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After a couple of quieter days, Thursday saw me back performing twice as I returned to Nashua, New Hampshire for the 11th time. Not only would Mr Ebenezer Scrooge and his colleagues take to the stage once more, but Mr Jackson would also make a return, having been silent since I left Kansas City almost a month ago. ‘Who,’ you ask, ‘is Mr Jackson?’, well, that is a good question, and I shall furnish you with the answer: Mr Jackson is the narrator of The Signlaman. Although he is not actually named in the ghostly tale, readers of the collection of stories known as Mugby Junction (of which the famous ghost story is a part) are introduced to ‘The Traveller’ in the first tale entitled Barbox Brothers.

Thursday morning passed as most mornings do, with plenty of coffee and writing. I was also in email communication with the venue for Friday’s show, confirming various technical and arrival details with them. Having finished my administrative duties, I took the opportunity to rehearse The Signalman a couple of times, until it was time to leave for the theatre.

For the last few years in Nashua it has been a tradition that I perform a lunchtime show in the city’s Senior Center, and these shows have always been great fun, however, in 2021 because the tour was so late being confirmed (thanks to doubts as to whether I would be granted a visa due to Covid travelling restrictions) the center was unavailable, so a new venue had to be found, and the search produced The Court Street Theater. I would still be performing on behalf of The Senior Center and as I arrived the first person I saw was Judy Porter who has always looked after me there. In no time the theatre’s door was opened from within and a young man who introduced himself as Tyler welcomed us into the spacious lobby. While Judy and her colleagues began to settle themselves into the box office, I made straight for the performing space, and what a great space it turned out to be. The ‘stage’ is actually the floor, while the seating rises up on three sides, meaning that the performer is almost surrounded by the audience. It is the sort of space that lends itself to one-man performances and I instantly felt very at home there.

Whilst I was taking in my new surroundings, Jody Gage, of the Fortin Gage Flower and Gift Shop (my Nashua sponsor) arrived, bringing in the various items that are required for the set of The Signalman, specifically a desk and a lantern – and I added to it by finding a couple of old wooden stools in a storeroom (you can find almost anything in a theatre’s storeroom). When I perform in England I also have a small table around which the two characters gather, apparently in front of the fire, as they talk. Jody had sourced a rather elegant round table with a shiny marble top, which to my mind looked too impressive for the rustic signal box, so I reluctantly discarded it, much to Jody’s disappointment, for he had borrowed it from a local antique store and was very proud of it!

On the stage Tyler was checking the sound system with another young man, who was soon introduced to me as also being called Tyler, which made things much easier (I may be good at remembering 90 minutes’ worth of script, but when it comes to names, I am hopeless, so having a single name to cover the entire theatre staff was useful). Having ensured that the microphone was working correctly Tyler #1 fitted the unit over my ears and asked me to run a few lines of the script, including the full vocal range, so I spent a few minutes going through various passages, including the moments of torment as the signalman himself teeters on the edge of insanity. With the sound check completed, and lighting set, I left the stage and started to get changed in the little storeroom where I had found the stools earlier. My costume for The Signalman is my usual frock coat but with a black waistcoat and cravat, and as I would be performing in front of a huge black backdrop, on a black floor, the effect would be particularly menacing. If I had known the theatre before, I would have asked for a stage light on a stand with a red gel in it, shining towards the audience to represent the danger light at the tunnel’s mouth, which features throughout the story, but even without that little embellishment, the atmosphere was perfect.

As the 12.30 start time approached, I emerged from my room and loitered in the lobby, chatting with Sandy who would be making my introduction, and Amber, a member of the Fortin Gage staff, who was helping in the box office. Jody joined us and we all checked our watches, worked out how any latecomers could be directed to their seats in the darkness and then agreed that we were good to ‘go’. I returned to the area behind the stage, while Sandy walked onto it and welcomed the audience and introduced me. Unfortunately, the crowd wasn’t a huge one (due, Jody thought, to continued nervousness about Covid and the lateness of being able to promote the shows), but still they were an enthusiastic bunch and welcomed me warmly.

I began by talking about the circumstances surrounding the Staplehurst crash, not forgetting to shamelessly plug my new book ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’, and despite there not being copies available at this particular performance, I did remind the audience that the book was available through Amazon, or from my own website, Geralddickens.com (did I say shameless?) But soon it was time for Mr Jackson to tell his story.

The atmosphere built beautifully, although I was slightly distracted by a cufflink that had come loose, meaning that a shirt cuff flapped loosely and annoyingly, but the show was as dark and intense as I had expected it to be in that setting, and built to a superb climax

After I had closed the show with the spooky revelation that Charles Dickens died exactly five years to the very day after he survived The Staplehurst crash, which was greeted with a suitably impressed gasp, I opened the floor up to questions, and once again had an enjoyable time connecting with the audience. After twenty minutes or so of banter, the session came to an end and after taking an extra round of applause I returned to my dressing room.

It was almost two when I left the building and I wanted to get back to the hotel to make contact with home. Sandy had very kindly offered to give me some rice and chicken soup for my lunch, which I could heat up in my room’s microwave, so I followed her to her house where she ladled a goodly portion into a plastic dish, and then I returned to my hotel.

