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On Friday 23 December I finished my 2022 tour by performing at the Guildhall in Leicester. On Sunday 23 April, 4 months later, I performed again, for the first time since my various medical shenanigans laid me low. A quarter of year is a long time to be off the stage and I was worried that I may be a bit ring rusty. The show in question was my adaptation of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, one of the very first shows that I adapted in the early 1990s.

A few weeks ago I started to go through the lines and to my delight discovered that they came back to me as quick as you like. On the whole my various scripts settle into different tiers of memory, there are those that I can just step up and perform with little preparation (A Christmas Carol, Mr Dickens is Coming! and Nicholas Nickleby fall into that category). Next there are a couple of scripts which are NEARLY there, The Signalman and Doctor Marigold need a little work before I perform them, but not much. The next tier has one script in it, and that is Great Expectations, which needs quite a bit of rehearsing before I am confident of taking it onto the stage, and then there is a collection of old shows that I haven’t done for years, any one of which would need me to start from scratch to build up to a performance (Top Hole, The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, To Begin With, A Tale of Two Cities and some others). It so happens that the week after Nickleby I will be performing Great Expectations, so most of my time over the past days has been spent on that show, making sure that the lines are properly in my mind.

Back to Nickleby on the 23rd and I was due to travel to the far North East of England to perform once more in the amazing Word Library in South Shields. Usually I would pack all of the props into my car for the journey North, but this week was different for Liz’s car has been undergoing some fairly major repairs (a replacement cylinder head gasket), and was still in the garage, and we were down to one car between us, and she would need it at home, so I hired a small van. On Saturday I loaded all of the furniture and props that I would need: the red reading desk, a chair, a frame and red fabric to make a screen, the little octagonal table and a chair (both of which I treated with furniture polish, for they looked rather faded and tired after a long period of storage), my heavy prop box containing various smaller items that I would need, including a rope noose and a large book. I packed various items of merchandise as well as my costume and I would be ready to leave early on Sunday morning.

The drive to South Shields takes around 4 1/2 hours, and as my show was an early one, starting at 2pm, I would need to be there by 12.30, which meant setting off at 7.30 (allowing time for stops for coffee and maybe a bite of early lunch.) I felt great in my little white van, and the traffic was light that early. The morning radio programme was covering the build up to The London Marathon and I felt a sense of excitement for the runners, remembering my experiences last October when I ran in the Oxford Half Marathon. I had some friends running, but the competitor I was most in awe of was my nephew Guy, who was running to raise funds for the Macmillan Cancer charity – of course this was impressive enough in its own right, but in Guy’s case he was running despite the fact that he is in the middle of his own course of chemotherapy treatment.

As the journey went on, I ran through some of my lines, making sure that the Nickleby script really was in my head and hadn’t been driven out by the hard work I’d been putting in on Great Expectations. Fortunately all the lines came naturally, and I could be sure that I would be in a safe place when I stepped onto the stage later that day. I also played my ‘Car Alphabet’ game, when I have to spot cars with the make or model names staring with each letter of the alphabet in order. Many of the letters are easy – Audi, BMW, Citroen etc, but there are a few traditional stumbling blocks, O, for instance (Skoda Octavia is the best bet, but unless I am following one it is difficult to differentiate between an Octavia and a Superb), and my real nemesis is W, for which there are only 3 cars that qualify and none of them are very popular in England, one is the Jeep Wrangler, another is a Suzuki Wagon R and the third is a Renault Wind. It was the last of these which came to my rescue on Sunday morning, for a black example was being ignominiously carried on the back of a breakdown truck in front of me. A successful journey through the alphabet always bodes well for a positive day and a good performance, so I felt very satisfied when I finally ticked off the final Z as I overtook a Vauxhall Zafira.

Into Derbyshire the heavens opened and the journey became a lot less fun, for the road surface was flooded and there was a very real danger of aquaplaning on the slick surface. I had plenty of time in hand, so took things very cautiously. I was soon through the worst of the weather and as I passed through Yorkshire and on towards Tyneside, the skies were blue and the spring colours glorious. I arrived in South Shields at around 12 and having bought a sandwich from a local supermarket I pulled my van onto the pavement outside the impressive circular building that was designed to represent an open book’s pages being flicked through, and called my contact at The Word, Pauline Martin.

In no time a door opened and together we unloaded my van. The room in which I perform is on the very top floor, so we filled one of the lifts with the equipment and made our way up.

As I set the stage I realised that I had actually brought too much furniture – all of those hours rehearsing Great Expectations had convinced me that I needed a table and a few other props, which in fact would remain redundant for another six days.

