The Sixth State

I have a quite an early start this morning as I have a three hour drive ahead of me culminating in a sound check at 11.30.

The first job is collect the load of laundry that sat in the drier overnight, and set another load going.  Back in my room I carefully fold and pack, and then try to collate all of the generous gifts into one bag to take with me on the road.

I go to the lobby for breakfast where I join a few other early risers.  A local network is broadcasting on the television and a very enthusiastic meteorologist informs us that it is ‘A GREAT day to be alive!’ He even has a graphic conforming his statement. The assertion of the day’s greatness is based purely on the fact that its going to very cold and clear all day.

Having finished breakfast I go and retrieve the final load from the laundry and finish my packing and leave the hotel at 8am.  The car is under a shroud of ice and it takes quite a while until the windows are clear enough for safe driving.  I set my SatNav for Delaware (my sixth state since arriving on Black Friday, which isn’t bad going) and also an alarm for 9am, as I have to stop on route to conduct a live radio interview at 9.10 and it would be all too easy to forget.

A new Morse novel, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn is my companion and soon I am driving down route 15 towards Harrisburg.  As ever on this road the advertisements  are a strange mix, from the gaudy and expensive billboards proclaiming the services of realtors or lawyers, to a chalked notice on a rough patch of ground which leaves no doubt as to what the vendor is offering: ‘Dirt Cheap Cars!’  If I was so disposed, and had our cat Ruby with me, I could even attend the special event this weekend – ‘Pet Photos With Santa.’

Traffic is fairly light and the sky is absolutely beautiful this morning, a few wispy high level clouds decorating the Wedgewood blue.

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When my 9am alarm sounds I am close to Harrisburg and find a car park to pull into ready for my interview.  Soon I am chatting to Warren Lawrence on a New York station, and as we have spoken before  the interview is much more relaxed than some.  I sit in my car with the mini Statue of Liberty behind me, standing proudly on the parapet of a long demolished bridge in the middle of the Susquehanna.

I skirt Harrisburg, entering Lancaster County and Amish country, where the sight of horse-drawn gigs is no longer a novelty, but quite natural.  Today is the day of President Bush’s funeral and I notice that the large majority of the huge American flags hanging at half mast seem to be very new and bright, and I wonder if businesses keep a ‘special’ flag in storage for such occasions.

A shining chromium diner in Soudersburg proudly states that they serve ‘Food like Grandmas!’ and I try to remember what my Grandmother’s food was like and realise with sadness that I can’t  actually remember her cooking at all.

There are a few snow flurries in the air as I pass the Fairville Inn, which will be my temporary home tonight, and drive on towards the magnificent Winterthur Estate.  Winterthur was one of the great homes belonging to the DuPont family and I have been performing in the visitor centre here for 8 years or so.

My journey comes to an end in the car park and I carry my costumes and roll my roller down the slope and into the gift shop where I am welcomed by Barbara who is charge of retail here.  The routine is a familiar one and soon I am established in Barbara’s office which serves as my dressing room.  There is a large bowl of fruit on the desk, as well as a mug and a selection of teas, not to mention a squeezy bottle of honey.

In no time we are joined by Ellen who is responsible for staging my events at Winterthur and we go into the auditorium where I set the stage so that it is ready for the show.  The Copeland Hall is basically a lecture hall but a couple of years ago Ellen had a stage set built for me, meaning that I was not on an empty stage in front of a curtain.  The ‘walls’ are painted a gorgeous Georgian blue and are hung with paintings, giving a real sense of permanency and solidity.  Green garlands and Poinsettias give the whole set a festive feel.

Ellen and I chat about the year’s events and she is so excited to hear our news.

But outside the audience is already gathering and are getting restless (there is an hour to go before showtime), so I return to my dressing room and Ellen opens the sluice gates!

As I sit I check my phone and notice that there are two very lovely comments on my blog site from audience members who had attended the shows in Lewisburg.  Thank you for taking the time to write, and I am delighted that you enjoyed the show so much.  I sip tea as I wait.

At 12.30 it is time to get into costume and when I am ready I go and join Ellen in the store and greet audience members as they arrive.  In particular I am looking out for two particular people and soon I spy David Keltz and his wife Teresa perusing the shelves and making a purchase.  As regular readers will know Davis is a fellow actor who portrays Edgar Allan Poe and it as with great pleasure that I was able to introduce him to Ellen last year which led to David performing at Winterthur this October.  David and Teresa have been such good supporters of mine of the years and is always a joy to see them.  A bonus this year is that they are also staying at the Fairville Inn, so we will have plenty of time to catch up later.

A major change in the organisation of Winterthur this year was the retirement of the director David Roselle, so my introduction to the stage will never again feature his favourite line that anyone seen using a cell phone would be removed to the catacombs!  Instead the new director Carol Cadou will introduce me, although Ellen is slightly concerned in that Carol is in a meeting and there is no sign of her, so just in case she puts Jeff, who has done the job before, on standby and we chat in the shop as he mentally prepares himself for what he is going to say.

With minutes to spare however Carol sweeps in and with a firm shake of the hand and a warm greeting she is ready to take to the stage.  Jeff is stood down and the adrenaline gently disperses.

I stand at the back of the hall as Carol speaks clearly and fluently, commanding attention from her audience, well most of them, for the lady I am standing next to is intently reading something on her phone which catches my eye: she is reading my blog!

With the introduction finished Dennis up in the lighting box plays my sound cue and I walk to the stage to begin.  The Copeland Hall is remarkable in its design in that it is a perfect sound chamber.  Although a long hall, the sound of a speaker’s voice is amplified naturally and no electronic enhancement is necessary .  No mic = nothing to go wrong, so why cant all halls be built like this?  What did architects know then that they don’t know now?

Actually the hall underwent a revamp this year, with new lighting, a new sound system and new seating, I was terrified that whatever they did might ruin the perfect acoustic, but no it is as good as ever.

The show is good and once again I have plenty of room to roam.  As ever when David is in the audience I become very aware of my technique and try to make all of the transitions between characters as perfect and crisp as possible.  The audience are a large and good group and as with many venues on tour, a loyal group too.

The new ‘dead Tiny Tim’ scene works very well, especially as Ellen had decorated the little table where I lay the cloth with silver candlesticks, meaning that it looks even more as if  the tiny body has been laid out prior to a meagre funeral.

The door to the hall is right at the back, there is no access to the shop or my dressing room from the stage itself , so after I have taken my bows I have to exit quickly to get changed or I get will caught up among everyone leaving. The effort is made more difficult as the audience are still all standing making their egress more easy and mine more tricky but I manage to make it back to the office before the bulk of the audience comes out  I gulp water, for it has been another energetic adventure and then change slowly, before heading to the cafeteria where a table and a line of people are waiting for me.  Ellen is marshalling the line and makes sure that she has people’s phones and cameras ready to take photos, as well as ensuring that books are open to the correct page to be signed.

People are so generous in their praise and it is lovely to chat to those who have attended before (again some people have come here from Hershey, and some from Virginia) and others nervously admit that this is their first time as if they are not sure how to behave now that they are members of this club!  One jocular gentleman says ‘if you don’t mind may I give you a piece of advice?  cant you get a little more energy into your presentation?!’

Last in line are David and Teresa and we arrange to meet up again when we are all at the Fairville.  I change and hang my costumes up before saying goodbye and getting into my car to make the short drive, across the state line back into PA, and the beautiful Inn.

I have my regular room, upstairs in Spring Cottage and once we are settled the three of us meet in the main building and enjoy tea and cookies in front of the fire.  We chat about our years, and I am delighted that David comments on my show, particularly the crisp transitions between characters!

Rick, who owns the Inn with his wife Laura, chats to us also but the happy ambience is broken slightly by another guest who arrives in the parlour and asks, no demands, of Rick ‘is the TV in here better than in our room?’

Rick is a little nonplussed: ‘I don’t know how to answer that.’

‘Is it better?’

‘I don’t know what you mean by better.’

‘Let me rephrase my question then.  Is it good?’

‘Well we have Comcast cable, they show movies and news and local’

‘We have that at home and I don’t like it!’

Sigh, it just seems so unnecessary.  If you want millions of fabulous channels to watch then don’t stay in a beautiful historic B&B, go to the local Holiday Inn, or somewhere, and don’t make such a vocal public fuss just to assert yourself.

I am meeting Ellen and Rob, the finance director of Winterthur, for dinner at 6 so David and Teresa and I finish our tea and cookies and go our separate ways for the evening.

Dinner is at Buckleys Tavern, a favourite old haunt, and it is packed with Christmas parties, meaning that we have to wait in the little entrance vestibule while an ever more harassed hostess tries to find tables for an ever growing crowd.  As we pass the time Ellen mentions the remarkable coincidence that for the corresponding performance last year we had an audience of 216, whereas this year we had 214.

Eventually a table is found for us and we settle down to a most enjoyable and convivial dinner.  I am hungry having not had lunch today, and I order a plate of good old bangers and mash to remind me of home.

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Our waitress is an older lady, rather slow on her feet but very friendly, chatty and efficient so it is with a sense of guilt that I can’t get the ‘Two Soups’ sketch featuring Victoria Wood and Julie Walters out of my mind.  If you don’t know it here is a link:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04zcmt2

We chat and we laugh and we eat and the evening is wonderful.

There is a positively festive feel as we emerge into the cold night.  The day’s dusting of snow and the beautiful Christmas lights which decorate so many houses make the scene almost unreal.

I get in my car and return to the Inn where I watch a little television (a Harry Potter film, I’m not even sure which one!) and then get ready for bed and sleep.

Tomorrow I will be back at Winterthur for two more shows.

 

 

Are the Lambs Screaming?

For the first time ever I have time to spare in Lewisburg.  Usually I drive here on the morning of the shows, arrive at 11, do a sound check and then the performances, before going to bed and leaving early the next morning.

