It is lovely to wake in the comfortable bed at the Byers’ house and know that I do not have to be anywhere very soon.
Having written my blog post and showered I hear noises downstairs so go down to join the others. Pam and Bob are sharing breakfast duty and they are definitely spoiling me: bacon is sizzling, and a huge bowl of batter is waiting to be poured into a waffle machine. Chilled orange juice and freshly brewed coffee complete the set.
Before breakfast is served though there is an important duty for Bob and Pam to carry out, and that is to play with their Boston Terrier Bing. The game involves Bob and Pam kneeling at each end of their long living room and tossing a ball to each other as Bing tries to catch it: running, twisting, skidding and leaping in his efforts. Its a wonderfully happy time, and a game that Bing obviously relishes. Eventually Bing manages to jump high enough to intercept a throw from Pam and proudly lies down protecting his prize.
Back to the table and breakfast is superb, the waffles light and fluffy and the bacon crispy.
After breakfast Pam goes over a few additions to the tour (interviews etc), and Bob and I discuss the ongoing sales of the souvenir programmes as well as a few ideas for next year. I sign a stack of the programmes, so that we can offer them at the Byers’ Choice shows in a week’s time, in an effort to cut down the huge signing line at the event, and the morning drifts amiably on, until I have to get ready to go to work.
My shows today are in Burlington, New Jersey, and it is a drive of just under an hour. I make sure that I have everything I need before waving goodbye and taking to the road once more. The Byers’ home is a converted stone barn and although it is now surrounded by more modern buildings it used to be amidst fields of corn, the nearest neighbour being one Oscar Hammerstein II, who presumably gazed at the scene outside his window before penning the ‘corn is as high as a elephants eye’ line from Oklahoma.
The drive to Burlington is an easy one, and soon I am guiding the car over the terrifyingly narrow Bristol-Burlington bridge, which is like something from an Alec Guinness war film. I pull up outside the Broadstreet United Methodist Church and am greeted by the event organiser Laura, her husband Joe and the Pastor Kim. Between us we carry my costumes into the church and straight away undertake a sound check, so that Laura can open the doors to the enthusiastic audience.
My dressing room is under the stage, and right next to the only men’s room in the building and in previous years I have often been surprised as I am changing by someone who has got the wrong door. This year Laura has put a notice on the door, featuring the statue of Dickens and Little Nell in Philadelphia: I feel very protected!
Soon the audience is seated and it is time to go to the back of the hall and prepare for the show. Laura makes her cheerful introductions from the stage, encouraging everyone in the audience to take a selfie, and then as they have their phones in the hands switch them off! I walk to the stage, mount the steps and gaze out at the large and colourful crowd.
The Sanctuary at the United Methodist Church ha always been a wonderful auditorium for me: it is not the largest, the space on the stage is limited, the lighting is difficult, I am separated from the audience by a wooden rail, but there is just a feeling of comfort and intimacy here. I have often tried new ideas at Burlington, many of which have become permanent features of the show, for example the idea of having the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come leading Scrooge to his grave backwards (so as to place him in the correct part of the stage to dwindle down into the bedpost), was born here.
Today, in a similar vein of experiment, I play about with a couple of moments in the show, including having the charity collector reciting his sales pitch as if he is delivering a script that he is learned by rote. The inspiration for this comes from Russell, the boy scout in the movie Up! The change works well, and means that the man is completely thrown off his stride when Scrooge asks if there are no prisons or workhouses.
The afternoon show is great fun, and many of the audience are regulars. I use the space available to me, and the steps become part of the action, leading from the street up to Scrooge’s door. At one point, as I am clambering up them, I think to myself that I would like to draw my image of the set as it would be if I were in a theatre with no touring constraints.
It is hot work, but enjoyable work and the audience are very responsive and enthusiastic, as they always are here. I take the ovation from both the floor and balcony and then go back downstairs to change as Little Nell protects me from intruders.
The signing session is in a small chapel on the lower floor, and the audience are served with cookies and coffee meaning they mingle and talk for a long time. I am supplied with a beautiful china tea service, as well as a plate of Rich Tea and Jammy Dodger biscuits (peculiarly English and where they find them I do not know, but my signing table becomes a tiny British territory!)
Eventually the audience drift away and I change back into my normal clothes, before joining Laura, Joe, Kim, Marcia and the rest of the team for dinner at Francesco’s restaurant just around the corner – this is another long held tradition in Burlington, and a particularly welcome one.
Usually we have Francesco’s to ourselves but today it is much busier as the town’s Christmas Parade is due to make its way down Main street a little later. A couple of tables are made up of some audience members from the first show and Laura notices them surreptitiously trying to take pictures of me!
I order a large plate of spaghetti bolognaise, which is delicious and reviving, and we chat happily like the old friends we are. I am sitting opposite Kim, the pastor, and he regales us with various long jokes – including one featuring a bagpipe player and a cesspit….its probably better that you don’t know….
By the time we leave the restaurant the crowds are building for the parade, with children wrapped up against the cold. The street looks beautiful with lights wound around the trees and once again there is a real sense of community, which is something that Burlington does so well.
Back in the church I have a rest in my dressing room (indeed I actually fall asleep and am glad I thought to set an alarm on my phone). The evening performance is fast approaching and I get changed before gulping down a bottle of water to wake and hydrate me before the rigours of the show.
The evening audience is slightly smaller, which is usual here, as a slightly older demographic prefer to come to a daytime show, rather than having to get home in the dark, but once more they are an enthusiastic bunch.
The show goes very well and again the people of Burlington stand to applaud.
I change and return to my tea table where I chat and pose for quite a while, as the cookies and coffee are enjoyed. At the very last Laura gathers all of her volunteers together and we pose for a group photograph, before I go and change and get ready to leave.
The 50 minute drive is easy and soon I am pulling up into Bob and Pam’s drive where I find them watching TV. We share a glass of wine and I tell them about my day, as Pam cuddles one of her pet rats (Pam collects quite the menagerie, the rats being the latest addition), but soon I am ready for bed and say my goodnights.
Tomorrow I will be leaving this beautiful home and driving on to the next part of my 2017 tour, but I am so grateful to the Byers for their genuine and generous hospitality.