A Christmas Carol, Byers'Choice, Charles Dickens, Covid19, Doctor Marigold, Ebenezer Scrooge, Formula One, Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, Sikes and Nancy, The Signalman, Uber Eats, Ventfort Hall Mansion
Sunday 5 December saw my second day in The Berkshires and with one show at 3 o’clock it meant that there was a quiet morning in store. Maybe I could take a drive into the mountains, maybe I could explore some of the delightful neighbouring towns and villages, maybe I could breathe in the cold, clear, unpoluted air. No! There was a Grand Prix to watch! The TV coverage from Jeddah would begin at 11 am, and I had a little bit of housekeeping to do before then. Having bought breakfast (a yoghurt, granola and fruit collation, along with a muffin, orange juice and coffee), from the little Starbucks Cafe that the Courtyard hotels favour, I piled a load of laundry into a machine, and then took the car to a nearby grocery store to buy myself some lunch, as well as picking up a few other essentials.
As I drove back to the hotel, I noticed a signpost to ‘The Pleasant Valley Nature Reserve’, and apart from immediately breaking into my best Monkees impression, I thought that it sounded like a perfect way to spend a day off, as I would have on Monday.
I moved my laundry into the dryer, had another coffee and then settled down to watch the Formula One coverage. I know that this blog isn’t a Grand Prix fan site, but the events from Saudi Arabia did dominate my morning, so I can’t skip over it completely, but I promise I will not turn into an F1 journalist. The tension and excitement for the race, and the championship (this being the penultimate weekend) was obvious as soon as the coverage began, but before any action occurred there was a very moving tribute to the former team owner Frank Williams, who died last week. As all of the drivers and team members gathered around a large photo of Williams on the track, and a video compilation of his extraordinary career was shown, it was as if the current combatants were being told ‘honour him, perform to the standards that he would have performed to: win, but win well.’ It was a lesson that they should have heeded.
As the race time got closer, I popped my chicken and pasta dish into the microwave and settled down to watch. The start of the race passed without much incident, with Britain’s Lewis Hamilton leading easily and his great young Dutch rival, Max Verstappen stuck back in third, but then another driver crashed, and the race was stopped. Due to various decisions made by the two main teams, things were about to get spicey and at times downright dirty. Unfortunately for me, the delays to the race meant that I wouldn’t be able to watch it to its conclusion, as I actually had a show to do!
I continued listening to the coverage via my phone, until I once again pulled up at Ventfort Hall, where in the parking lot I was greeted by an audience member, who had arrived very early, saying ‘You must be Mr Dickens, I recognise you from your picture. Good luck today!’ That was very nice way to arrive and reminded me that I was there to entertain.
In the house Hayley and Chris were making the preparations for the afternoon and I checked that all of the furniture and props were in the right place, before retiring to my spacious dressing room, where I once again put the race coverage on as I dressed. Eventually, Lewis Hamilton emerged triumphant, with Max in 2nd place, but it didn’t sound a nice race with everyone playing every underhand trick that they could to gain an advantage. There was dangerous driving, there was bizarre driving, there was winging from the teams to the race director, who, in turn, sounded confused and weak, bartering with the Red Bull team over the severity of a particular penalty. Although incredibly exciting, it didn’t show F1 to the world in a good light. The final upshot was that Lewis and Max go into the final race next weekend absolutely level on points.
Fortunately, the race finished at around 2.20, which meant I had time to re-adjust my priorities and to become an actor again. Having got into costume and checked all of the things that had to be checked (watch wound, penny in waistcoat pocket, etc) I went and sat on the landing, looking down into the hall as the audience gathered. There was a very obvious sense of excitement and plenty of noise, and I soaked it up.
At 2.55 I creaked down the wooden staircase and Hayley confirmed that everyone had arrived, and that we were good to go. Chris sat at his laptop, ready to play the music cue, and Hayley welcomed everyone before starting the show. Straight away I could tell that this was a fun audience, they responded to everything from the very start (the first moment in the script that I can tell how a performance is going to go is when the narrator says ‘mind, I don’t mean to say that I know what there is particularly dead about a doornail….’ On this occasion they took the hint and laughed, obviously understanding that they were expected to be, and allowed to be, part of the show). We all had great fun, and it was a very satisfying performance. I had, quite naturally, been worried that my build-up to the show was not a conventional one and I might not have prepared myself well, but my fears were unfounded – I did a good job!
The Q&A was also fun, and there were some very good questions and lot of to-and-fro conversation, that makes sessions like this such a joy. After a while I became aware of Hayley hovering at the back of the room and knowing that pots of tea had been brewed and would be in danger of getting cold and stewed, I started to bring the session to an end, but there was one last question: ‘Is this your first time to The Berkshires?’ ‘No, it is my third visit, and I love it here!’, which got a loud round of applause and was a perfect time to sign off. There is indeed something very beautiful about the area, not just the scenery, but the community as well: it is a special place, and I would very much like to return during the summer months to perform some of my other shows: The Signalman would work well at Ventfort, as would Marigold and Sikes & Nancy. I know other venues would be interested in ‘out of season’ shows, so it would be lovely to try and put something together one day.
As the guests piled their plates high, I returned to my upstairs room and sat at my little table to eat my tea, before changing. I gathered up all of my belongings and went downstairs where I found Hayley and Chris to say goodbye, and to thank them for being such amazing colleagues over the last two days, and then I drove back to the hotel.
I had a quiet evening in, and at around 7 I logged on to my Uber Eats app and ordered a pizza from a nearby restaurant. I love going out and dining in restaurants, but the importance of remaining healthy and safe is paramount at the moment. It looks as if things are ramping up in Britain again, and the government has changed the regulations for entering the country yet again, meaning that the second Covid test, the PCR, that I purchased last week is also now redundant and I will have to have a test in the USA before I am allowed to fly home. With no idea as to how to get a test here I had earlier emailed Bob Byers, who had replied that he was looking into it on my behalf. It looks as if we will have to book something on my route from Lewes, Delaware to Byers’ Choice in Pennsylvania (the test has to be done within two days of flying), and this just adds a new logistical challenge to the end of the tour.
I watched a bit of TV, but felt myself nodding off, so retired for an early night.
On Monday I have a travel day with no shows and no commitments, and I think that the Pleasant Valley Nature Reserve sounds like an excellent way to relax!