosphere. With 5 minutes to go Alastair came to check that all was ready and I stood in the wing space while Eryl introduced me ‘We dont expect to have a fire alarm tonight, but we may for this show is SO amazing you might just explode!’ Well, goodness, that was quite a billing to live up to….
I walked into the bright stage lighting and began with the faux ‘words of Charles Dickens’ which did their job of relaxing the audience and setting the tone of the first act. I really cant remember the last time I performed Mr Dickens is Coming! Certainly two years of course, but maybe as long as three, but it fell back into its rhythm and pace so easily. Laughs came at the right moments and the whole hour rushed by, to be concluded by a wonderful round of applause,
Back stage I changed into the Doctor Marigold costume and then, in character, went and changed the set, replacing the reading desk and chair with a rickety set of wooden steps, a small milking stool, a pale, kettle and shovel – all arranged as if we were at the front of Marigold’s cart at a country fair.
With the stage set I again retired to await Alastair’s word. When the hall lights were off I stepped onto the stage in the guise of my favourite Dickensian character. Doctor Marigold held the audience entranced as it usually does, and at the very end, there was a gasp of shock and emotion as there used to be when Dickens himself performed the piece. I had real tears in my eyes as I returned to take my bows. It was lovely to become Marigold again, he is a nice man to inhabit.
Once the show was over Eryl took to the stage to announce the results of the inevitable raffle. This year Alastair has been responsible for raising funds to completely restore the clock which has stood in the tower above the hall since 1902. The clock is an 8-day winding clock, which means it has to be wound, by hand, each week. The solemn duty of winding has only been carried out by a respected few whose names are preserved in the hall. As Alastair told me about the history of the clock and the complicated work of removing it from the tower and presenting it to a specialist clock restorer, the letter from Charles Dickens to his clock mender came to my mind:
The evening was a resounding success both from an artistic and fundraising point of view and everyone involved was very happy.
When the audience had left I loaded all of the furniture back into my car and having said my goodbyes and started on the drive for home. As I drove I started to run through the lines for The Signalman, which I will be performing on 31 October – a ghost story on Hallowe’en