There are certain events in my schedule that mark the never-changing progress of the year – some are important dates for their historical significance and may, or may not, be linked to a performance (specifically February 7 and June 9 being the dates on which Charles Dickens was born and died respectively). The great Dickens Festival in Rochester is always held at the end of the spring half term, whilst Thanksgiving Day in America sees the start of my main tour of the United States. But there is another event, without which my year would seem fractured and incomplete: the Victorian Festival in the Welsh spa town Llandrindod Wells, which takes place during the second half of August.
I was introduced to Llandrindod many years ago by my good friend David Hawes who, although based in Kent, worked with the festival organisers to bring a flash of pizzazz and theatricality to the event. David has always been a great champion of my work and many of my current venues are thanks to his influence and powers of persuasion. Back in 2014 he looked at the Llandrindod festival programme and reckoned that one of my shows would fit in well, so he made sure that the committee booked me to perform at the perfectly named ‘Albert Hall’
I took to the festival straight away and have been returning ever since, meaning that August wouldn’t be August without driving to mid-Wales. Like so many events the LLandrinod festival suffered greatly during the two Covid years, but this year it was back – alive and kicking. The event has relied for many years on a group of both locals and visitors gathering, dressing in Victorian costumes and attending a series of themed events, talks and shows. The town boasts a wonderful small green, complete with a bandstand, and this has become the focus of the activities. In past years there has been a small funfair, a craft fair and some sideshows to provide entertainment for the locals who may have otherwise felt excluded. This year the committee had included a series of non-Victorian events to further boost the appeal, including concerts featuring Dolly Parton, Tom Jones and Witney Houston tribute acts (not to mention that well known Charles Dickens tribute…I must think of a suitable pun-laden name for my act). At the town’s large lake, nestling in the valley, a series of children’s piratical adventures was laid on, featuring treasure hunts and it seemed to me that the town itself was beginning to once more embrace the festival, meaning it was no longer the sole preserve of the stalwarts, although they still are very much the core and beating heart of the event.
My show at The Albert Hall was to be staged on Tuesday night and this year I had been asked to perform a double bill of Mr Dickens is Coming! followed by The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. These two shows were the first that I wrote back in ’95 and ’96 and whilst I have already performed Mr Dickens is Coming a few times this year, I have not revisited Nickleby for a long time and it was with great pleasure that I spent the days preceding my trip going through the lines and finding that they came back to me with a minimum of effort – not just the lines, but the timing, nuances and movements too.
My drive from Oxford to Powys took me on motorways at first, but in no time I was on smaller roads, driving through picturesque villages. Shortly after passing Tenby Wells I realised that the car was in need of fuel and so I stopped at a small filling station. In fact I queued at the small filling station, for the price of a litre of Unleaded was £1.62, by far the lowest I had seen since the prices were coming down from their £2.00 peak of a few weeks before, and obviously people were coming from miles around to avail themselves of a bargain top up. I took the opportunity of the stop to buy a sandwich for my lunch, and I chose a magnificent door-stop cheese and pickle example. This wasn’t a typical pre-packed, limp, flabby, sweaty sandwich, such as you might expect to find in a petrol station, oh no, this had been lovingly built by hand by someone who wanted to make sure that drivers didn’t go hungry!
Shortly after finishing my sandwich I decided that I fancied a cup of coffee, maybe a slice of cake, and I was pondering where best to purchase these items when I saw brown tourist signs for the National Trust property Croft Castle. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘I have a National Trust membership card, so I wont have to pay an entrance fee, and the property is sure to have a tea room, so why not give myself a little treat?’ I was not disappointed, for the tea room served up an excellent slice of coffee and walnut, and the setting was fabulous.
I stretched my legs by walking to the ‘castle’ itself and admiring the views, before returning to my car and completing the journey through the gorgeous Welsh scenery
I arrived in Llandrindod at around 3pm and checked into my home from home in the town, The Portland Guest House where I settled into the room I always have on the very top floor. I lay on the bed, watched a little cricket on the television and had a short nap before it was time to shower and make my way to the theatre – a drive of 0.1 mile, which took me maybe less than a minute. I unloaded my various props, and with the assistance of theatre manager Ben carried them to the stage.
It was at this point that I realised that I had left my top hat and walking cane at home. These items do not have a huge role in the show, in fact they only appear in a single scene very early on in Mr Dickens is Coming to create the jaunty demeanour of Mr Micawber, who uses the cane to as a metaphoric set of scales to measure the happiness or misery of his income. The show can be played without these simple items, but it would be a shame, and as the large majority of the audience would be in costume, I reckoned that I may be able to borrow a hat and cane from somewhere: I asked Ben to make appropriate enquiries on my behalf.
I had plenty of time to prepare, for the show wasn’t due to start until 8pm, although some of the audience arrived expecting a 7.30 curtain up. Having carefully set the stage I ran through parts of both shows, until the first of the public began to arrive, festival regulars in full costume, and having said a few hellos I made my way back to the dressing room, where I changed into costume and waited. As time passed Ben appeared holding a hat which he had commandeered. No cane yet, he was working on it!
I could hear the audience gathering and eventually, with ten minutes to go, a walking cane appeared too: I was ready to go.