This year however I have a morning to myself. After writing my blog post and availing myself of the breakfast I return to my room and spend an hour or so catching up on some work (sourcing both Christmas Presents and a few new sound affects taking most of my time).

After my time in front of the screen is done I put on my scarf, for it is very cold outside, and prepare to go out for the morning.  As I leave the room I find a letter on the floor telling me that the hotel is changing all of the locks during the day (I know that I am somewhat of a disruptive rock diva, but changing the locks while I am out seems a trifle unnecessary!).

I have decided to actually explore the town of Lewisburg today as I have never been there.  To me Lewisburg has always been a country store and a hotel next to a busy highway but over the years many people have told me what a beautiful historic downtown area there is and I am keen to explore.  Sure enough A short drive brings me in the centre of a most  beautiful town.

It seems to be predominantly Victorian and in a very good state of preservation.  The houses are sturdy brick built edifices and are painted in the most delicious array of colours, the Chrurches are tall and stately.

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Running past the town is the Susquehanna River, which brought life and commerce to all of the communities that nestled against its banks. A modern bridge carries traffic into the town, but just upstream is a fabulous rusting crossing, just a single track wide, that either provided a route for early automobiles or more likely a train service.

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The whole town reminds me of St Cloud in Minnesota, both in architecture and situation.

A further walk brings me to the ‘Famous Street of Shops’ which is s sort of an indoor flea market comprising hundreds of individual areas selling antiques or crafts.   I spend a long time mooching and surveying.

Eventually I return to my car and set to drive back to the hotel when I notice a sign directing me to an antiques centre set in a towering old mill building.  Liz and I love spending time in such places, and I still have plenty of time to spare, so antiques it is (I can never bring myself to use the word antiques as a verb, as the Americans do: I am British and do NOT go ‘antiquing’ any more than I ‘golf”

The antique centre is fabulous and alongside the inevitable small pieces of china, books, kitchenalia and toys there are copious amounts of snow shoes!

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I resist the urge to purchase, which is not easy, and spend a very happy forty minutes or so wallowing in American social history.

But work is calling and I return to the hotel in good time to prepare for my soundcheck at 11.30.  As I walk through the corridors I notice that each room has a little brown box next to the door which I assume are the new locks waiting to be fitted.  In my room I pack my roller bag up, and walk the very short distance around the ornamental pond to the Country Cupboard store where I will be performing twice today.  The room that I use as my green room is at the back of the building and I can see that the door is wedged open, so  I go in and find my dear friend KJ getting her equipment ready.  KJ is a singer who has always entertained the audiences here with a beautiful selection of carols and Christmas songs and we have become good friends over the years.  We have a big hug, and then I go into the main room itself, which is laid out theatre style, and where I find Missy who is our ‘boss’ here.  Missy also has become a good friend, and the three of us make a great team.

The stage is fabulous (larger than in previous years) and state of the art LED lights illuminate it very effectively.  Missy tells me that a new sound system was installed yesterday, and nervously listens as I d a sound check – it is fine and sounds great.  ‘Now,’ I ask, ‘about the music…’  and before I finish the sentence ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’ is playing throughout the room.  Missy still had the file carefully saved from last year.

And, other than hiding the two little toys in a spruce and candle decoration at the front of the stage and draping my red cloth over the arm of the chair, my preparations are done.

 

Missy, KJ and I sit on the front of the stage chatting about this and that, but the audience are already clamouring (apparently one member rather too energetically so) and it is time to get on.  Before I return to my room though KJ asks if I would meet her parents who are coming to see the show for the first time.  Both are in their 80s, and both are sprightly, most especially her father who is proud veteran of the Marine Corps.  We have a wonderful chat and pose for pictures before I tell them that I must go and change.  ‘Never change young man!’ is the advice that accompanies me out of the door.

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Walking back to my room I notice that some of the boxes by the door have been opened, and the tide of new locks is flowing  through the hotel with a slow but menacing progress.

At 12.30 I return to the main building and in my dressing room put my microphone on, and make sure that all is in order.  KJ is already on stage singing and encouraging the audience to join in, and they sound a pretty lively bunch.  When I am ready I wait for a gap between songs, and then slip into the room and make my way to the back to join Missy. There waiting for me is a tiny carafe of hot water, a tea bag and a pack of honey.  A few years ago I arrived at the Country Cupboard with a very sore throat and scratchy voice and told Missy that tea and honey was just the thing and ever since she has made sure that such a brew is available to me before the show.

It is a big crowd this afternoon, and most of them have come in Christmas attire meaning that the predominant colour in the auditorium is red.  KJ finishes her set with a special rendition of Jingle Bells accompanied by her father energetically jingling bells, which is very moving to watch.  The crowd applaud loudly and then the stage is mine.

Oh what fun I have!  All of that space on stage gives me full rein to perform the show as I want it to be performed, and the intimacy of the room, and the lights, and the sound system, and my day off, and my relaxing morning, and goodness knows what other influences, make this one of the best shows of the year so far.

The audience are fabulous and follow along attentively – in one case very attentively as there is a girl in the front row with her face buried in a copy of A Christmas Carol.  I remember her from last year and she must have remembered how I have edited the story for she is not phased as I skip the various passages in my adaptation.

The standing ovation at the end is a great reward for a job well done.  I am proud of myself this afternoon.

I go back to my room and change into my dry replacement costume and then go to the little signing table that has been set up at the back of the room.  There is a long line waiting and I sign and pose for photographs and chat.  There are two ladies in the line who have seen me previously at Hershey but due to my not performing there this year have tracked me down to Lewisburg.  They are astounded by what they have seen and couldn’t believe that it was the same show!  My performances at the Hotel Hershey are always somewhat compromised by the geography of the rooms, and the ladies say that here they fully appreciated all of the expressions and nuances that they had missed in years past.  They will be back here they exclaim.  I can see that Missy is rather pleased at that!  Later in the line there are more people that have come from Hershey and who share the same thoughts with me

And so the line continues, and I am given gifts.  Lots of generous gifts!  I am given home made pretzels and cards and candy canes, A Christmas Carol ornaments and a Christmas sweater!  Yes a sweater showing a field of sheep with the legend ‘BAAAA HUMBUG’ above them.  Even better than that when you push a button the sheep bleat to the accompaniment of Christmas music.  Actually the bleating has a rather sinister air to it and somewhere in the back of my mind Hannibal Lecter is saying ‘Well Clarice – have the lambs stopped screaming?

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When the line is finished KJ tells me that she thinks that that was the best performance I have done here, and I think she is right!

I go back to the hotel to change into my normal clothes and discover that the lava flow of lock replacement has reached my room, and there are two engineers attending to my door.  I hide in the little kitchenette alcove to change, continuing a conversation as I do so, and remerge from the room a 21st century being.

Between shows it has become a tradition that Missy, KJ and I have a quiet lunch/supper at the fabulous Country Cupboard buffet.  The choice is amazing, but I restrain myself to some chicken, vegetables and potatoes – avoiding anything dairy based.  I am envious of KJ’s plate of mac and cheese and wonder why her throat isn’t effected as mine is.

The three of us sit and chat and it is a wonderfully relaxing and gentle time, as it always is.  But time and tide wait for no man and soon the audience for the evening show is arriving and we must all get back on duty.  I return to the hotel once more, this time via the front desk as I need to get my new key, although I also have to keep my old one as the exterior doors to the hotel have yet to be changed.

I have about an hour to relax and so treat myself to another relaxing, yet energising, jacuzzi bath.  At 6.30 I get into costume once more and walk back to the room where, as this afternoon, KJ is already singing and chatting to the evening crowd.  I replace the battery in my microphone, clip it on and go to wait with Missy and my tea and the back of the room.

6.55. Missy signals to KJ to go into her final song.  Check my costume, check my microphone….AGGGHHHHH the clip has broken and the mic is dangling around.  I tell Missy who immediately signals to KJ to ‘keep singing’ and then we run through the kitchens to her office and frantically locate a little sprung file clip (which have come to my rescue many times over the years, and which I should really have in my roller bag as part of an emergency kit).  Our quest is successful and despite rather fumbling fingers I get the mic clipped onto my shirt and I am ready once more.

Back to the room, another signal to KJ, an answering nod, a final chorus of ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’ and I am on.

I am slightly worried that I will not recapture the energy and exuberance of this afternoon’s show, but I am wrong.  The audience this evening is even more vocal, especially one lady who laughs so loudly at every scene that I assume she must have seen the show before.  Her giggles in the Mrs Cratchit pudding scene are completely infectious and I have to struggle very hard not to ‘corpse’.  This lady is living proof of Dickens’s own line: ‘There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour’

It is another wonderful show, with another wonderful audience.  The signing line is even longer this evening, despite the crowd being smaller, and this time folk have driven from Virginia to see the show because I am not appearing in Williamsburg this year – that is a real double coup for Missy!  I meet the laughing lady and am astounded to discover that she had never seen the show before, but just loved every second!

And so the room that has been the vessel for so much laughter today falls silent once more and just Missy, KJ and I remain.  After posing for a picture of the three of us sat on the stage (we look rather like the three wise monkeys), we say our goodbyes for another year and go our separate ways.  Yup, we are a good team.

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Having changed I set a load of washing going  (this is the last hotel that has laundry facilities, although Pam is always very generous in taking bags back to chez Byers for me), and then return to Matty’s where Missy has sent word that dinner is on her, which is incredibly generous.  The bar is almost deserted when I go in, and completely deserted as I leave.

I stop by the laundry room, put my load of costume shirts into the drier and leave them overnight.  Tomorrow morning I have a fairly early start, so I get into bed and after reading about two lines of Hidden Figures I fall asleep.

 

 

A Day Of Rest On The Road

Today I have my only day off in this part of the tour, and although I have a five hour drive ahead of me there are no deadlines to meet.