When the set was ready and I had changed into my costume it was time to let the audience in. They are a loyal and extremely friendly bunch in the North East, and I was able to circulate and chat as they took their seats. Pauline was at the door welcoming them all with a smile, but also with a stern warning – ‘turn your phone OFF or I shall be rugby tackling you at 3 o’clock!’ This may seem a somewhat severe greeting, but it was with good reason, for at the aforementioned time (when I would be nearing the end of my show) the British government was due to test its National Emergency Alarm which involved a screeching, piercing warning which eventually will be used to alert the population to fire, flood and terrorist attacks. Setting a phone to silent would not be enough, they had to be turned off completely, hence Pauline’s threats.

2pm ticked round and Pauline said a few words of welcome before I took to the stage. The beginning of Nickleby features me as me, explaining why I have chosen this particular novel to perform, and I explain the circumstances that took me from schoolboy Dickens-hater, to an evangelistic portrayer of his words. Many of you may know that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s amazing adaptation of NickNick had a profound effect on me. Fortunately for those of you who don’t know the story, it will be related in full in my new book ‘Gerald Dickens: My Life On The Road With A Christmas Carol’ to be published later this year.

Once the preamble was finished I launched into the story itself and assumed the multiple characters of various Nickleby’s, most particularly young Nicholas and his evil uncle Ralph, the inhabitants of Dotheboy’s Hall including Mr and Mrs Squeers and their daughter Fanny, the poor drudge Smike, and the theatrical troupe belonging to the ebullient Mr Vincent Crummles. I loved every second of the performance and it was a pleasure to be on stage again, working hard. As I began the very final scene, which is quite tender and quiet, of course one phone had been left on and sure enough the Emergency Alarm sounded, fortunately Pauline did not carry out her rugby tackling threat. Actually the alarm wasn’t too loud, and didn’t last too long. I brought the story to a close and to me surprise and delight the audience stood as they applauded me. I took a few bows, and then when the clapping subsided I hosted a short Q&A session. I had a bet with myself about what the first question would be, and I won: ‘What do you think of the new television version of Great Expectations?’ I will not go into my answer here, maybe that is for another blog post, but the show has certainly excited some controversy among the various online Dickens communities, with its violent, gritty, foul-mouthed and sadistic plotlines.

The questions moved on to the RSC’s production of Nickleby, and what is my favourite novel, and all too soon it was time to wind up. I stood in the room and chatted more with the audience, and sold a few items of merchandise, until the room was empty and it was time to load all of the props back into the lift, retrieve my van and bid farewell to Pauline and The Word for a few more months (I will be back there in November with A Christmas Carol.)

I had decided to stay in the heart of the city of Newcastle that night, actually in the hotel I use when I am performing at The Lit and Phil, so I would be in familiar surroundings. As I drove away from South Shields the sports radio station that I had been listening to that morning was now broadcasting the final minutes of Newcastle United against Tottenham Hotspur, being played in Newcastle – the score was 6-1 to the home team, it was going to be a lively night next to the Tyne! Sure enough as I arrived, the streets were awash with fans in their black and white striped shirts in good voice, while I am sure any remaining Spurs fans were slinking quietly back south.

I parked near to the hotel, checked in and then dozed on and off for the rest of the afternoon, until it was time for dinner. The hotel has a small bar in the lobby, mainly for breakfast, but they serve a small dinner menu too, so I sat at a table, the only diner, and ordered a steak pie and mash, It seemed to take an age to prepare and arrive, which seeing I was their only customer seemed strange, but in time the door opened and a lady appeared holding a plate. She peered all around the room until eventually her eye fell on me, ‘Is this for you?’ she asked, somewhat unnecessarily, I replied in the affirmative, and she placed the plate in front of me. When I had finished, I decided to order some dessert, and sure enough a little while later the door opened and the lady stood, bowl in hand, peering around the room again, until her eye once more fell on me. I waited. ‘Is this for you?’ she asked.

Early the next morning I started my long journey home to Oxfordshire. I always enjoy being in the North East, and this trip had been as fun and as successful as my previous ones.

I would like to finish by congratulating my cousin Guy, who not only completed the London Marathon, but completely BLITZED it. His time was 3 hours 53.15 and his split times were all under 9 minute miles – his consistency was remarkable, and this with a body undergoing the rigours of fortnightly chemotherapy. As I write he has raised nearly £4,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support, but I know he would like to raise more, so if anyone would like to support and congratulate my amazing nephew, then here is his JustGiving link:

Next Saturday I will be performing Great Expectations, and I will update you with how things go with that!