Last week was been spent preparing for two days of performing. Both venues were new to me, which tends to bring its own pressure and waves of nervousness.
On Thursday I loaded the car up with the set required for A Christmas Carol, and set my satnav for the Alderwood School in Hampshire. It was a lovely drive although traffic on one of the motorways prompted my phone to suggest an alternative route, which I duly took. The roads were narrow, pretty and the houses large suggesting a well to do area of the country. Suddenly things began to look familiar and I couldn’t quite think why until I drove past a sign informing me that I was entering the town of Hartley Wintney.
Many many years ago, in a time before Dickens one man shows, I used to be a partner in a small company that specialised in corporate theatre. We wrote and performed murder mystery parties, we provided open-air children’s theatre for tourist attractions and we provided actors for training purposes, most particularly for the Police Force.
We worked in two major training centres, one in Maidstone which was close to home and the other at the Hampshire Constabulary’s training facility in Hartley Wintney. As I drove through the town so many memories came to mind.
We would be sent 5 minute scenarios and the candidates, at an early stage of their training, had to follow certain proceedural routes as we provided them with carefully scripted answers to their questions. On one occasion the test was to breathalise a suspect drink driver, and when the officer had ascertained that there was reasonable grounds he was supposed to use his radio, clipped to his lapel, to ‘radio base’ and request a breathalyser kit. At this point the senior training officer would hand over a sealed and sterile breath test unit, and the candidate would continue, asking the correct questions and following the correct proceedure.
On one occasion a rather flustered young officer came in and reached the point where he should have radioed in, but in a complete panic he forgot what he was suppsoed to do. Realising he didn’t have a breath kit at hand he decided to improvise and stuck one finger straight out and asked me to blow into it. The senior office, desperate to help, hissed softly ‘use your bloody radio!’ Our candidate’s face cleared and with relief he unclipped his radio, pushed the stubby aerial towards me and said ‘blow into this please!’ As the poor lad left the room the training officer sighed ‘and there goes a future Chief Constable!’
Wallowing in nostalgia I drove on until I turned into the gates of The Alderwood School where I was greeted in the car park by Glenn Christodoulou who was responsible for booking me. Glenn used to teach at another school at which I performed every year and we became good friends but a few years ago he retired to Devon. However the siren song of education was too compelling and now he is back teaching in Hampshire.
Having seen me signed in and issued with a lanyard (ensuring that the students were perfectly safe) Glenn showed me to the hall where I would be performing. I arranged my furniture on the high stage and Glenn experimented with the lights until between us we were ready to go.
The year ten and eleven students are currently studying A Christmas Carol and, as with a few other schools recently, I had been asked to perform my show as well as giving the students some idea as to the context in which the book was written (the latter forming a large percentage of the available marks in the examination).
What Alderwood School had provided me with was time – plenty of time to talk, plenty of time to perform and plenty of time to answer questions. I had two hours for each group which was positively luxurious. My first performance was for the year tens, who will be sitting their examinations next year.
Glenn took me to the English department’s office which had been appropriated as my dressing room and which seemed to welcome me as it was furnished with a large stack of A Christmas Carol books on the table.
Peeping out from behind books on shelves were various Christmas decorations and trees which made me feel even more at home.
For the first time in three months I got into my costume, checked cufflinks, tied my cravat, wound my watch, slipped it into my waistcoat pocket and time travelled back to 1843.
In the hall a few members of the English department were around and pointed out to me that a lot of the students in this group were now not studying A Christmas Carol but Jekyll and Hyde, and could I gear my presentation towards that instead. Um? No!
As the school bell rang the group made their way in and took their seats and awaited their morning session to start. I was introduced (a distant relative of Charles Dickens) and walked up to a lectern on floor level to begin.
The first part of my presentation was given over to describing Charles Dickens’ early experiences in London and explaining how he saw poverty, neglect and vice at first hand as a 12 year old wandering the streets whilst his father was incarcerated in the Marshalsea. I talked about what a prosperous and great trading nation Britain was and how with such great prosperity comes great poverty also (I assumed that this would be useful to students of Jekyll and Hyde too!). I moved on to Dickens’ tireless campaigning work, his efforts on behalf of the ragged schools, and then to his speech in Manchester on October 5 1843 where the first glimmers of an idea that would become A Christmas Carol started to glow.
To conclude my discourse I talked about The Tale of the Goblin who Stole a Sexton from The Pickwick Papers which would form a basis for the plot and pointed out the important differences between the two pieces (Gabriel Grub is a completely evil and violent man within whom there can be no real hope of redemption, whereas in the Carol Dickens is careful to paint Scrooge as a mean man, but never a villainous or vicious one)
When the forty minute talk was complete I went up onto stage and began the show itself. It was good to back, every movement, every gesture, every voice seemed reassuringly familiar and soon I was becoming completely surrounded by a world that has become part of my life over the years.