A glance out of the window reveals another misty morning although not to the extent of yesterday and there is the hint that the sun may disperse the cloud when it feels like getting up.

At around 9 o’clock I walk to the main building which is devoid of other guests, so much so that the hotel maintenance crew has chosen this morning to redecorate the lobby, meaning that I have to navigate a maze of ladders and dust sheets before reaching the Bistro.

Even as I sit sipping orange juice and eating fresh fruit the view outside the window improves and it looks as if it will be a lovely day to drive.  Bacon and eggs follows and the weather matches my order: sunny side up.

As I sit reading Hidden Figures I wonder is it really necessary to have the four huge TV screens behind the bar showing last night’s basketball and football?  The shows are all analysis shows, meaning that the action keeps breaking so we can see experts in deep conversation, but there is no sound thereby rendering the whole thing pointless.  The gaudy images flash into the elegant bar like a sort of visual muzak.

Back in my room and I record a bedtime story to send home, and then pack all of my cases up ready to move on out.

I renegotiate the ladder maze in the lobby to check out and with a cheery ‘have a great day, sir’ in my ears I am on my way.

My route today takes me south following the coast of Long Island Sound as far as Rye, at which point I head west.  The sun is fully up now and it is a sunglasses sort of a day.  The unabridged Morse novel ‘Last Seen Wearing’ should keep me company throughout the journey.

As I drive through Connecticut I pass a turn for the Merritt Parkway and have fond and nostalgic memories of  performing for Gary and Jennifer Bean at the Historic Christmas Barn, which had become a regular stop on my tour but sadly was one of this year’s casualties.

At Bridgeport I pass the Honeyspot Motor Lodge which really looks like it should be a 1960s museum piece: Anthony Perkins step forward.

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On towards the beautiful skyline of New Haven with a gold dome twinkling in the morning sun.  Charles Dickens himself visited the city and said of it :

‘New Haven, known also as the City of Elms, is a fine town. Many of its streets (as its ALIAS sufficiently imports) are planted with rows of grand old elm-trees; and the same natural ornaments surround Yale College, an establishment of considerable eminence and reputation. The various departments of this Institution are erected in a kind of park or common in the middle of the town, where they are dimly visible among the shadowing trees. The effect is very like that of an old cathedral yard in England; and when their branches are in full leaf, must be extremely picturesque. Even in the winter time, these groups of well-grown trees, clustering among the busy streets and houses of a thriving city, have a very quaint appearance: seeming to bring about a kind of compromise between town and country; as if each had met the other half-way, and shaken hands upon it; which is at once novel and pleasant.’

Sometimes it is just best to let the master take over!

To my left throughout this first part of the drive is the sea, shining like a highly polished silver plate, and the glare from it is so great that any features of land or building have become indistinct silhouettes.

When I reach Old Greenwich (really?  I think I know an older one) I finally leave the ocean behind me and head west entering the state of New York and crossing the spectacular Tappen Zee Bridge from which I get a distant glimpse of the Manhattan skyline.

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From New York into New Jersey and the terrain gets more rural as I head further into the hills until the majestic vista of the Delaware Water Gap heralds my entrance to Pennsylvania.

I stop for a quick bite of lunch and then get back on the road.  I pass the ski resorts of the Poconos on my left, and admire the gentle terrain of the Pennsylvanian countryside, the browns and muted greens of winter dotted by red barns, like holly berries.

I am driving towards Lewisburg which is right in the middle of the state, and it is a venue that I have visited many times before, but this is a different drive altogether.  Usually I drive from Hershey to Harrisburg and from there follow the beautiful Susquehanna river through Liverpool and on towards my destination.  The landmarks on the road have become so familiar to me over the years and I rather miss them, for my route today is bringing me in from the east, rather than from the south.

Morse is still going, and it is one of the most ridiculously complicated plots I have ever heard!  Each chapter starts with a short quote from either the classics, a novel or popular culture and I am delighted when one begins with a quote from Oliver Twist.  There has been another familial reference in the book too, as sergeant Lewis favours the expression ‘That was a Dickens of a hard job!’

Finally I approach the Best Western Hotel at The Country Cupboard store and as I pull up in the car park ‘Last Seen Wearing’ finishes – that was a remarkable bit of timing considering that I left Water’s Edge at around 10 this morning

The friendly front desk staff all welcome me back as if I was last here a week ago, and in a moment I am back in my familiar room at the far end of the hotel which boasts a lovely deep and long jacuzzi bath (the bath tubs in most American hotels are so small as to render them pointless).  After such a long day in the car I think I deserve a dip, and soon am relaxing as the bubbles ease the stresses of the road away.

I relax for a while and then when it is dinner time walk across the parking lot to Matty’s Sportshouse where I enjoy a Ribeye steak and slice of cheesecake for my dinner.

Back at the hotel I watch some TV but drop off to sleep early.  Tomorrow I am back on stage.

‘It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal’

As morning dawns I open my curtains to allow the view of Long Island Sound to great me, and I am greeted by heavy low cloud and pelting rain.  A few people, mostly hotel bellmen, are scurrying across the parking lot with heads bowed against the elements.  I may be modifying  my remarks of yesterday when I said that I would  rather be here at this time of year rather than in the summer.

There is no breakfast service in the restaurant this morning, for The Water’s Edge Resort provide a huge, and very popular, Sunday Brunch.  Julia has booked me a table at 9, when the event opens, so that I have time to enjoy it before getting ready for my morning performance.

I bow my head and scurry across to the main building and am soon being led to a table next to the window which would usually have a magnificent view of the sea – today it is just cloud.  Attentive waiters surround me like bees around a hive, and soon I have water, orange juice and coffee laid before me.  The brunch buffet is magnificent and features a remarkable array of dishes, from humble toast to oysters in their shells.  There are joints of meat waiting to be carved, there are frittatas and pasta dishes, there are sweet cakes and jellies.  A magnificent Hanukkah inspired ice carving towers over the whole thing.

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I very much concentrate on the BR, it being too early for UNCH, and have some fresh fruit, some eggs (prepared by a chef to my liking) and bacon, some pastries and a croissant (the correct shape) and jam.  It is delicious.  As I sit I can hear the waiters talking to other guests: ‘are you going to the show this morning?’  ‘Yes, that’s right, we are looking forward to it!’  One couple wave hello and I chat to them as I leave.  They have seen me perform at Byers’ Choice in Chalfont before but this year have decided to treat themselves to an overnight stay at the resort.

I go back to my room (huddled and scurrying) and fetch a fresh shirt and pair of socks for the performance, everything else is still in my dressing room.  I stay in my room until 10.30 and then go back to the main building to prepare.  As I scurry I notice a party of four running toward the door, and gallantly wait for them to go first.  The young lady at the front smiles a thank you to me, but there is more, there is a recognition in the look too.  I do recognise her but for the life of me cant think where from.  I smile back and the moment passes.

The ballroom is locked when I arrive but in a moment Jeremy, one of the banquet captains from last night’s event, arrives and soon after Julia.  I am much more assertive about the lighting today and we come up with a solution that has the centre part of the large room (including the stage)  lit, whilst each side of the room is in darkness preserving a feel of an auditorium.   It will be much better than the gloom of last night.  Jeremy puts new batteries in the microphone and I check that, just turning it down a hair, so that there is no risk of distortion.

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At 11 o’clock the audience begins to gather and I go to change.  As 11.30 gets nearer I stand in the lobby and chat with Jeremy and Julia as the final guests arrive, among them the party of four I met in the wet car park.  Another nod and smile of recognition.

It is a smaller audience than last night’s dinner, maybe about 50 people, but they are certainly keen, many have been in their seats for half an hour.  Jeremy gives a very short introduction then starts my music on his laptop and I begin.  It is a much better performance, and a very energetic one!  I have noticed through this trip that I haven’t been getting nearly as hot as in previous years but today the sweat is certainly flying again.  Once again the audience is slightly ‘English’, that is to say a little reserved and quiet, but very attentive, and they certainly are enjoying the show, which is a relief for I can see them clearly (thanks to the lighting set up), so any disgruntlement would be clearly evident to me.

At the end of the show they all stand up and clap loudly as I bow.  I make my exit from the room and then wait as the audience leave.  Some have books to be signed, some just want to shake hands.  And then there is my party of four.  The girl who had smiled in the car park comes up ‘Hello! I’m Amy. Dave and Sue’s daughter!’  OF COURSE!  Dave is the brother of Martin, who is Liz’s sister (Sheila)’s husband.  Amy now lives in Connecticut and earlier this year married Tara.  They came to see me perform at Vaillancourts last year and have made the trip here to see me again, which is so kind of them.  We all chat for quite a while and have a great time catching up with our respective momentous years.

Soon however it is time to get changed and my work at The Water’s Edge is done.  Sadly Jeremy and Julia are long gone and there is nobody to say goodbye to or to thank and my departure from the ballroom feels rather anti-climatic.

I go back to my room and hang today’s costume up to air and check the time, it is almost 2 and I have decided that I am going to the cinema this afternoon.  My original plan for the free afternoon was to drive along the coast, but as the rain is as heavy as ever and the fog has descended even lower, that does not seem a wholly appealing prospect.  A quick online search this morning revealed the existence of a cinema just a mile or so away.  I could watch the second Magical Beasts film, but I’d much rather see that with Liz when I get home, so I plump for the Freddy Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Having purchased my ticket I order a hot dog for my lunch (somewhat limp it must be said) and take my seat.  Unsurprisingly the audience are all of a similar age and we all await the film eagerly.  The sound of popcorn and slurping accompanies the anticipation.

And then the trailers for other movies start and they go on and on and on and on….so long that some people have to go and get a popcorn refill before the main feature even begins (if the evidence left by previous attendees is anything to go by much of their popcorn may be on the floor).

