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Sharnbrook Mill Theatre. Saturday 5 February

The next event in my busy week of Charles Dickens birthday celebrations saw me back to being the centre of attention as I was due to perform Great Expectations at The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre in Bedfordshire.

I had visited the theatre for the first time in 2020, when we were extremely fortunate to be able to present A Christmas Carol to a small, mask-wearing audience, widely distanced throughout the auditorium. It had been a wonderful experience and at the time wrote that I couldn’t wait to return, and now I was able to fulfil that ambition.

I was due to perform Great Expectations and for some unknown reason I had got myself into a right old state about it. Great Ex is one of my newer shows, so the lines are not as deeply ingrained as others, but I have been doing it for a few years now, so there should be no reason for me to struggle with it, but struggle I did! For weeks I had the script open on the table and found myself going over passages at all times of the day and night. I was even having stress dreams about the show, not uncommon before big events. In one I dreamed that I was on a stage performing and a member of the audience left, then another, then more until I was left on the stage alone, at which point I just stopped and gave up. Another night I dreamed that I was at an open air theatre, and was watching a cast perform a play. I was due to take the stage after their show and so I left to change into costume, but couldn’t find the dressing room, or my clothes, and then couldn’t remember how to get get back to the stage, meaning that when I did arrive all of the audience had given up and gone home. Dreams such as this don’t necessarily mean that I am under-prepared, but do confirm that I am anxious and maybe need to make sure that all of the small details are in place. With that in mind I decided to get the car loaded up with all of my props and costumes on Friday afternoon, so that everything was in place for my Saturday departure. During that day I rehearsed both acts of the show a couple of times, and at last was confident that I was ready.

Saturday dawned and in the morning I was taking my eldest daughter to a football match in which she was playing. During the drive to the fixture, which was an ‘away’ match, a warning light came on in the car and the message said ‘STOP! DANGER OF ENGINE FAILURE’ That didn’t sound good.

I dropped my daughter at her match (with horrible echoes of my second stress dream, we couldn’t find the ground, and were running all over the place before managing to get there just as the starting whistle was blowing), and took the car to a nearby petrol station, where I checked the water and oil levels and hopelessly prodded at sundry leads and pipes, all of which seemed to be connected as they should be. On restarting the car the warning message still flashed up, and it became apparent that there was no way I could risk driving all the way to Bedfordshire with complete engine failure imminent. I picked up my daughter from the match and crept back home putting as little strain through the engine as I could. So much for packing the car with all of my costumes and props in plenty of time.

Once at home Liz and I started making plans. I remembered from my previous visit to Sharnbrook that they have a wonderful prop store under the stage, so I would be able to borrow the large pieces of furniture that I required, The rest of my props: cloths, candlesticks, and even a collapsible hat stand, as well as my costumes, would fit into Liz’s car which is a tiny Mini!

I set off after lunch and after around 90 minutes I pulled up outside The Sharnbrook Hotel, which was apparently deserted – the car park was empty. I was relieved when the automatic doors opened to admit me, but the reception area was as as quiet as the outside view had suggested it may be. I was gratified to see, however, that there was a goodly supply of fliers on the counter proclaiming that Gerald Dickens would be performing Great Expectations at The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre that evening.

There was a striking bell on the desk, so I rang it and a smiling lady eventually appeared to check me in. Although the hotel seemed empty, my room was located in the farthest flung reaches of the building meaning a long walk, but I dropped my bags, and then returned to the car for the short drive to the theatre.

I was welcomed at the front door by Brenda Stafford, who has been responsible for my appearances, and having exchanged greetings and pleasantries, she disappeared to open the stage door so that I could load my belongings onto the stage. As soon as that was done Gerry (stage manager and Brenda’s husband) appeared to take me into the furniture store, from where I could chose the pieces I needed to complete my set. I found a grand chair, upholstered in red velvet, and a small table, and together we returned to the stage where I commenced putting everything in place.

The set of Great Expectations features the ever present figure of Miss Havisham on the stage, and this is constructed over a slender hat stand, painted white, with fabrics draped over it to give the appearance of a human figure. Preparing Miss H is always an uncertain moment, for there is no science to the creation, just a drape here, a pin there, a flick somewhere else until my hat stand seems to stand proud with a sleeve and veil.

