On Sunday the USA leg of my 2021 tour came to an end, with a single afternoon performance of A Christmas Carol at Byers’ Choice, but the business of the day began early, with the two issues that had haunted me the previous night.
Firstly, there was the subject of my Covid test, taken two days earlier on my way to Lewes, and from which I would need a negative result to be allowed back into England. As of Sunday morning, no notification had arrived, so I started researching the possibility of getting another test, hopefully with an instant turnaround, at Philadelphia airport after my show. The other issue was that of the TV and the coverage of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which was due to start at 7am. The televisions at The Montgomeryville Quality Inn give you the option of casting your own content from a phone or laptop, and if you happen to want to watch regular programming, you simply press the button marked ‘TV’. Unfortunately, in room 215, the TV button had no effect. At 6.30 I went to reception, where Cynthia, the night manager, was coming to the end of her shift. She gave me a new remote, in case the batteries in mine were fading, and I went back upstairs to try again, with the same result as before. Back down I went, and eventually she offered to let me change rooms, which was very kind of her. I was now in room 207, and to my relief I discovered that I could indeed get to ESPN2 and watch the full build-up to the race, as well as the epic event itself. Fortunately, I had spent the early part of the morning packing my suitcases, so it was easy to transfer all of my things along the corridor from one room to another.
As all of this was going on I was also doing a final sneaky bit of laundry, as I didn’t have a fresh shirt to wear during the day and on my flight home, and while I was shifting things from washer to drier, I also collected the ‘Grab and Go’ breakfast offered by the hotel: I chose a sachet of oatmeal, to cook in my room’s microwave, a sausage and egg muffin, some orange juice and a coffee, and as I settled down to eat in front of the TV I received a text message confirming that my Covid test result had come back negative. My stars were aligning.
At 8am the race started. I won’t go into details, but it built up to a suitably exciting and controversial climax to an exciting and controversial season – everything boiled down to the very last lap before we knew who was crowned the 2021 World Champion.
With the race over, I resumed my packing (remembering to retrieve my dried laundry) and loaded the car up ready to drive back to Byers’ Choice. When I arrived, I took all of my cases into the office as I would need to pack my top hat and cane into the large one, and the costume that I would be wearing into my hand luggage. The offices were deserted when I arrived, so I sat in the boardroom and completed all of the oxymoronic online paperwork for my flight home.
Soon Bob appeared and said hello, and shortly afterwards Dave appeared with the microphone. Outside the lines were beginning to form for the biggest show of the year and as they were ushered in, I got into costume. I drank water and sucked on a Fisherman’s Friend throat lozenge to ensure a smooth show, and then sat at the desk and played a little backgammon on my phone, until it was time to walk to the hall. The room was already packed, and the high school choir were struggling to make themselves heard over the general hubbub, indeed one disgruntled parent was suggesting to Dave that he should make an announcement to ask the audience to be quiet and listen to the carols.
1.30 soon ticked around, so Bob and I went into our well-grooved routine and to get the show started. The large audience were certainly enthusiastic (is it were or was? Is an audience a plural or a singular? hmmmm), and I gave a what I believed to be a very good final performance: no carolers fell off their table and I didn’t try anything clever with candlesticks, meaning that I had a problem-free run to the finish line. The cheering and whooping and loud cries of ‘BRAVO!’ that started almost before I had finished ‘God bless us, every one’ were amazing, and the applause continued loudly as I returned to bow to all corners of the room.
As I left the stage, Bob walked onto it, and called me back for the final question and answer session of the season. A question that has come up fairly often, in varying forms, is about the text I use and how much it is changed from the original, and I answer that everything is based on the text that Charles Dickens himself had prepared for his readings, so is almost completely lifted from the original. One fairly obvious modern departure is the gross manipulation of old Joe’s snot. Obviously, Dickens didn’t write that particular description, but the passage that he DID write passage creates the sense of repulsiveness, that I try to capture:
‘They left the busy scene, and went into an obscure part of the town, where Scrooge had never penetrated before, although he recognised its situation, and its bad repute. The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.’
One change I have made during this year’s performances, just in the last few days of the tour in fact, has been to keep that atmosphere through the following scene and and so have made Mrs Dilber and Joe less figures of fun, but more downtrodden victims of society.
Another moment is when Scrooge surprises Bib Cratchit by telling him that he will raise his salary, and I, in the guise of Bob, stand and use the stool to fend off this apparently madman. Again, as with Joe’s nasal explorations, in the book Cratchit doesn’t do this, but he does get ‘…. a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.’ So, once more, even though I don’t use the line of narrative, I do capture the essence of the .original text..
Bob had been careful to choose a variety of questions that had been submitted – some about Dickens, some about A Christmas Carol and some about me, and the sessions have proved to be very popular. Maybe it is something we will think about continuing next year, even if there are no Covid restrictions in place by then.
When we had finished up on stage I returned to the boardroom and began packing my cases for the journey home, and by the time the top hat hat had been stuffed with socks, and wrapped in the woolly scarf to protect its shape, and everything else had been carefully folded and stowed, the Byers’ Choice team were well into the task of converting the 700-seater theatre into a production floor once more.
I found David up a tower, taking all of the theatrical lights down, and called up my thanks for all of his amazing work.
Jeff and Jake were packing chairs away, and I said goodbye and wished them the best for what will be very difficult Christmas season. I said goodbye to Pam, who always does such an incredible job in creating my tour, and finally to Bob who masterminds this whole crazy project on my behalf.
I loaded up the Rogue and set off towards a golden sunset, destination Philadelphia airport, and ultimately London.
As ever it had been a fun tour, with so many enthusiastic audiences and great people to work with. It is strange, but I haven’t felt desperately Christmassy during the weeks on the road, and I think that there is still a nervousness hanging over society which looks to the next year with a sense of suspicion. But for 75 minutes in a variety of rooms and halls throughout the North East of America, hopefully we could all forget those concerns and revel in Charles Dickens’ ‘ghostly little book’ and convince ourselves that we can honour Christmas in our hearts and try to keep it ALL the year!
Merry Christmas and thank you to everyone who has followed my American adventures over the last month, or so.