The film is a wonderful tribute to the music of Queen and a fascinating history of the band.  The actors are amazing and it is difficult to watch Brian May and not believe that he is playing himself.  Gwilym Lee, who actually portrays May, has got his demeanour, gait, attitude and gentle character to perfection.

As each successive anthem blares out so the floor of the cinema trembles with lots of feet being stamped in time, most particularly as the seeds that would grow into We Will Rock You are sown.

It is definitely a feel good movie and the hugely emotional Live Aid concert that finishes the film is a fantastic celebration of an entire era. The view from the stage looking out across the massive expanse of humanity that packed Wembley stadium that day, makes my efforts in the Water’s Edge Ballroom this morning look rather insipid:  ‘HEY! YEAH HELLO WESTBROOK!’

Outside the fog is even heavier and it is quite difficult to navigate back to the hotel.  As I get out of the car I look toward where the sea should be and I feel slightly short changed, for there should be a mournful fog horn (fog horns are always mournful) , or a bell  clanging on a buoy, but no such sound comes from the ocean.

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In my room I check YouTube and watch the actual footage of Queen’s Live Aid set and I am amazed at how accurately the film makers recreated it – every strut, every gesture, every note was perfect.

It is late afternoon and the hotel is completely deserted now, which gives it a rather eerie feel, but it means that the washers and driers are available for me to use.  I do one load of my daily clothes and then go to have dinner in the bar.

I am sat alone, and order a salmon and fennel dish which is good.  I also treat myself to a pistachio gelato concoction which is equally delicious, and a coffee to finish things off.  I am rather relieved when another couple comes in to dine (I was getting rather worried that the entire hotel was staffed just to look after me tonight), and they had been at my show this morning, so we chat for a while until they order and I leave.

I feel like watching another nice feel good film tonight, so I download one of Liz and my favourites, The Glenn Miller Story with Jimmy Stewart, and lay on the bed and wallow in the gentle sounds of a bygone age.

 

A Little in the Dark

I wake up in my little apartment at the VNA Senior Living Centre and potter to my little kitchen where I put a pot of coffee on the brew, and will that is gurgling and dripping I start work on my blog.

Today I cant just mooch to breakfast when I feel like it, as it has been arranged that I will be hosted by Mary, one of the residents, and we are to meet in the lobby at 8am.  I prepare and present myself at the appointed hour and sure enough my date is waiting for me.

We go into the café area (in act my theatre from yesterday) and there is a smattering of applause as I take my seat.  We are joined by three other residents, and have a lovely time chatting about the show and Charles Dickens himself.  From time to time other people come and have a word or two, including Oscar the centenarian .  After a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, and a paper cup of coffee it is time to leave the party and start getting ready to move on.

I take my costumes to the car first and hang them over the rear seats and then return to collect my cases.  Mary is in the lobby and would like a photograph but her tablet is very slow to boot up, so I take one on mine which I will email to Linda.

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It is a beautiful day to drive and I am soon guiding the Rogue through the streets of Sommerville and over the Charles River and past the Harvard Business school, before joining my constant companion on this trip, the I-90 headed towards Worcester again.

Today I am headed for Connecticut and the Water’s Edge Resort in Westbrook.  This is another new venue for me, and it will be interesting to see how their method of staging the show will work.

I need to stop for fuel, and notice that the flags are flying at half mast in honour of President Bush snr.  Irrespective of ones political leanings, it is always sad when a person who has served their country diligently and selflessly passes away, and the limp flag represents a historical day.

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The miles and hours pass by in the company of Morse and Lewis and soon I am in Connecticut and headed toward the sea.  In amongst all of the usual English place names – Canterbury, Colchester and Norwich – there is suddenly a mainland European enclave comprising Hanover, Versailles and Baltic.

Eventually I turn onto a road called Shore End and the sat nav suggests that ‘At the end of the road turn right and you have reached your destination.’  That will be Water’s Edge then!

The resort looks fabulous at first glance, a collection of grey and white wooden apartment buildings gathered around the main hotel block, from behind which the sea glints and sparkles in the afternoon sun.

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I leave my cases in the car, assuming that I will be housed in one of the other buildings, and go into the lobby where I am greeted with a large picture of myself, promoting the events of this evening and tomorrow.

‘Name?’  ‘Dickens’  A double take from the girl behind the desk, a glance at the poster and she bursts out laughing.  ‘Of course you are!  Welcome to the Water’s Edge resort’

I am given the key to an upstairs room in a nearby block and delighted to discover that I am in another little suite, with a view across the ocean.  I leave my bags and walk down to the sea and spend a little time walking and admiring the view.  On the horizon Long Island seems to hover over the surface of the water.  It is a beautiful and relaxing view and there is only one other person on the beach gazing out to sea.  I can only imagine what these beaches must be like at the height of the summer and I decide that I am definitely here at the right time of the year.

 

I return to the main hotel and go to the bistro bar where I order some crabcakes for my lunch, which are delicious.

As soon as I get back to my room I get a phone call from Julia who is the contact here and who has worked with Pam Byers to create this event.  Julia would like me to take a look at the room and stage, so we arrange to meet back in the lobby in 5 minutes.

I am performing two events and tonight’s one will be during a dinner service, so the ballroom is laid out with large round tables which are in the process of being set.  Each setting has a green or red napkin carefully folded into the shape of a Christmas tree.

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The stage is wide and flanked by two beautifully decorated trees, on it there is a chair and hat stand of course, but the stool is a very modern bar stool with a vinyl cushion and a slatted back.  It looks very out of place, but unfortunately it is either that or chrome.

I am also slightly worried by the lighting on stage – the room is a bit dim, but the overhead lights cast a little glow on the stage, and there are small LED uplighters which may help as well.  Julia shows me a large room that is to be my green room, and then informs me that the sound check will be at 4.30. After which we go our separate ways, me back to my room and she back into the corporate world that keeps the Water’s Edge Resort functioning.  Strangely the feeling here is much the same as being at the Hotel Hershey.

At 4 I return to the ballroom and find a banquet supervisor making checks to the sound system, and when he is finished I take over.  The level is slightly high and there is a little feedback if I stray too close to the speakers, but it all seems very good.  The room is bustling with the waiting staff who are busily making the final preparations.  Orders are shouted out in broad NY accents, questions are asked, replies given.  Plates clatter and glasses clink.

In the corridor outside an extensive bar is being set up and a few early birds are already availing themselves of it’s services.

I go to my large green room only to find it being prepared for a bay shower, which Julia didn’t know about, so I am relocated into another room filled with poinsettias, bare trees, crates, carts, chairs and various other accoutrements of the Christmas season.  At a large table in the centre a waiter is sat monotonously folding napkins.  This is a working room and I will be sharing it this evening.

There are events all over the hotel tonight and as I get ready staff from all of them come and go and so I get to eavesdrop on hotel politics.

The guests arrive at 6, even though the event doesn’t start until 7, and soon the lobby is filled with noisy chat and the bar is doing good business.  Eventually the clock ticks around and I am called for.  I make sure that the microphone is switched on and not muted and peek into the hall.  To  my horror all of the lights are off and the little uplighters do no more than shed a coloured glow on the black back drape.  I am dressed in black.  The backdrop is black.  This could be a very dim performance.  I ask the banquet supervisor (a different one), if anything can be done but he says no, that would mean putting all the fluorescent overhead lights on which would spoil the atmosphere.  And with that, I am on.

I am performing in two acts, the first up to the point when Scrooge is left in his bed by the Ghost of Christmas Past.  I start and it is very like performing for an English audience, in that the responses and reactions are quite restrained.  I am a little worried that it is not really a huge success, but become aware that there are increasing amounts of chuckles and the silences are truly silent and not filled with shuffles and whispered comments.

There are a tables with young children who have been brought along in their pyjamas and they are a little restless, but little pools of blue light reflecting in their faces show that tablets are keeping them occupied.

I plough on, remembering not to rely to much on facial expression as I doubt that anyone other than those in the very front seats will see them, and the performance is a good one – intense and focussed.

I get to the end of the first act and receive a very nice round of applause, so things must be going alright.  I return to my room which is deserted now, as the staff are at the various events, and am brought a plate of turkey, beef, mashed potatoes and vegetables which is delicious.  When I have finished eating I pass the rest of the interval by playing Backgammon or Angry Birds on my phone.

At 8.15 a banquet supervisor (yet another different one!) comes to tell me that we are almost ready to start, and I return into the darkness where the story resumes.  Of course the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Present are much livelier and soon the room is gasping and oooh-ing over the goose.  I don’t pick a girl for Topper, as the tables in the front seem to be a little reserved and it may backfire on me.

As I get to the end I walk out to shake hands on Christmas morning and one young dude with a beanie hat on grabs my hand and shakes it vigorously ‘Merry Christmas man!’ he shouts out.

‘God Bless Us, Every One!’ and the applause is amazing and the room stands.  It has been an interesting evening and an exercise in keeping my concentration and not letting negative thoughts take over.

I wait outside the room and lots of people come and thank me and tell me how much they have enjoyed the evening.  Some are almost in tears as they shake hands.  There is no product being sold, so no formal signing, but it is lovely to chat with so many of the guests.

When they have left I return to the stage to set things up for tomorrow morning’s show, and then go back to my room to change.  I stop by the bar which is very busy and noisy with a live band playing, and order a glass of wine, and am amazed when the waiter informs me that it has been paid for by some other guests who had been at the show!  I join the couple and chat with them until it is time to go back to my suite.

In bed my last thought is that we must somehow improve the lighting for tomorrow.  And the rest is silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Injured!

Today I leave Lenox and The Berkshires, heading back towards Boston again.  As has been the case throughout this trip I don’t have to be away particularly early, so have time for a leisurely breakfast of fruit and yoghurt, accompanied by a blueberry muffin.