Other than talking to Liz, I spent the afternoon relaxing and resting. Although The Signalman is a very short show, especially when compared to A Christmas Carol, it is a particularly tiring one, because it is so emotionally intense, and I always feel exhausted after performing it, so I needed to regain my energy levels for the evening’s performance.

A Christmas Carol was due to be performed in another new venue to me, The Sky Meadow Country Club. Once again, the lateness of the the tour’s confirmation meant that Jody’s first choice of venue (the college auditoiruim where I had performed in the past), was unavailable, but it was Jody’s ex-wife, Jill, who suggested that the Country Club, where she now works, would be a great setting.

I left the hotel at 5 and stopped to fill up my little Rogue with petrol, before driving to the other side of Nashua where eventually, after a few wrong turnings, I found Sky Meadow sat on top of a hill. It was an impressive venue, actually very similar to The Field Club where I have performed in Omaha, and as soon as I walked in the staff were extremely helpful and welcoming. A ballroom had been set up as the theatre and at one end temporary stage had been erected. There was a chair on it, and a table with a lamp. In no time, Jody appeared with a coat rack, and asked ‘Do you need another table, next to the chair?’ ‘No, the one we already have on stage is fine.’ I thought I was saving him some trouble until he asked me, almost pleaded, if we could use the little circular table with the heavy marble top, that he had found at the antique centre that morning. I of course I agreed.

‘Do we have a stool?’

‘Oh, damn! I forgot the stool! Yes, it’s fine, I will find a stool’ and while I made preparations on the stage, I could hear Jody asking various members of the staff if they had any kind of stool anywhere, and each time I also heard a negative reply. After a while Jody disappeared, and I suspect he drove all the way back into the centre of Nashua to pick up the original one, for later when I came to check the stage for the final time, there was an old rustic wooden stool on the set.

My sound was being operated by Chip, who not only did a sound check but also agreed to run all of my cues. He downloaded them onto his laptop, and I got Jill to print a copy of the script in her office. We didn’t have any time to rehearse the cues but Chip exuded confidence and I had no doubt that he would do a fine job. The only downside to the venue was the lighting, which was either too dim, or very harshly bright. On another occasion some temporary theatre lighting would improve the ambience in the room, but for Thursday evening we had what we had.

My dressing room was the room usually used for Brides to prepare themselves, as Sky Meadow is a popular wedding venue, and prominent in it was a large barber’s chair. I wondered for a moment if I shouldn’t give a performance of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber or Fleet Street, instead.

Outside I could hear the audience gathering, and I started to get into costume. I was still feeling weary and was a little nervous that somehow I wasn’t going to give a particularly good performance, I didn’t feel in the right mindset, and was having negative thoughts about the whole thing. I opened the door to my room and discreetly watched the audience arrive and there was such a sense of excitement and anticipation in the crowd that I, as dear old Doctor Marigold says, ‘thoroughly shook myself together to do what was right by all’.

Shortly after 7.30 the audience were in their places and Jody stood up on the stage to welcome them all and to introduce me, and I made my slow entrance down the central aisle towards the stage.

Despite my negative feelings, the show went extremely well, and I found energy from the script and from the audience. Soon I was giving one of my strongest and most energetic performances of the tour. Jody’s small round table also made an impact: during Jacob Marley’s scene when Scrooge is taunting him as having ‘more of gravy than grave about you’ I turn and roar and wail, sending Ebenezer flying back into his chair in horror. At this point, at Sky Meadow, the chair slid backwards with my momentum, trapping my fingers between the arm that I was tightly gripping and the heavy marble top of the table, making me wince in agony.

In the end, despite my initial misgivings, it was a wonderful show, a really exciting one, and the audience responded rigorously and loudly.

During the Q&A session we covered the truth behind Mrs Cratchit’s pudding panics, favourite movie versions, direct lineage from CD to me, and a few other topics, but one intersting question came from a lady who admitted to having seen all of my shows in Nashua (as many in the audience had) and pointed out that it has changed over the years, and could I talk about specific decicions I had made to bring about those changes. Some alterantions have just evolved and come to me over time, often during a performance, while others, such as using the red shawl to represent Tiny Tim and to include the scene when Bob Cratchit kisses his son’s face as he lies dead in the little bedroom, where more consciously considered. The major change in recent years has been to the pace of the show – I had got myself to a place where everything was too ponderous – I was trying to find drama and effect in every syllable which slowed the whole thing down. So, I have been making strenuous efforts to bring the pace back. I asked the lady what changes she had noticed over the years, and she said that ‘Topper has become a lot more flirtatious!’

Eventually it was time to end, and as the crowd filed out into the night, I returned to Sweeney Todd’s boudoir and got changed.

I was invited to the bar for a celebratory glass of wine and was introduced to the owner of the club who had loved the show and was very keen to bring me back in the future. However, that tiredness that had been upon me all afternoon was now returning, so I politely said my goodbyes and drove back to the hotel, where I purchased a microwavable Chicken Alfredo from the lobby pantry and had a late-night TV dinner.

It had been a very successful day, and even my squashed fingers weren’t aching too much now!