, , , , , , ,

Friday saw me moving on once more, although this time only twenty minutes away to the city of Manchester and as my only show was not until 7.30 that night, I had plenty of time to relax in the morning.

Fortunately for me, a chance to remain in the hotel coincided with the first practice sessions from the brand-new Grand Prix in Jedda, so I made sure that I had my breakfast and was back in my room before the action happened. When practice finished, (and it was truly scary to watch, being a very high-speed track, running within a tunnel of walls and no room for error), I started dealing with the increasing number of emails relating to my forthcoming performances in England, and in particular, on that morning, the ones scheduled for December 20 and 21 at Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the Carnarvons and also the setting for Downton Abbey. Before answering their questions about arrival time, length of the show, sound cues, and would I be bringing any guests, I allowed myself to wallow in nostalgia and recalled my first performances there two years ago.

I delt with a few other inquiries until it was time to pack my cases and continue my itinerant lifestyle. Although sunny there was quite a wind blowing, and as I drove along the freeway, I could feel my little car being buffeted; I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to be driving one of the huge high-sided jaggernaut lorries (or semi-trailer trucks) that pound the roads of America every day.

Soon I was in the city of Manchester, with the beautiful, broad Merrimack River running through it and the old, red-bricked mill buildings well preserved along its banks. Before heading to my new hotel, where I hoped I could get an early check-in to allow me to watch the second Formula One practice, I made a detour to a nearby Walmart store, to stock up on a few essentials, as well as to buy a salad for lunch.

I was booked to stay at a Comfort Inn, and sure enough there was a room available for me, so I was able to catch the last half of the practice session which was eventually terminated when one of the drivers inevitably lost control and had a huge crash.

As the afternoon progressed, I was also able to call home again and have a lovely video chat with the family, who excitedly told me all of their news, until it was time for their baths and bed.

And I just relaxed.

During the afternoon an email came in from Kimberly at the Mid-Continent Library Service, who wanted to share some of the feedback from the guests who had attended my shows back at the beginning of November, and oh, were they wonderful to read. So positive and exciting and humbling, I found myself growing quite tearful and emotional as I read.

Darkness fell outside my window and soon it was time to drive to the evening’s venue: The Dana Center for the Humanties, at St Anselm College. St Anselm is a private school founded in 1889 and is based in a beautiful campus which includes a fully active Benedictine abbey.

I would be performing in the Koonz Theater, which was another new venue to me, although during the days of lockdown last winter I was able to deliver a Zoom lecture for the school, talking about my career and how I bring the works of Dickens to the stage.

As I pulled into the gates of the college, I followed the well-lit, blue signs along a variety of roads, until I found the Dana Center building. On entering I was instantly greeted by the sound of piano playing, as a recital was being given in one of the studios, the piece came to an end and appreciative applause broke out. On the walls were large posters advertising the many cultural programmes that are coming up, including one promoting my show that evening.

I soon found the theatre itself where I was greeted by Joseph Deleault, the Director of the Center, who had arranged for my Zoom event last year and who had been so keen to have me perform live, Joseph was working alongside a young man who was introduced as Aiden, and who was, as he put it, the ‘sound and light monkey!’ I had been in touch with Joseph over the past few days and had sent him all of the details of the show and the requirements for the staging, sure enough there on stage was the chair, stool, coat rack and table that make up my set.

Meanwhile Aiden was working through the script, and we spent plenty of time discussing lighting and sound requirements which he carefully programmed into the respective desks. Nobody had mentioned a microphone, so I tentatively asked if I would need one, Aiden replied that they could give me one, but the theatre had excellent acoustics and I really probably wouldn’t need one. I went up onto the stage and tried a few lines and got confirmation that I would be fine without any electronic aids, which is always my preference, and besides that, it seemed somehow disrespectful to come into a venue so dedicated to perfection in the performing arts and not to perform ‘unplugged’.

The next question to be resolved was whether I was going to do a one or two act show? I had sent both scripts to Joseph in the week and told him that as I had performed both versions within the last week, I could do either, as he wished. Now was decision time, and after a brief discussion we decided to go for one act. Both versions have their benefits: the one act performances builds and maintains the atmosphere right up to the end, whereas the two-act script allows Jacob Marley especially to have much more time in the limelight (maybe that should be ‘the lobster light’). Joseph made his decision: one act it was.

When Joseph, Aiden and I were fully satisfied that everything was ready, I went downstairs into the Green Room, where I relaxed until it was time to prepare for the show. I got into costume, and took a dark, brooding, arty picture of myself in the mirror, and then went up into the wings of the stage, from where I could hear the audience gathering. I find that staying in a remote dressing room is not a good way to ready myself for a show, I feel cold and detached; I much prefer being on stage feeling the flutter of nerves as I try to gauge how the audience are going to respond.

At 7.30 Joseph came to check that I was ready and then he walked onto the stage to welcome the audience and introduce the evening’s events.

As I described a few days ago, when I was on Long Island, performing for a new audience is always an interesting experience, for they don’t know what to expect from the show, and many of the little ‘asides’ are included in the script to reassure them that it is ok to respond, that we are on this journey together: don’t be intimidated. And in that effort I succeed, for the audience were soon laughing, calling out and enjoying themselves immensely. I was enjoying myself as well, for it is always such fun to perform on a large stage, looking out into the darkness and hearing the reactions. For his part Aiden did a brilliant job with the lighting and sound, gently fading between the cool mysterious tones that accompany Marley’s ghost and the warm joyful atmosphere of Mr Fezziwig’s ball.

I slipped a few extra lines in from the two-act script, but felt confident that Aiden would trust in me coming back to what he had in front of him, and sure enough he hit every cue perfectly.

At the end I took my bows to another, this time quite raucous, standing ovation, and left the stage with the cheering still filling the auditorium. I had agreed with Joe that I would do a Q&A session, but he had forgotten to mention it in his welcoming remarks, so when I returned to the stage everyone was gathering their coats and getting ready to leave, but Joe calmed them all down and said if they would like to remain then I would be taking questions. A few left but most resumed their seats, and soon the questions started coming from all sides of the house.

Eventually everything wrapped up at around 9.30 and this time the audience left for good while I went back down to the dressing room, elated and energised by a very succesful evening.

While I was packing up my things, Aiden came down to say that some audience members who had seen me perform before, had a gift for me, so I put my mask on and returned to the theatre where I was greeted by a couple from Salem who presented me with a hand-made, miniature witch’s besom, so that I may brush evil spirits away from the various hotel rooms that I would be staying in for the rest of my trip. I remembered the couple well as being immensely kind and generous and it was lovely to catch up and chat for a while.

With that it was time to leave, I thanked Aiden for his brilliant performance on the desks, and shook Joseph’s hand warmly, as we agreed that a repeat performance next year would be something that we would both enjoy very much. I loaded my car and, on my way back to the Comfort Inn stopped at an Applebee’s restaurant to pick up a takeout bowl of fish and chips, with coleslaw and tartare sauce, which I consumed in my room as the adrenaline slowly subsided, and I relaxed once more.