While I am having breakfast Liz calls from home and I take myself off to a quiet part of the lobby and we have a lovely video chat for a while.  The new, and ever improving, communication technology has really shrunk the world over the years that I have been touring.

Back in room 226 I pack everything up into my cases and take one last look at the snowy view before loading the car, setting the SatNav and driving back East.  The weather has warmed slightly since my arrival so the vistas are not quite as spectacular but it is still a beautiful drive.

I have downloaded the second Morse novel and this time I chose not to listen to Kevin Whately, but to Sam West reading it.  The new audiobook is better: the Kevin Whately one was obviously produced for the popular TV-fed market, it was quite highly abridged and changed various details to satiate a television audience (for example Morse’s car was changed from the literary Lancia to the small screen Jaguar, and the character of Lewis, who is an older sergeant in the books, was definitely played as Whately played him in the series).  Samuel West’s version seems to be a much truer reading of the novel.

As I drive I notice that I am passing Westfield Mass, where I performed a few times as part of their Westfield on Weekends (or WoW) festivals, and I bid them a silent ‘good luck’ for this year’s season as I speed on by.

My route takes me once again straight past Worcester, avoiding its gravitational pull I carry on towards Boston.  I am feeling a little tired, so decide to stop and buy a bottle of water, and while I am parked I check my phone, as it was pinging with a message coming in as I drove.

The message is from Linda Cornell at the VNA Senior Living Facility where I am due to perform at 2 this afternoon, and she is in rather a panic!

The problem of writing my blog in the present tense,a day in arrears is that if, for example I begin my musings by saying something like: ‘Today promises to be a very quiet day as I have no major performance’ and someone who has gone to great lengths to stage a major performance reads those musings over their breakfast, it is possible that they may get a tad worried: so it is with Linda this morning.

I send a reassuring reply promising to be at the facility in Sommerville at around 12.  The answering message from Linda comes instantly and the sigh of relief that accompanies it is almost audible.

The traffic is much heavier as I get closer to Boston and navigation is difficult.  On the outskirts of the City I pass the Perkins School for the Blind where both Charles and I have visited in the past.  Charles wrote a very moving and memorable chapter about his visit in American Notes, which encouraged the Keller family to send their daughter Helen to the school.

My route takes me towards the towers of Harvard (which seems apt as I listen to a plot set among the dreaming spires of Oxford) and then into the small city of Sommerville.  My English SatNav unit directs me to Lowell Street, and pronounces it to rhyme with Noel, which is rather sweet and festive, and I pull up in the car park of the VNA Centre.

In the reception area I am greeted by Linda  who gives me a great hug of welcome (and relief) and immediately starts fussing over me.  Everyone here is terribly excited about my visit and she wants everything to be perfect.

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Firstly she takes me to the room where I will be performing and proudly shows off the ‘stage’  At one end of the room she has rigged up a proscenium arch flanked with two red velvet curtains held back by large golden tassels.  It looks amazing and transforms what would have been a fairly featureless space into a rich and exquisite one.

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But Linda has left her piece de resistance until last: she proudly produces a long length of metal chain – ‘for Marley!’ she explains.  Instantly my mind is working as to how I can include the chain in the show, and how best it will work.

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As we chat so George, who is looking after the sound, arrives.  George is a cheerful Irish Bostonian who played in a band and has a background in live performance.  He cant do enough to make sure that things work well for me, and has even created a sort of collar to hold the microphone right in front of my mouth.  This contraption has been fashioned out of a wire coat hanger and some gaffer tape and looks rather like an angel’s halo from a nativity play  Unfortunately I think that with my scarf coming on and off, not to mention lengths of metal chain rattling around, this amazing invention wont work, and we decide to revert to simply clipping the microphone to my shirt.   We also discuss the music cues that George is happy to look after, and I print a copy of the script in the main office so that he can follow along.

With the set and sound fully approved I go to my little apartment which has been given to me for the length of my stay and settle in.  Linda has brought some sandwiches for me, as well as a plate of delicious home made banana bread.  She also obviously follows my blog as there is even a little envelope of quarters for the laundry, should I need it!

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I rest on the sofa for an hour or so, before getting into costume and returning to the performance room where the audience is gathering slowly.   They are sat on two levels as the room has a sort of atrium allowing people on the second floor, or in the dress circle as I christen it, to look down at the action.

At 2 o’clock the last of the walking frames has been parked in the corridor and everyone is in their seats. Linda makes a moving introduction, talking about her mother’s love of Dickens (I met them both at performances in the past), before handing the room to me.

The show goes well, and I get fully into the story.  Of course there are a few distractions, as some of the audience need to leave quickly and are helped by their care assistants, others gently doze and one lady announces rather loudly that ‘I want to leave!’  Behind me trains rattle and rumble at regular intervals.  But still the majority of the audience are following closely and reacting to the developing drama.

Marleys Ghost makes his entrance. I had decided to leave the chain carefully laid on the floor in front of the fireplace, so that I can grab an end and as Marley walks forward he is pulling it behind him.  The issue I have is how Marley can be wearing the chain and Scrooge not.  I get round this by extravagantly winding it around my neck and waving the ends in my hands when Marley is speaking, as if it were weightless, and then letting it drop, as though suddenly effected by a mortal being’s gravity, during Scrooge’s dialogue.  Unfortunately my twirling of the chain gets a little enthusiastic on one occasion and as I drop it a length of metal crashes across the bridge of my nose, leaving it feeling very tender indeed.

I successfully get to the end of the story and am rewarded by a wonderful standing ovation from both levels of my little theatre.

When the applause has died down I chat to many members of the audience and sign various bits and pieces.  Linda has a smile that could grace a Cheshire Cat and is taking pictures of everything.  One resident comes to talk and he is a sprightly, fit gentleman named Oscar who used to write book reviews for the Boston Globe.  We chat about the show and he offers me congratulations on the job I did.  Linda whispers into my ear ‘ask how old he is’.  Oscar hears that and announces that he is going to ignore the question.  Linda is determined though and spills the beans ‘he is nearly 101!’  ‘I am NOT!’  , replies Oscar with indignation, ‘I am 100 and 7 months’.  What a twinkle there is in his eye.

With the room clearing I go back to my apartment and change.  I take a look in the bathroom mirror and notice that there is small cut and the start of a bruise over my nose where Marley left his mark.

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I change quickly for Linda is taking me out for an early supper and soon we are driving through Sommerville to an Irish bar, The Burren, where George is waiting with his wife Joan.

Sommerville is a surprise, I have to say, it is obviously an energetic and lively city and even at this early hour the bar is filled with young folk talking loudly.  George (an Irish musician in Boston remember) says that come 9 pm when the live music starts there will not be room to move in here.

We have such a great evening, and I eat a delicious bowl of Irish stew cooked in a Guinness broth with a thick slice of soda bread on the side. Linda, George and Joan are excellent company and it is a really fun evening (well, late afternoon really).

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l-r: Joan, me, Linda, George

The bar is starting to get busy as we leave and I say goodbye to George and Joan, before being driven back to the VNA Centre by Linda.  It is only 7 o clock so I sit watching a film on my laptop before settling into my bed for the night, and falling asleep as another train rumbles and rattles its way into the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Day Off…Almost

Today promises to be a very quiet day as I have no major performance.  I write my blog and drink coffee at 5am, which seems to have settled as my standard waking time and eventually get up and showered and ready for breakfast.  The shower:  At last a hotel designer has realised a major failing in shower design and addressed it, by putting the control at the opposite end of the cubicle to the shower head, meaning that I do not get soaked by a cascade of cold water as I lean in to switch it on.  Brilliant, and thank you.

Being another Courtyard by Marriott I need to stand at the Bistro counter and choose my meal and settle for a couple of eggs and some bacon.  I also add a croissant to the order.  Initially I sit in a booth by the window but the bench seat is so low that I’m having to reach up like a 4 year old, so I move myself to a table and chair instead.

My breakfast arrives, and while the eggs and bacon are recognisable in their shape, the croissant is round – perfectly round.  Call me pedantic, but surely, by definition, a croissant should be crescent shaped?

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My only commitment today is at 1.30, so I have a morning to myself and once back in my room I set to writing an extra blog about the re-discovery of a lost portrait of Charles Dickens.  The Charles Dickens Museum in London is mounting a major fundraising effort and I promised the director of the museum that I would spread the word.  I spend an enjoyable few hours researching the story and looking for various images to accompany it.

As I work an email comes in from the Revelation Arts centre in Ashford with some pictures taken during my recent performance there.  It is fun to try and work out where they come in the show.

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Once more Scrooge and the Spirit were upon their travels. Much they saw, far they went, always with a happy ending.

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‘Spirit, I fear you more than any other spectre I have seen….’

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Lead on, Sprit, lead on.

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The spirits have done it all in one night, they can do whatever they like.  Of course they can.  OF COURSE THEY CAN!’

 

The morning passes quickly and it is almost 1pm by the time I finally publish the post ‘What Did Charles Dickens Look Like?’ I need to get changed into costume quite quickly as I have to be at the local high school at 1.30.  My efforts to change in a hurry are hampered due to the fact that my costumes are actually hanging in the car and I have to make a dash downstairs to liberate one of them, which of course is freezing cold when I put it on.

The drive to the High School is only around 5 minutes and as I pull up into the parking lot I am accosted by a man who introduces himself as the ‘sort of theatre tech guy’, and he takes me to the auditorium without worrying about checking in at the front office.

The theatre is deserted when we enter but soon the drama teacher comes in and we chat for a while.  He is in the local production of A Christmas Carol and plays both Fezziwig and the Ghost of Christmas Present and loves the story (as most do who have a close connection with it), he is also clutching a copy of The Life of our Lord  and is delighted to discover that I wrote the forward to it way back when.

the students start to mooch in and take their seats in the usual array of interested or bored, upright or slumped.  The teacher whose name sadly I didn’t catch, brings the theatre to order and makes a glowing introduction, considering he has never met me before, and leaves the empty stage to me.

