, , , , , , , ,

I had to be up fairly early on Wednesday morning, as I had a three-hour drive ahead of me before a sound check and performance at Winterthur that afternoon.

The sky was still dark as I carefully packed my case, making sure that I retrieved two white shirts for my costumes, and placed two pairs of rolled black socks into my little mini case, ready to be used at the other end of the journey. I loaded everything into the car and then went to the lobby and grabbed a very quick breakfast of cereal and a muffin, before returning to my room to brush my teeth and finish packing. I was on the road at 8, and after a short stop to top up the Rouge with fuel, I started off on what is one of my favourite drives of my tour, following the banks of The Susquehanna River as far as Harrisburg. I have made this drive in so many different weather conditions over the years: in snow, ice, fog and heavy rain, and on Wednesday morning it was overcast but clear. I drove through the little community of Liverpool thinking, as ever, that I would be performing in its big cousin in a little over a week.

From Harrisburg my route this year seemed to be different, I think that new roads may have been constructed over the past two years, but I didn’t get to drive through Amish country, through Intercourse and Chatham before arriving in Centerville and Winterthur. This time the journey was less interesting, just the inevitable strip malls and fast-food outlets, until obeying my Satellite Navigation unit I took a right-hand turn into a narrow lane running through rural fields, and suddenly the hustle and bustle of the main road was gone. The lane rose and fell, not only with the natural contours of the fields, but also in smaller swells and dips making it feel like a fairground ride, actually bringing on a sort of seasickness! At one point as I crested a hill, and descended again, I found myself approaching an old, covered bridge, and rumbled slowly through on the wooden boards before emerging back into the light once more. I was on this lane for only a matter of ten minutes, maybe, possibly fifteen, but it was one of the most magical moments of driving that I can remember.

My journey through the magical fantasy land soon ended and I was once more on a major road, the very familiar Kennett Pike, which would lead me to the Winterthur estate. I turned into the driveway and followed the long, languid curves, down the hill passed the lake where a flock of geese are always gathered, up the other side and into the visitor center parking lot. All was as it has always been.

I unloaded the car, making sure that I had everything that I needed for one show and walked down the sloping path to the main entrance. Still everything was familiar, the large room with the ticket desk at one end, the glass wall allowing the sunlight to stream in, and reflect off the shiny floor tiles, and to my left the door to the bookstore which is always such a hive of activity, especially prior to my shows when the audience is mingling there. I open the doors and…..nothing. The room was empty, the shelves were bare, the counter deserted. There was nobody there. A great wave of sadness came over me, so many exciting and happy memories were wrapped up in that room. Ellen greeting me with a smile, and Barabara, who was in charge of the store, bustling about and laughing, but most of all memories of Liz who in the old days would fly out to join me for the last week of my tour, which used to be much longer, and usually we would have our first meeting for weeks right there in the Winterthur bookstore.

The store, well the room, was not quite empty, for I was greeted by Lois, who has been instrumental in my return to Winterthur. Most of the staff, including Ellen and Barabra, were laid off during the pandemic closures, but now the great estate is slowly coming back to life.

We walked through the ghost of the shop, and I automatically put my bags and costumes in the little office that doubles as my dressing room, which was similarly Marie Celeste-like. A few staplers and file trays were on the desk but all of the funny cartoons and postcards that used to adorn the walls were gone. The room was the same, but the spirit had left.

I joined Lois in the auditorium which, thank the heavens, was exactly as it has always been. On the stage a beautiful set had been created, and as we spoke, I could hear our voices echoing back from the room with the best acoustics that I visit anywhere. We were joined by Dennis, who looks after all the technical requirements at Winterthur, and we went through the script with him. In the past he has only played the opening sound effect, but this year I convinced him to do all 5. He agreed, but with the caveat that having played an audio file to the end, his laptop immediately cut back to his own music files, so there was a danger that having danced The Sir Roger de Coverley, Mr and Mrs Fezziwig might suddenly find themselves cavorting to the strains of Motley Crue or Pink Floyd. I was willing to take my chances!

Lois asked a few questions, so that she could create an introduction, and we discussed the joys and difficulties of raising adopted children (both Lois and her husband, and Liz and I adopted children three years ago).

It was now 12 0’clock, and the audiences at Winterthur are notorious for arriving early, so I returned to my office and Lois briefed the volunteers who would be acting as ushers, and we all got ready for the show.