The next job was to sort out the technical side of the show. I have scripted Great Expectations with quite a few lighting changes, using different colours to represent cold, eerie scenes or warm, cosy ones. My lighting man, sat in a sort of crow’s nest high in the eves of the old mill building which forms the theatre’s auditorium, was Ron. I had sent my script a couple of weeks before the event and Ron’s son Ricky had carefully programmed all of the cues into the lighting console. Ron would be running the show and we spent a good amount of time going from cue to cue. We had one slight issue, where the lighting effect for Miss Havisham bursting into flames had been focussed on the wrong side of the stage (my fault, as I had not been specific enough in my script), but Ron said that he would try to sort something out, and sure enough when I was walking through the theatre a little later. the semi-strobe effect flared up around Miss Havisham. Theatre techies are definitely ‘can do’ folk.

In contrast to the lighting, the sound for the show is quite simple, using just two sound cues which start each act. Unfortunately, though, the theatre’s sound man had been taken ill, so a willing volunteer in the shape of Peter Laughton was found. With the help of Gerry we downloaded my two cues onto a laptop and Peter practiced playing them to order.

And now it was time to relax. Usually at this time I retreat to my dressing room and maybe will eat a salad or some fruit, but at Sharnbrook I was treated to a proper dinner prepared by Richard West – chicken breast, rolled in bacon, served with mashed potato and broccoli. We all sat around one of the tables in the front of house space and we chatted and laughed and exchanged stories as we ate. Gary Villiers, the most dapperly dressed front of house manager, mentioned that he is an avid collector of old cigarette cards and dug out of his pocket a little bundle depicting Dickens characters dating back to 1923. He told me that he had come across them that afternoon and wanted me to have them – it was such a generous gesture.

Dinner plates were cleared away and replaced with bowls of summer fruits with cream for those who wanted it and a fruit coulis for others. I avoid any dairy on the day of a performance, not because of any allergy but because it tends to thicken the lining of the throat thereby causing an actor to strain his voice. For many years I regarded performers who followed this regime as rather faddy, but since I started a number of years ago I have had many fewer problems with my voice than before.

With supper over I retreated to my dressing room, where I called an old friend of mine, Les Evans. Les used to be a pilot on Concorde and I first met him on a cruise liner in Athens on which both he and I were booked as guest lecturers. We were joining the P&O ship Artemis which was entering the last leg of a world cruise. It was to be a very important trip for me because, apart from Les and his wife Jill, there was also a classical pianist joining the ship – her name was Liz….

Along with a young magician called Oliver, we all hit it off and had one of the most enjoyable fortnights you can imagine.

Back at The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre I prepared for the show, got into my Magwitch costume, and waited for Gerry to confirm that the audience were in place, that Ron and Peter were ready and that he, as stage manager, had control. The house lights dimmed, my recorded voice filled the theatre and on cue I burst onto the stage: ‘Hold your noise!’

It was lovely to be in a full theatre, feeling and hearing the responses of the audience as I introduced them to Joe and Mrs Joe Gargery, Uncle Pumblechook, Miss Havisham and Estella, Herbert Pocket, Wemmick, Jaggers and the rest. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and thankfully the audience did not leave one by one until I was alone.

When I had performed A Christmas Carol in 2020 I had come back to the stage and conducted a Q&A session which had been so popular that Brenda had requested that I repeat the exercise this time, so having taken my bows Ron brought the house lights up and I spent twenty minutes or so answering a good variety of questions, which I have come to enjoy doing more and more. Fortunately somebody asked me if I had written anything myself, which gave me a good opportunity to plug ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’ which happened to be on sale in the foyer, and after I had left the stage I signed a few copies and chatted with some of the audience.

Finally it was time to relax, and Gerry brought me a glass of wine and I sat with the various volunteers and committee members at the theatre, until it was time to close up shop and pack away.

I feel particularly at home in The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre, surrounded by such keen and generous theatrical folk. They care about their theatre and go to huge efforts to ensure its success, and as I said at the end of my previous Sharnbrook blog post I very much look forward to returning!