I have a slight conundrum now as to what I do for the students.  Originally the board at Ventfort Hall Manor had suggested to the High School that it would be a good thing for me to come and talk to the students, at no cost to the school.  It was felt that maybe this would be an opportunity that would have been leapt at, but the school was slightly ambivalent and said that they supposed they could fit me in just before the students go home at 2.24, thereby giving me 33 minutes in which to speak – not long enough to do a show.

As quite a few of the audience are from the drama department I decide to concentrate on the development of my show and talk about how I came to play the characters in the way I do, and show some of the tricks that I employ to transition from one to another  (for example when Scrooge and the charity collector meet on Christmas morning Scrooge holds his hat and cane in one hand, whilst the other gentleman holds them in separate hands, thereby creating a subliminal difference in the audience’s minds).

At first the room is silent as I talk, but little by little the audience become more animated, and chuckle and laugh.  When I have finished my remarks I ask if there are any questions.  Of course, as ever in a school, there are no hands raised and everyone shuffles around a bit.  Drama teacher duly steps into the breach and asks a question, and then an English teacher asks how I portray Tiny Tim and Mrs Cratchit, and finally a few student hands start to be raised and the floodgates are opened.

Many of the questions are about aspects of the show and presumably come from the theatre students, and these develop into talking about the mechanics of touring and how I keep fresh and motivated.  One girl asks a really interesting question – how long would I keep going?

I had always told myself that I would stop when I felt I was not doing a good enough job anymore, but at the moment I felt that the show was in a good place and probably better than it has been for a while.  I explain how now the style script and performance is much closer to the original text than it used to be when almost everything was played for laughs – which was born out of a fear that if the audience wasn’t laughing they weren’t enjoying themselves.  Now I am much more confident in letting the material do the work and relying on what great great granddaddy gave me to work with.

All too soon the 33 minutes is up and the students are released, although quite a few hang around to chat afterwards.  I say goodbye to the nameless (I am sorry!) drama teacher and also to Kelly from the mansion who had arranged this session and has been watching from the back of the auditorium.

I return to my car and drive back to the Marriott.

The afternoon is not an interesting one but is punctuated by trips up and down in the elevator as I take the opportunity to catch up with my laundry before moving on.  Lots of quarters later I have two piles of freshly laundered and folded clothes – one my white costume shirts and the other my regular clothes.

It is late afternoon by then and I settle down on the sofa to watch The Blues Brothers for the first time in years (I had downloaded it to my laptop earlier).  I have been meaning to watch it ever since the sad news of Aretha Franklin’s passing, but hadn’t got around to it yet, and as I settle into the opening sequences I remember how much there is that I love about it, not only the great score and bizarre plot, but those little cameos of Frank Oz (close your eyes and you are listening to Fozzy Bear) and even Steven Spielberg as the Cook County clerk.

When the film finishes I go down to the little Bistro which is almost deserted and order a chicken pot pie followed by a slice of rich carrot cake which I eat as I continue to read Hidden Figures.

When my supper is finished I return to my room and flick through the TV channels and discover that Disney’s A Christmas Carol is on again and this time I pick the action up right at my own new scene for this year, as Bob Cratchit goes upstairs to be Tiny Tim’s room.  I watch to the end, mouthing along to the narrative.

The next film up is ‘The Santa Clause’ with Tim Allen and it is this that gently sends me to the land of nod

What Did Charles Dickens Look Like?

What did Charles Dickens look like?

If I were to pose this question after any of my shows during this year’s A Christmas Carol tour I am sure that most members of the audience would describe an old man with a wild beard and rather unkempt hair.  His face would be lined with bags beneath his eyes.  He would be dressed soberly and formally, in the Victorian manner and would maybe be leaning on a walking cane.

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If I were to ask them to create an image of this man writing A Christmas Carol they would sit him at a dark desk, in a dark room barely illuminated by candles.  Papers would be spread over the desk with neat lines of handwriting on them.  Maybe the author has stopped for a moment and is pondering the next line, a quill pen in his hand hovering over the page.

To be fair you can forgive Charles Dickens’s 21st century public for clinging onto these images as it is they that are popularly circulated, and the tone of the narrator’s voice in A Christmas Carol is gentle and reassuring – almost as if of a grandfather reading before the fireside.

But the truth could not be further from those pictures.  Maybe a slight clue comes from the casting of that nice Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey fame in ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ last year – he is young with a flowing mane of hair, eagle eyes and a vibrant personality, but he IS still Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey.

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If only we had a snapshot of Dickens, a portrait painted at the very moment he was writing the Carol to dispel the stereotypes.  Well, we do.

Currently on display at the Philip Mould gallery in London is a portrait completed in the last months of 1843 showing my great great grandfather in all of his youthful greatness.

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The image itself is not a new discovery, for it has been seen before as a black and white engraving which originally appeared as the frontispiece of a book called  ‘A New Spirit of the Age’ which collected the works of many authors who were the vanguards of a new era of literature.  In a volume that featured Tennyson, Browning, Shelley and Wordsworth it says everything about Dickens’s reputation that it was his portrait that was selected to greet the reader.

With the book in circulation so the engraving has been reproduced on many occasions, but what is the story of the original – the full colour original?

The miniature from which the engraving was taken was painted by Margaret Gillies in 1843 and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844, which was the last time it was seen in public.  Gillies was a great social reformer in her own right and she must have had some intense and stimulating conversations with her sitter who was campaigning vigorously and continuously.  Maybe they spoke of child poverty.  Maybe Dickens told her about his upcoming pamphlet ‘An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child’.  Maybe even as he sat with his bright eyes staring at Margaret a new idea began to take  shape.

We can only guess as to what passed between the two artists, but the facts of the story are that in December 1843 Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol which immediately sold in huge numbers and in 1844 Margaret Gillies’ portrait was lost.

Nobody knows quite what happened but in 1886 Gillies admitted in a letter that she had ‘lost sight of the portrait itself’.  The little miniature was consigned to history and until this year forgotten.

The plot moves to a South African auction house where a general lot was being offered for sale.  In a box along with various other items was a dark portrait, the body of which was obscured by mould.  Whilst the image may have been dark and dirty the eyes shone bright, and prompted an email to Philip Mould & Co in London, who confirmed that the Gillies miniature had remerged onto the public stage with perfect dramatic timing (2018 marks the 175th anniversary of  the first publication of A Christmas Carol).

After cleaning and restoration the portrait is now on display at the Philip Mould gallery in Pall Mall, less than half a mile from the Royal Academy where it was originally hung. A special exhibition ‘Charles Dickens: The Lost Portrait which features not only the painting but many artefacts from the Charles Dickens Museum will run until January 25th, 2019.

I have yet to see the portrait close up but I fully intend to visit the gallery early in the new year and come face to face with the man who has given me so much pleasure (and gainful employment) over the last 25 years.

But just by looking at the images that have been published one can see a youthful man, a man of ambition, of energy, of conscience, of humour, of style, of impatience, of charisma:  Those eyes!

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Charles Dickens was well aware of his status and, like today’s celebs, he was fiercely protective of the image he promoted.  In two portraits that he sat for in 1838 and 1839 he gazes away from the viewer, his eyes looking over our shoulder.

 

One of these pictures, ‘The Nickleby Portrait’ (on the left above) was painted by his good friend Daniel Maclise and it is interesting that in a letter to Margaret Gillies to confirm a sitting Dickens asked if Maclise could pop in to observe, and probably to advise.  But Gillies managed to convince Charles that this time the eyes should engage the viewer and the picture is all the stronger for that.

What next?  The exhibition will close in January and who knows where the portrait will end up.  It will be sold, maybe to a private collector and then will remain unseen by the wider public once again.  This is where the Charles Dickens Museum comes riding in on its white charger – they want the picture for the permanent collection housed at Dickens’s only remaining London home, 48 Doughty Street, where it can be seen by generations of visitors for many years to come.

Sadly the art world is an expensive one and if the museum is to be able to purchase the picture they have to raise a lot of money in a very short period of time – around £180,000 actually.

So I ask you, I appeal to you:  if I have 180,000 followers I ask you all to donate £1 today to the appeal and then we have succeed.  I realise that that I probably don’t have 180,000 followers, so maybe if I have one follower who would like to donate £180,000, that would work too.

This is a very important discovery and we cant let it slip through our hands for a second time and I know that the museum and the family will be so grateful for any donations that you can make.

Below is a link to a brilliant video about the discovery and also another to the Charles Dickens Museum donations page.

If you do happen to be the individual with 180k in your back pocket then I know that Cindy Sughrue the director of the museum would be very pleased to hear from you directly!

 

 

https://dickensmuseum.com/blogs/news/the-lost-portrait

https://dickensmuseum.com/pages/donations

cindy.sughrue@dickensmuseum.com

 

 

‘They left the high-road, by a well-remembered lane, and soon approached a mansion of dull red brick.’

My body clock is finally catching up with me and I sleep to a fairly decent time this morning.  The blog seems to take a long time to write this morning, and I sip coffee and nibble a biscuit as I do it.  Having posted my Nashua adventures I once again check on my new website and once again find that it is still not up.

My morning has a leisurely feel to it as I don’t need to leave the hotel until 10.30.  Having finished on the laptop I get up and have a shower before going to the little lobby bistro (as Marriott have branded it), and spending a long time choosing a very large bowl of granola and strawberries.

Back up in my room I record a video message to send home and then start the process of packing.  There should be a scientific paper written describing the phenomenon of  ‘suitcase spread’, ie the ability of the contents of my cases to fill the available space, in this case a large suite.  There seem to be bits everywhere, and I’ve only been here one night.  Eventually I round everything up and get it back into my bags and leave the room.