Before changing I ate some fruit and snacks that Lois had provided, and drank lots of water, and then started to prepare. The only benefit of the deserted office was that I had much more space to lay my things down, in fact a shelving unit became a sort of locker for my clothes, top hat, scarf and cane.

I listened to the audience filing past my door and was reassured that the buzz of anticipation and, indeed, the numbers, were just as they had always been. At 12.55 I wrapped my scarf around my neck and went into the auditorium and waited for the programme to begin. When the last of the audience were seated, Lois went to the podium and made her introduction, during which she asked how many people had attended the show before, which led to a forest of hands going up, which is always very gratifying. She finished her remarks and then the music started, and I slowly made my way onto the stage, wondering what music from the 70’s and 80’s would accompany my opening words! Fortunately, Dennis managed to shut the audio down before his playlist took over and I was left to narrate the opening moments of A Christmas Carol alone.

As always at my first show at Winterthur, I tried a bit too hard at the beginning, it is very difficult to convince oneself that the words can be heard at the very back of the long auditorium without the aid of a microphone, so the temptation is to over-project, but as the show progressed, I was able to relax and bring the dialogue back to a level at which I was more comfortable, and could give a more measured performance.

In the second row of the audience, I had noticed my good friends David and Teresa who always support me, and for the last few years have come to Winterthur to see my show. David is a one-man performer too, specialising in Poe, so we have a lot in common. There were other familiar faces too, many pre-empting certain lines and soon the cast rose from 26 to about 236, as everyone bacme part of the show.

At the end end I ‘hosted’ my usual question and answer time, making sure that I repeated any questions so that the rest of the audiemce knew what I was talking about, and after twenty minutes or so, I brought the afternoon’s events to an end.

Unfortunately, at Winterthur the only way from the stage to the dressing room is via the main door at the back of the auditorium, so I got rather trapped by a few people who wanted books signed, or just to talk. One lady, who is always at my shows here, apologises that the gentleman who normally attends with her couldnt be there, as he is in London attending a meeting of the Pickwick Club, hosted by my brother Ian, and she showed me a picture of a menu signed by Ian just an hour or so before! The Dickens boys are slowly taking over the world….

Eventually I managed to untangle myself from the group, and returned to the office where Lois brought a couple of books to be signed and personalised, and when that was done I slowly changed.

The matinee was my only performance of the day so when I was back in regular clothes I said goodbye to Lois, and drove to another reassuringly familiar place, the Fairville Inn where I always stay when I am performing here. But even The Fairville has changed since my last visit, as I checked in, I became aware that the decor was modern and bright, and that the old, quaint look had gone. The lady at the desk informed me that new owners had taken over two years ago (that mist have been very shortly after my last visit), and the entire place had undergone a complete restoration. It looked much brighter, much more modern and very impressive; this is not to say that it was not good before, it was beautiful and had the soul of Laura and Rick all through it. It was good then and it is good now.

I was shown to my room in The Carriage House and was delighted to find a Keurig coffee maker in the room! In the old days I had to wait until Rick opened the kitchen at around 7am before I could get my first cup, so this was one improvement that I heartily approved of.

Tired from the early start, the drive and the physical performance, I watched a film on the TV, until evening fell. I had arranged to meet David and Teresa for dinner at our regular haunt, Buckley’s Tavern just along the road. Usually, we pop in after an evening show, but on this occasion we could eat a little earlier. We were shown to a large table in the corner of a large room, well distanced from other diners and spent a lovely evening chatting and sharing anecdotes from our respective careers.

After a while a couple sat at another table, and they carefully set a baby’s seat, lifted from a buggy or the car, onto the floor. The father was a large man, tall, broad and bearded with arms like Popeye’s. After a while little snuffling noises and tiny cries started to come from the baby and the man leant down to pick his child up – it could not have been more than a week or so old, and to see this mountain of a man holding the infant so gently and tenderly was incredibly moving. I wanted to take a picture of the moment, but of course that was impossible, but it made me quite emotional. Soon more members of the family joined the group and after a while the baby was handed round the table for everyone to have a cuddle and a coo. It was a bit like watching a human game of La-di-da (for those of you who own the red version of my souvenir programme, look it up, while for everyone else I am referring to a Christmas game in which a walnut gets passed around the table). At our table the evening came to a lovely gentle end, and we went back to the Fairville Inn.

It had been a day that in many ways was so familiar but also strangely different in others. Slightly confusing but ultimately very successful and enjoyable.