My busy early summer continued last Friday with a trip to the home of the traditional British pork pie – Melton Mowbray. An online recipe for this delicious pastry product states that you should set the oven at 180 degrees Celsius before beginning the preparation, and it seemed as if someone had set the weather gauge to the same temperature last week. It was the hottest day of the year in Britain and as a race we don’t do very well in the heat (or in snow, or fog, or ice, or wind; although we are quite good at rain), and a typical conversation of the day would have run: ‘Oh, my, it’s too hot, isn’t it?’, ‘Yes, it is. Unbearable. But we shouldn’t grumble.’ ‘No! of course not, but a little cooler would be nice.’ ‘I hear there is a storm due this evening, that will break it!’ The same exchange would have taken place up and down the country.
I was due to perform my double bill featuring The Signalman and Doctor Marigold and the set for that programme only just fits into the back of my car and then only if I get everything in the correct order and alignment. By the time everything was in and the boot lid shut successfully without the glass shattering into a million pieces (which actually happened to me many years ago), I was a dripping sodden mess. I had a shower to freshen myself up again and after having a hearty lunch I set off towards Leicestershire, with the various items of the set rattling in the back.
I had booked a hotel in the town and when I checked in I found that the sun had been beating on the front of the hotel (where my room was situated) all afternoon and the atmosphere was oppressive. Fortunately there was a huge fan in the room which, as well as giving the feeling that I was in a Caribbean villa, also stirred the air a little and created a comforting breeze as I relaxed.
I was due at the venue at 4.pm, so didn’t have long at the hotel, and at 3.45 I returned to my car to make the very short drive across town to The Hope Centre, the base of Melton Vineyard Christian Church. Although the Church’s services are not actually held at the Centre, it is open throughout the week as a drop-in centre and a foodbank, serving the entire community; the sad fact being that it’s services are being called upon more and more frequently as the country’s economy continues to suffer.
I have performed at The Hope Centre before and my contact there is Gillian Ennis. Those readers with a keen eye and good memory may recognise the surname, for her brother Ben Ennis is responsible for staging my shows at the Guildhall in Leicester. I arrived a little after 4.15, having become considerably tangled up in the Melton one-way traffic system, but I had plenty of time in hand and a parking place had been left for me close to the back door, into which I could unload my two sets of furniture. My performance space was on the second floor of the building but I was assisted in the process of heaving everything into place both by Neal, who runs the centre, and a small lift which has been installed into the old building. It is a quirky lift in that it has no walls and ceiling, just a floor, which means if you happen to be leaning against the side as it begins its journey you discover that you are sort of pulled down because you are actually leaning against the lift shaft. Similarly as you approach the top of the building you can see the roof getting ever closer and there is a feeling for a moment that the lift wont stop and that the end is nigh…..such dramatic imaginations, as if from a big-budget disaster movie, seem curiously out of place in a building filled with such compassion and love.
In the room on the top floor Neal began to erect a stage and when all was fixed in position I placed the furniture for The Signalman. Being on the very top floor the room was, of course, very hot (one complete wall being large windows through which the sun had shone all afternoon), and although there were two air conditioning units rattling away, they were fighting a losing battle.
When the set was in place, a call came up from one of the rooms below that supper was ready: Gill had very kindly prepared a fish pie with peas, followed by a choice of rhubarb crumble with cream or a fruit salad. What a treat! As we dined Neal decided to open an emergency exit to allow some air in, knowing that the action would set off an alarm, so he disappeared to override the security system, before returning to resume his meal. After a few minutes he had a phone call from the security company just checking that everything was OK at The Hope Centre, and he was able to reassure them that yes, it was.
When dinner was finished I returned to the room upstairs and began to rehearse Doctor Marigold, as I hadn’t performed it for a few weeks (Back in Bury St Edmunds) and so many other scripts had come and gone since that I wanted to be sure that everything was in place. Having satisfied myself that Marigold was ok, I moved onto The Signalman, although I was less worried about that having performed it regularly over the last couple of weeks.
As the time for the show came ever closer I withdrew into Neal’s office which was repurposed as my dressing room for the evening, and drank lots of water, before getting into costume. I could hear the audience gather and they sounded to be a lively, enthusiastic bunch. At 7.30 Neal welcomed all present and introduced me. I took to the stage and began by talking about Staplehurst (taking care to mention my book, which would be on sale at the end of the evening), and then began with The Signalman. In no time the sweat was dripping down my face so much that my eyes began to sting. The audience were also using anything that came to hand to fan themselves. The sensible ones, who knew the room, has sat in the very back row, directly under the two air con units.
As the suspense of the story built the atmosphere was a little hindered by the distant sounding of an alarm siren, and I noticed that each time Neal left the room to see what was happening. He told me afterwards that apparently there was another group using a space in the building and they had tried to open an emergency door, as Neal had done earlier. Of course the alarm went off, but when it was re-set they fastened the door on its safety chain meaning it kept pulling closed, then blowing open again, setting the alarm off each time! It didn’t really effect the show too much and the first half ended with lovely applause and I returned to my dressing room, where I stood in front of a large fan with a towel draped over my head until I had sufficiently cooled down to change into Doctor Marigold’s costume ready for the second half.
I needed to change the set around, so whilst the audience were chatting and enjoying their interval drinks I bumbled around the stage removing the signal box set and replacing it with the wooden steps, which represent Marigold’s cart, the plain wooden crate with a rolled up blanket inside, a little rustic wooden stool, and a few other pieces of set dressing. Although I didn’t actually say anything or interact, in my mind I was Marigold arriving at a new pitch, setting up his cart ready to sell to the gathering crowd.
I returned to the dressing room, drank more water and waited for Neal to give me the go ahead for part 2
Marigold, once more, charmed the audience and the applause at the end was long and heartfelt. A few days later Neal emailed me to say that one gentleman in the audience had ‘come to support the event and that it wasn’t really his ‘thing’, but he’d been absolutely held throughout and now he won’t miss any future events.’ which is a lovely compliment to both the performance but more especially to the wonderful creation of my great great grandfather.
When the show was over I chatted to audience members as they left, as well as signing copies of my book, until the only people left were the volunteers and staff from Melton Vineyard. I changed and then began the process of loading up the lift for multiple journeys to the car park, where I tried to remember the order in which I had stacked all of my props that morning. When everything was in, I said my goodbyes and drove back to my hotel.
The room was cooler now and the large fan still whirred as another day of performing drew to a close.