I have a 2 and a half hour drive ahead of me this morning and I have downloaded the audio book of the first Inspector Morse novel, Last Bus to Woodstock, to accompany me.  The book is narrated by Kevin Whately, who played Sargent Lewis in the television adaptation of the books, and it is odd to hear him being Morse, but the story is nicely written and helps to pass the time.

I am driving from New Hampshire, through Massachusetts to the Berkshires this morning and the route takes me right back past Shrewsbury (the location of my laundrette) and Worcester, before heading towards the Berkshire mountains, which is an area of the country that I have never visited before.

As I drive on the roads get quieter until I am suddenly aware of a huge amount of slow moving traffic ahead, all with hazard lights flashing.  I am glad that I have plenty of time to spare as it looks like a major hold up.  However I notice that other cars are overtaking in the left lane and as I drive up I see that this is along serpentine funeral convoy.  All of the cars, and there must be over 50, are lined up behind the hearse, and each is displaying a little purple flag which says ‘funeral’.  I have never seen this before and it is very moving.  As I pass, very slowly, I wish I were wearing a hat, so that I could remove it out of respect.

The road starts to climb and now there are little flurries of snowflakes in the air.  The pressure increases in my ears until they ‘pop’.  The wooded terrain all around is white and beautiful and soon I am cresting a summit at the top of which a sign informs me that this is the highest elevation on the I-90 to the east of South Dakota, which seems terribly specific.

This being the highest elevation it is therefore inevitable that I start to descend again, and the scenery before me is an absolute winter wonderland.  The snow is much heavier here and the boughs of the trees hang heavily laden.  I am glad that I had asked Bob and Pam to make sure I had an all wheel drive vehicle, although the road itself is ok at the moment.

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I drive through Lee, which is a gorgeous looking town with perfect New England churches and substantial wooden homes.  My destination is Lenox which nestles in the shadow of the surrounding hills and soon I am pulling into the car park of another Courtyard by Marriott, which overlooks the valley and is covered with thick snow piles.

I get out of the car, smell the clear fresh mountain air and gaze at the beautiful vista before me.  The snow is falling heavily now and I suddenly realise that this rental car did not come with one of those brush/scraper things.  I may have a lot of clearing to do later!

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The lobby of the hotel has a very familiar feel to it, as it is built to the same specifications as the one in Nashua.  I am quickly checked in to room 226, which will be confusing as I was in 227 in New Hampshire, and have an hour or so to relax before driving to the venue.  That gives me time to make a quick call to home and catch up on all the news.

At 2.15 I go back to my car and am relived the find that it isn’t buried, and make the short drive into Lenox and the Ventfort Hall Mansion. As I pull into the driveway I am instantly reminded of the description of Scrooge’s old school, which he visits on a snowy morning: ‘a mansion of dull red brick’.

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Inside I am instantly greeted and welcomed and shown to the room where I am to perform.  It is similar to the General Crook House in Omaha, in that a parlour has been converted into a small theatre, with a tiny stage at one end.  The room is beautifully decorated with two twinkling Christmas trees, garlands and nutcrackers and will make a perfect setting.

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I am introduced to Kelly who has arranged my visit here after seeing some information about me in a Williamsburg publication and then watching YouTube clips of my show online.  The effort by the board, staff and volunteers at Ventfort Hall has been immense and they have managed to sell out completely, which is amazing.  I hope that the snow doesn’t put people off, but nobody seems unduly concerned.

We sit in the parlour and consider how best to stage the show.  With a chair, table, stool and hat stand on the tiny stage I wont have any room to move, but the last three items can all be placed on floor level.  The chair is a little large, and I wonder aloud if there is a smaller one available?  The request results in Haley being called for.  Haley is in charge of all things practical to do with my show and is instantly efficient.  Of course I can use another chair, lets go and find one.  We walk from room to room throughout the mansion until I eventually decide on a small chair without arms, in a muted ochre colour which will not dominate the set.  Easy!

Haley askes if I need a microphone?  I don’t think so, not in this small room.  OK, that’s fine, and in an instant the speakers the flanked the stage have disappeared.  Sound effects?  I have a CD of the opening one, but the other is on a USB drive.  Oh yes, says Haley, I will run it from my laptop, and soon the files are on a playlist and she has a copy of the script printed out.  This efficiency is impressive.

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With stage manager Haley

When the staging is fully sorted out I am shown to my dressing room, which is actually a magnificent lady’s morning room, with sumptuous chairs, elegant tables and even a chaise longue.  One a table stands an ice bucket complete with a bottle of champagne and a bowl of strawberries – I don’t get this treatment everywhere I go, although sadly closer inspection reveals them to be plastic props to dress the room for the tours that visit the house.

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When I have laid out my costumes on the chaise, I go back downstairs and chat a little to the lady manning the front desk, who says ‘isn’t Haley good?  She is a theatre stage manager you know’ and suddenly all becomes clear.

The audience is beginning to arrive so I return to my sumptuous green room and start to get ready, and it is with horror that I discover that I haven’t put any black socks in my bag and the ones that I am wearing are bright red – not very fitting at all.  Downstairs again.

‘Haley.  One more thing.  You may not be able to sort this one out, but I have forgotten to bring black socks, and only have these red ones.  Would there be any chance that anyone has a spare pair?’

What happens?  Haley disappears into an office and re-emerges with a brand new pair of black socks, still on their plastic hook.  ‘These should do, although they do have silver tea cups on them!’

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When I am in costume I go back to the parlour to discover it packed to bursting. There is an eager anticipation about the show and the promotion has been first class.  Just after 4 Kelly gets up and welcomes the guests in her charming manner before introducing me.  I walk through the very narrow central aisle, avoiding bags, hats and feet before arriving at the little stage.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of touring is the daily challenges in performing the same show, by which I mean making it work in a variety of venues.  Last night I was in a cavernous theatre with lots of space to move and express myself in, whereas this afternoon I can only move two steps in either direction, and yet both situations lead to a fantastic experience.

Being so close to the audience there is a real feeling of intimacy and connection, whilst the snow outside adds to the feeling of a family gathering around a fire to listen to a story.  As I talk about the school I remember my first view of the mansion and I can almost feel Scrooge and the spirit walking through the hall together.

In the front row are two women who have obviously seen the show before as they are laughing and giggling a few seconds before I have delivered certain lines (Supposin’….supposin’ being a particular case in point).  The rest of the audience get the idea instantly and are with me all of the way, which is fabulous.

When I get to the scene at the low-browed beetling shop, when old Joe makes his entrance, I normally pull up my trouser legs to give the impression of short ragged trousers; I am about to do it today when I suddenly remember the twinkling rhinestone teacups on my socks, and abandon the plan.

It is a supremely successful show and the audience are very vocal in their appreciation.

Whilst I am back in my boudoir changing into a fresh costume there is a major re-setting downstairs, as the audience are now to be given a delicious tea and all of their chairs have to be moved from the parlour and into the hall.  By the time I reappear tea is in full flow and there is a loud buzz of happy conversation.  At the bottom of the stairs I am immediately accosted and for a while that becomes my station to sign and pose for photographs.  It is rather nice to see that our 2017 souvenir brochure is selling well here and I sign a great many of them.

As I chat one of the board members, Mary Francis, thrusts a glass of sherry into my hand, which is terribly civilized.  Eventually I am able to get to the table groaning with sandwiches, cakes, cookies scones and strawberries and fill up a plate.  A lovely cup of black tea completes the feast and I am able to take a seat and eat my first meal since the granola this morning.

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I chat to Kelly and Sharon, a local freelance journalist who interviewed me by phone last week when I was getting ready to perform in Ashford – back home.  Our conversation is constantly disrupted (not interrupted, for that suggests rudeness and the people here are by no means rude), by audience members asking me to sign books and wanting to thank me for the show.

As tea comes to an end Mary Francis and Haley take me to various rooms in the house to pose for photographs that the they can include in the Mansion’s newsletter and maybe promotional materials for future events.

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One important picture is of my socks!  Oh, the tale will be told often.

It is 7 by the time I am ready to leave, and I am being taken out to dinner, which will be very nice.  I brush the snow off the car and load it up, before following another car to a restaurant in the middle of Lenox.  The roads are covered now and the AWD comes into its own.  Our tiny convoy of two turns into a broad deserted main street lined with street lamps wound with Christmas lights.  The snow is coming down and a wind blows flurries across the scene,  for a moment I fully expect Jimmy Stewart to come running up the middle of the street with that gangling gait, shouting joyfully ‘Merry Christmas you wonderful old Building and Loan!’

My dinner companions are Mary Francis, Patrick and Stephen.  Patrick is on the board at Ventfort Mansion, and also works as a set designer for the local Shakespeare theatre organisation, of which Stephen is the general manager and administrator.  There is a huge arts scene in the Berkshires and the Shakespeare company is a major part of that.  I try to convince them that they should stage the 8 hour Nickleby one summer, but I’m not sure that I succeed.

I eat a delicious  fillet mignon and the company is excellent too.  Outside the snow falls softly.  Crème Brulee finishes the meal and a fabulous day.

I say goodbye to my new friends and the Rogue takes me safely back to the Marriott on the hill.  I put the TV on and discover that one of the channels is showing Disney’s recent animated version of A Christmas Carol.  I watch Scrooge walking up to his door, seeing Marley’s face in the knocker, walking upstairs to his room, sitting in his chair, hearing the bells ring…..and then I am asleep.

To Nashua

In my little suite at the Press Hotel I sit up in bed to drink coffee and write my blog, listening to the pouring rain outside.  The rain was forecast and Jeff mentioned last night  that some of the properties close to the sea may well be flooded, it is not going to be a nice morning to drive, that is for certain.

