A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Carol First Edition, Cafe Royal, Charles Dickens, London, Mr Fezziwig, Shield Beetle, Winterthur
I woke early on Thursday morning (to be honest, my body clock simply hasn’t adapted through this whole trip), so I sat up in bed writing my blog post and sipping coffee, until it was time to get ready for breakfast. I had arranged to meet David and Teresa at 8.30, and I walked from The Carriage House, where my room was situated, to the main building and, just as I was asking for orange juice and coffee my friends joined me. We sat a large table and soon were tucking into plates of pancakes (David and I), and a frittata (Teresa). The conversation picked up easily from where it had ended the night before and the time sped by, until we had three empty plates before us. As we sat and talked, a message came in from home – Liz was just settling down to watch our youngest daughter perform in her school’s Nativity play: great things can come from Nativity performances! I showed pictures to David and Teresa and they ‘oooo’d and ‘ahhh’d’ appropriately. Soon, though the time had come for me to get back to my room to prepare for a Zoom call to the UK, and David and Teresa had to pack ready to leave, so we posed for our annual photograph and then returned to our respective rooms, having hugged goodbye in the car park.
My Zoom call was due to be with the banqueting team at London’s prestigious Cafe Royal, to go through the format of a dinner event I am performing there on December 22. There wasn’t a desk as such in my room, so I removed the light and little vase of flowers from the bedside table and moved it so that it was in front of the small armchair in the corner, which gave a plain view of the wall behind, avoiding seeing my suitcase, overflowing with clothes and my unmade bed.
At exactly 10 (3pm London time) the call connected, and my contact Kerry popped up, she was in a tiny office and behind her the entire team, including chef, maître d’ and banqueting manager were squeezed in. We went over the format of the evening during which I will be performing between the courses of a fine dinner, and just as I thought we were ready to wrap up, Kerry said ‘could you do a bit of what you do now? None of us know what it is.’ And so, I suddenly was performing a completely unprepared and unexpected audition from my little room in Fairville, Pennsylvania. I chose the beginning of Stave 2, the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and fortunately my efforts were greeted with smiles and laughter, which was good, and when I finished, I even got a little round of applause. I promised that I would send a link to my video of the show too, to give them a better idea as to what is involved.
With the call over I emailed Kerry with the video link and also sent it to David and Teresa who were keen to see my efforts, and then I began to make preparations for the day ahead which would involve two more shows at Winterthur. I probably wouldn’t have time to return to the Inn between commitments, so I made sure that I had everything that I would need.
Back at Winterthur the old store was deserted, and I went into the auditorium to check that everything on the stage was correctly placed for the first show, and also retrieved my costume from the night before, which I had left airing on the coat check rack at the back of the hall. Lois arrived and we went through the schedule of the day, and then I retired to change, while she sorted out her volunteers who would be greeting the audience.
At 1 o’clock I made my way to the hall, and asked Lois to place a mask on the side of the stage for me, so that if I got collared by various audience members after the show again, at least I could have some protection.
The first show went very well, and the audience was full of a lot of people who had seen the performance often, meaning we all had great fun together. It felt more relaxed than the evening before as I had learned my lesson about not trying too hard. It was a good show.
When the question and answers were done, and I had posed for a couple of (masked) pictures, I went back to my office and changed, and when I was sure that the hall was empty, I hung my costume on the rack again. I had a couple of hours to kill now, and Lois bought me a salad from the cafeteria, which was much needed. When I had finished eating, I went back to the stage and sat in the big red armchair on the set, it being the most comfortable place to rest.
The evening’s timetable was slightly different from the previous two, in that the show was reserved for members of Winterthur, and they had been promised a special pre-show event, during which there would be canapes and wine served, and at which I would make an appearance. It had been decided that it would be a good idea to do the question-and-answer session then, so I needed to be in costume at 4.45. The reception was in the cafeteria and when I came in there were plenty of people already eating, but they were spread widely throughout the large room, which would make being heard difficult. I took up a position as centrally as I could, and opened the floor to questions, which flowed freely. One of the last inquiries was ‘Do you think that Charles Dickens would be proud of you?’ I had to pause to consider this, because that is quite a thought, but eventually I answered, ‘I think that he would be, yes, because I am following his theatrical dream’. I followed up by saying that ‘However, if you should see a lightning bolt strike me down on the stage, you will know I was wrong!’