At 8 o’clock Queen Victoria (aka my good friend Rita) made her entrance and the whole audience were asked to stand as she processed to her front row seat, as I stood waiting in the wings, desperate to get going (I am like a caged beast in those last minutes before a show starts, pacing to and fro waiting to be released). When the Queen was seated Ben faded the houselights to black and then illuminated the stage and I walked on to a round of applause. The Albert Hall could really have been built to suit my style of shows – the size and elegance of the auditorium and the imposing and powerful height of the stage, makes it perfect for me. Mr Dickens is Coming went well, getting laughs at the right moments, and I was very careful with the top hat (a particularly fine vintage example), and cane during the Micawber section, but as I made my way into the sinuous, repulsive Uriah Heep passage and then to the exhausting sword fight of The Bagman’s Uncle (masquerading as a 1960’s James Bond movie), I threw everything into the show.
At the interval I waited until most of the audience had left the auditorium then changed the furniture round in readiness for Nicholas Nickleby (not a huge set change, it must be said, just changing the red reading desk from stage left to stage right, and moving the chair from stage right to stage left.) I made sure that various prop letters that are needed for Nickleby were where they should be, and then waited until the Queen returned and I could begin once more.
As I had discovered during my rehearsals Nickleby came back to me as if I had been performing it regularly all season and I had lots of fun leaping from character to character. I used a slightly different voice for Ralph Nickleby, making him a little older than he used to be, but it didn’t go well as my throat began to tighten, so I reverted back to a safer option for the balance of the show.
The story raced from Devon to London to Yorkshire back to London to Portsmouth back to London again and finally to Devon once more before reaching its conclusion over Smike’s grave. I left the stage and returned to take my bows as the audience applauded my efforts. It had been a fun night.
As soon as I was off stage I began packing up my costumes and props as the 8.00pm start time meant that it was late, and I had dinner to enjoy yet. Ben and the rest of the Albert Hall Crew helped me load my car up and I drove back to the Portland from where I walked back to John Abell’s home where we traditionally have a late night Chinese take away in the company of his mum Julie, and this year we were joined by Marina from the festival committee and her daughter Mia. We tucked into the meal, drank some champagne that John had bought for us, and finished off with chocolate brownies. There was lots of chat about films, running, the festival and various other topics, and it was a perfect way to wind down after such an energetic and exciting evening.
It was late when I walked back to Portland but even then the adrenaline was still keeping me awake so I switched on the television and found an old episode of Inspector Morse. I knew it was time to turn the lights out when the murderer was revealed and I hadn’t realised that anyone had yet been murdered!
On Wednesday morning I woke to find the town wrapped in cloud with a wet drizzle soaking everything, this was a pity for I’d planned to head up into the hills and play some golf that morning. I went downstairs to breakfast and devoured bacon, sausage, egg and toast and as I ate, the skies seemed to brighten a little and I decided to go ahead with my original plan after all.
Llandrindod Wells golf club is a lovely course which I have played on a number of occasions and the weather Gods welcomed me as I pulled into the car park, for the clouds disappeared and revealed a blue sky behind. I was greeted by the club pro Phil Davies, and we chatted for a while about the festival and Charles Dickens, before I set off on my morning’s adventure. The course is very hilly, especially over the first 4 holes as they rise up to the highest point, and I asked Phil if I could rent an electric trolley for my heavy golf bag. I have not used one before and it took me a while to get used to the controls – at first I had the speed setting too high and the thing flew off up the course dragging me behind it. I would have reduced the setting if I’d bothered to ask how to do that, but I had no idea how to control the thing as it threatened to pull my arm from its socket. Eventually I discovered a little dial on the handle and my journey up the mountainside became more sedate.
The round of golf was wonderful and I actually had the course to myself for the morning. The scenery surrounding me was stunning, the air was clear and little swifts swooped around me as I walked.
I actually played very well until the last few holes when maybe the effects of the show took their toll, but for whatever reason I rather lost focus and talent at the same time, but it didn’t spoil what had been a great morning.
I had one more commitment at the festival and that was to attend a strawberry and champagne picnic on the green. I asked Phil if I could change in the golf club’s locker room, and he asked if I would pose on the course in costume, which I was delighted to do. I even tried a drive from the first tee but my frock coat didn’t allow for me to swing properly and the ball bobbled embarrassingly before coming to rest a few yards in front of me. Phil very kindly said it looked as if I had a good swing!
Back down in town I made my way to the green where another of the costumed ladies was setting up her champagne table. Joyce has always put this event on, she brings all of the champagne and punnets of strawberries; It is her gift to all of those who make the festival such fun. Over the last year Joyce has been through many difficult times and it was doubtful whether she would be attending this year, but just a week before she announced that she would be present and the reception would be on!
At 1 o’clock the costumed folk began to gather and set up tables for their picnics. linen cloths were laid, teapots filled, china cups and saucers laid and cake stands filled – it was so splendidly British!
Marie, another regular visitor, helped Joyce set up and when the ‘bar’ was complete Joyce looked as if all the woes of the world had left her and she looked genuinely happy with a beaming smile. We all had a glass of champagne (fortunately there was a non alcoholic version that I could drink) and we all toasted to happy times.
And that was the end of my 2022 visit to Llandrindod Wells. I said my goodbyes and set off back to Oxfordshire. I have left in previous years wondering if the festival could survive and not sure if I would be returning, but this year it seemed in rude health indeed and the future looks bright!