I let the morning drift on a little, before treating myself to the magnificent shower and getting ready for breakfast.  The restaurant at the Press looks out over the street and the scene is every bit as bleak as the sound suggested.  The rain is slicing down creating thousands of little eruptions on the surface of the streams that are cascading down the road.  The few people that are out are hurrying under completely ineffective umbrellas, and car wipers are fighting a losing battle.  But the real issue is not immediately apparent, it is only when I receive a message from Kate O’Brien that I am made aware of the true severity of the weather.  In her message Kate thanks me and congratulates me on the show last night, but then goes on to say that the roads are treacherously icy and many Maine schools are closed because of the conditions.

The breakfast here is a rarity in that it is ordered solely from a menu – there is no buffet and I take quite a long time before ordering a standard eggs and bacon plate, but also a bowl of fruit to start, but not any old bowl of fruit!  The best I can do is to quote directly from the menu:

Fruit and Quinoa Bowl.

Pineapple|Banana|Blueberry|Black Quinoa|Basil|Orange Blossom Ricotta|Local Honey.

When he bowl arrives t is not the most attractive dish I’ve ever been served, but OH! the taste!  This is one of the most remarkable breakfast dishes I have ever had and it just feels so dammed healthy too.  I think that this dish may have to be included on my contract rider in the future, and I can become a real diva – ‘Mr Dickens MUST have his quinoa fruit salad or he simply cannot go on today!’

Oh, and the bacon and eggs are nice too.

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Having finished breakfast I decide to get on the road as soon as I am ready.  Not only do I need to leave extra time to drive slowly and carefully but there is a very good chance that some of the roads will be blocked due to crashes and wrecks, and I don’t want turn up late at my first commitment which is at 11 am in New Hampshire.

Back in my room I pack my bags up, making sure that I have everything with me, and call to the bell stand so that my car can be retrieved from its hiding place and soon I am checking out at the front desk, and getting soaked as I make the brief run to the silver Rogue.  The SatNav tells me that the journey to Nashua will take a little over two hours and off I set through the murky streets of Portland and onto the foggy, wet, crowded freeway.

The journey isn’t as bad as Id feared and everyone is driving safely and carefully.  I notice that I am getting low on fuel and decide to stop at the same services where I had lunch on the way into Portland yesterday, however the fuel station is undergoing renovation and there are temporary pumps set up – with no cover over them: I don’t think so!  I drive on.

A I make my way over the Piscataqua River and into New Hampshire the weather clears slightly, although that is a relative term.  I have finished the Bond audio book now and am back into good old Christmas songs which accompany me towards Nashua.

The fuel situation is getting a little more critical, so I find a gas station not to far from my destination and fill the tank.  The bill comes to $37, whereas my last refill in the UK (probably in a similar sized car) cost me almost £80, which would be around $102…never complain about your gas taxes America!

My first performance today is at the Nashua Senior Center, and I pull up into the car park at around 11.10, which is pretty good considering the conditions earlier.  I have been performing here for the last five years and it is always a pleasure to return.  As soon as I walk through the door I am warmly welcomed back.  My performance is in a large meeting room, and the chairs are already set out.  It is a sparse, bland, dull room but somehow the shows always work very well here.  Today I am performing Nicholas Nickleby and that means locating a set.

My contact is Judy Porter, and she is used to me turning up with a list of requirements, so when I ask for a large book, a chair, a lectern and a screen that is tall enough for me to be hidden behind when I hang myself at the end of the show, she doesn’t bat an eyelid.  We set off to tour the facility on a Victorian scavenger hunt.  The chair is easy, fabric covered, wing back,  check.  Lectern – either a huge one, or a little table top affair?  The latter.  Check.  The book is bizarrely more difficult as the fashion these days is to print the hard cover under the dust jacket, but eventually I find a fairly plain looking one that will suffice.  Check.  And so to the screen.  After a false start when a rather expensive projection screen is produced, we eventually find a surgical screen on wheels which is about the right size.  Judy then finds an old curtain in gold brocade and a roll of duct tape and in no time we have a ‘Victorian’ screen.

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It may all be a bit makeshift, but it will do the job, and I ride down in the elevator comfortably sat in my arm chair.

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Whilst we have been scouring the building Jody Gage has arrived downstairs.  Jody runs Fortin Gage flower and gift store in Nashua and my events are arranged by him.  We have worked together for many years (10, I think it is) and it is great to see him again.

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I build the set to my exacting requirements and it looks like a truly magnificent recreation of that which the Royal Shakespeare Company used for their ground breaking production of the same story

Even an hour before the show the audience is beginning to arrive, so having placed all of the furniture, and the girls’ little toys, on my stage I retreat to the finance director’s office which has been appropriated as my dressing room, a large sign on the door announcing the fact to anyone who may have pressing financial queries.

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I change into the all black costume that Nickleby requires and then go to the hall and watch the ever increasing audience take their seats.  Another good friend has come to see the show too, Sandy Belknap used to work on all of the PR and marketing for my events here, and we have kept in touch over the years.  Sandy actually saw the original 8 hour RSC production when it toured to Boston, so I have a lot to live up to this afternoon.

At 12.30 Jody makes a few announcements and then welcomes me to the stage.  There is a warmth and generosity in the room and I know that I am in safe hands.  I briefly introduce Nickleby, and then launch in.  As I thought the audience lap it up: they laugh at Mr Squeers trying to teach his class f English spelling and philosophy, and they weep at S Smike’s death.  There are gasps of horror as I slip the noose over my head and disappear behind the duct-taped-decorated screen and a giggle of relief when, after a long pause, I begin speaking again.  Theatre is am amazing thing – in a bland room with no lighting except the fluorescent tubes above, a group of people can be taken into a story and fully believe it.

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The standing ovation at the end is remarkable.

I sit at a table at the back of the hall and sign a few books (some very nice older copies which are treasured heirlooms), and pose for a lot of photographs.  The Nashua Senior Center is an amazingly uplifting and positive place.

The only cloud on the horizon is my voice.  Nickleby always takes a toll on my throat and I can feel that it is a little hoarse, a little scratchy, and I must protect it as much as possible.  I get changed and say goodbye to Judy and Jody, before driving the short distance to my hotel.  At the check in desk I give my name and the chirpy clerk tells me that my friend has already checked in!  I tell her that there must be some mistake as it is only me travelling, and she checks her file – no, she is certain that my friend arrived just a short while ago.  This seems odd, to say the least.  The girl calls to another clerk who actually checked my ‘friend’ in – ‘a Mr Gage?  Jody.’  Ah!  Jody must have dropped by after leaving the centre to make sure that the room was ok and to pay for it.  Phew!

The room in question is actually three rooms for I have a suite to luxuriate in.  There is a large living room with a kitchen area at one end, a huge bedroom with a real, free standing warbrobe (you don’t see many of them in hotels these days) and a bathroom with a bath!

Having dropped my bags I go back to the lobby and have a salmon and roasted vegetable dish for lunch, and then return to my room to rest.  I set an alarm, lay on the bed and fall asleep, which is a good thing to do.

My alarm wakes me at 4.45 and I have shower before getting ready for the evening’s show, which is being staged at the Nashua Community College auditorium, only a few minutes drive away, although the rush hour traffic is heavy.

I performed at the college last year for the first time and it is a very enjoyable stage to inhabit.  The lighting and sound are looked after by Doug, who got very excited by the show last year and wanted to play about technically.  We go into his sound box and I give him the files for the sound cues, which he has to run off somebody else’s laptop, as his is being utilised to project a wonderful London cityscape onto the backdrop.

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We check the sound effects, and go through the fully marked up script so that he knows when to bring Sir Roger de Coverley in, and where any lighting changes can be made, should he feel so disposed (dispoged, as Mrs Gamp would say).

With the sound check complete I go to a little storage-cum-plant room next to the stage, which is filled with various items of cleaning and technical equipment as well as lots of chairs, and which will be my green room for the next few hours.  There is a loudspeaker from the stage and I can hear the audience arriving, they sound a jolly and lively bunch.  I sit and play Backgammon on my phone.

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The show is due to start at 7 and this year Jody has arranged for a group of carol singers to open up.  He welcomes them to the stage and they perform energetically and beautifully for fifteen minutes.  The audience love them and applaud loudly after each song.  As they go into ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ I suddenly realise that we have missed a trick, for it would have been a perfect opening to the show to have Scrooge walk into their midst, scattering them with a wave of his cane and a ‘Bah, Humbug!  Maybe next year.

As it is the show starts in its traditional way, except that the music cue keeps cutting in and out, which is frustrating.  The first part of the performance is a little tired and lacklustre, and I am aware that my voice is not great, but  the audience are responding well and things seem to be fine.  However with the entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Present I find an extra gear and suddenly the evening pings into life!  Energy returns, timing is better, and the whole thing takes on a new lease of life.  By the time I get to the end the audience are whistling and stamping and shouting out loudly, which is fabulous.

I take my bows to Percy Faith’s stirring and rousing Deck the Halls and all is good!  I change in my little plant room and go into the lobby where a long signing line has formed, the first lady crushes me in a hug, telling me that I have made her Christmas.  Lots of signing and lots of smiling, and the group dwindles down to some great friends who come every year and who always wait to the end of the line.  We chat about the girls back home, and about the changes to the show this year, and then pose for a final photograph before going our separate ways.

I pack everything up in the plant room, thank Doug for his help and leave the college with my costumes and roller bag.

Back at the hotel Jody and Sandy join me for a drink, and I have a large burger which I devour hungrily as we talk.  These moments with good friends are always very special and once the hurly burly of the day is done it is wonderful just to relax.

Tomorrow I move on again, back into Massachusetts, and the tour is entering a slightly quieter few days now, which will be good for my energy levels and my voice, before the final few performances next week.

Back in my suite I tour the whole apartment turning lights and the very noisy air conditioning units (oh yes, plural!) off, before snuggling down to sleep.