It was now 5.15 and the show was due to start at 6, so I wound the session up and returned to the office, or ‘the bunker’ as Lois christened it, to relax and prepare. I was aware that I had over-used my voice in the cafeteria, so I drank a lot of water, sucked some Fisherman’s Friends lozenges, and did a few deep breathing exercises.
At 6 I stood at the back of the hall, which was almost full, and after Lois had made her introductory remarks, I took to the stage for the final time on this visit. The opening of the show was fairly uneventful, and I was keeping up a good pace, and then I noticed that I had company on stage – a little beetle, possibly a Shield Bug judging by its shape, was strolling around, apparently checking out what I was doing: I had joked about the lightning bolt coming from Charles Dickens, but perhaps he had come to check on me in the form of a bug! I became transfixed by my new companion, and whenever I could I checked his whereabouts so as not to tread on him (if it were a reincarnation of my great great grandfather, it would be a rather ignominious end to be squashed under a decsendant’s boot). As Fezziwig’s wild dance approached, the beetle crawled to the edge of the stage, as if he realised that he was in mortal danger, and then when the dance was over, he came back to centre again.
On the play went, and I managed to avoid him, until eventually he disappeared. At moments when I was on my knees, I checked the pattern in the rug to make sure I hadn’t squished him but there was no sign. Maybe he had deemed himself satisfied with my efforts and taken flight. My very own Sprit of Christmas standing by me!
Anyway! The show itself went very well and came to a great end with a loud and long standing ovation. Having done the Q&A preshow there was no need to do another one now, but I was aware of Lois standing at the edge of the stage clutching a book and when the audience sat down, she thanked Dennis for his efforts in the sound box (every cue had worked perfectly at every show), and then thanked me for coming and presented me with a Winterthur gift book, which had been signed by many of the staff as well as lots of audience members.
I felt very moved by the kind gesture and left the stage to yet more applause.
The first thing I did on returning to the dressing room was to check the bottom of my shoe, and, to mis-quote my show, there was ‘Noooooo Bug!’
Now I had to pack up and make sure that I had everything, as I would be moving on the next day, so I took quite a time hanging costumes collecting cufflinks and the watch, making sure I had my signing pen, and everything else. When I emerged, there was a young man waiting for me clutching a very early edition of A Christmas Carol, maybe a second, third or fourth edition. Unfortunately, I am not an expert, so I couldn’t verify exactly which it was, but I gave him some suggestions as to how to find out. It was such a privilege to hold the little edition, and although it was not in pristine condition, the quality of the coloured illustrations was extraordinary. The books were originally printed with black and white engravings of John Leech’s illustrations, and each of those was then hand tinted with watercolour, meaning that no two early editions can ever be exactly alike. The richness of the colour in this edition was amazing, particularly the Ghost of Christmas Present whose robes were an incredibly deep and rich emerald green. To hold an edition from 1843 or 1844 is always a very special connection to the origins of the story.
It was time to leave, and Lois had invited me to share dinner with her family, so I followed her car into a neighbourhood in the suburbs of Wilmingtom, where her husband and two sons were waiting. The two boys were fascintaed to know about England and pressed me with a never-ending series of probing questions., some more difficult to answer than others: ‘What is your favourite British word?’, for example. It was a lovely, relaxing way to come down from the two days of performances at Winterthur, and we ate Barbeque in rolls, and salads, followed by cheesecake and cookies, and we talked and laughed. Soon it was time to leave, and after having a picture with the boys in front of the Christmas tree, and saying goodbye and thank you to Lois, I drove back to the Fairville Inn, where I hung my shirts from the day’s performances in the cupboard to air, and then retired for the night.
Friday morning promises to be quite busy, with a radio interview at 9.30, followed by my Covid test at 10 – fingers crossed, one and all!