Thanks to my previous performances for him Glenn was familiar with the script and was having a fun old time on the lighting desk: dimming them, flashing them up, creating different atmospheres as the story moved from time to time and scene to scene.
The audience of students certainly were attentive and reacted well throughout the show. I had 70minutes to fill, which was so much better than the hour long ‘greatest hits’ version of the show that I usually do in schools. The extra ten minutes allowed for the charity collector and the carol singer (which was important as I had compared Scrooge’s and Gabriel Grub’s reaction to their respective carol singers in my initial talk – whereas Ebenezer threatens and scares his away, Grub inflicts actual bodily violence).
There were a few other chops and changes, Marley doesn’t get a full outing, and neither do the Cratchit family, but Topper gets a little look in although he is not allowed to play at blindman’s buff with the niece’s sister.
I came in bang on time, leaving some 15 minutes for questions of which there were plenty – thoughtful, inquisitive and intelligent questions.
When the group had left I got back into my normal clothes so that I could have a very quick lunch before preparing for the year 11s in the afternoon.
Unfortunately the rain has set in during the lunch break and the students had not been able to get outside, also it became clear that some did not realise that the session would take them past of the end of the school day. There was a degree of dissention. The staff asked if I would be able to cut everything shorter, but I was loathe to do that seeing that this particular group would be sitting their A Christmas Carol exam in just a few days – this was the group who would get most out of the history and the story.
at 1.50 they slouched in. I decided to get as much information across as I could whilst aiming for a 3.30 finish. I didn’t stint on history and context, and I didn’t cut much out of the show, I just did it all an awful lot quicker. If you had heard a recording of the performance on that day you might imagine that I’d sucked the gas from a helium balloon before speaking! I managed to get the show finished at my target time, and most students bolted for the door as soon as they were released. A few stayed for the Q&A session and I was able to furnish them with a couple of extra quotes and anecdotes that their less committed classmates would not be party to.
The rain was heavy by now and once I was changed Glenn and I got soaking wet as we loaded my car up. We said our goodbyes and I headed off into the murk, towards home.
After a relaxing Friday I was on the road again on Saturday, this time driving the length of the country. My show was to be made up of Mr Dickens is Coming, which requires my facsimile of Charles Dickens’ reading desk, a chair, a hat-stand, a table and a screen; and for a second act The Signalman, which uses the large clerk’s desk, my new block signalling equipment, a chair, a table and a stool. All of this meant a logistical exercise of supreme efficiency to fit the set into the back of my Renault Scenic. I think that this combination is about the most I can manage without having to hire a van.
I was headed for Jarrow in the far North East of England and it is a drive I know well thanks to my regular appearances at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle. As I drove I re-familiarised myself with the scripts that I was due to perform. Mr Dickens is Coming is so familiar to me that it didn’t need much work, but I needed to change the end to include a passage from Great Expectations, and that transition needed some attention. The Signalman is fairly secure in my mind but it was good to run through it once on my drive.
Apart from rehearsal much of the drive was taken up spotting Eddie Stobart lorries, the cabs of which are all painted with the names of the driver’s wives or girlfriends above the front wheel arch. As I pounded northward on the M1 and then later the A1 I logged Sarah, Elaine, Cassandra, Rebecca, Marion, Charley, Kimberley, Holly, Susan, May and many others. What a simple way to pass 4 and half hours!
My journey continued through Yorkshire and on towards Tyneside, soon there were signs for Sunderland, Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle and Jarrow the last of which was to be my destination.
Jarrow is one of those English towns that is known to most purely by its place in the history books. Anyone of my generation could glibly trot out ‘The Jarrow March’ without having any idea what we were talking about. The facts were that following shipyard closures and a general decline in the industrial landscape 200 workers embarked on a crusade to London, where they presented a petition to Parliament. The Jarrow Crusade lasted for the whole month of October and although it didn’t achieve anything specific, in that the issue was never debated, the crusaders took their place in history.
So to me the name of Jarrow summed up a long dead, neglected, industrial dinosaur of a town and I was slightly nervous as to how my show would be received there. Certainly as I approached the town the signs to the colliery and the shipbuilding yard tied in with the stereotype but within minutes I was parking on the banks of the Tyne with a busy bustling market behind me. Far from my prejudiced imaginations Jarrow showed itself to be a lively energetic and modern town. The riverside was dominated by two impressive buildings, one the Custom House Theatre which unsurprisingly is situated in a magnificent Victorian or Georgian building and according to the posters outside is a thriving venue, and opposite it a brand new gleaming white circular structure stood proudly looking out to sea. This was The Word, and would be my venue for the afternoon.
I parked my car in the loading bay and made my way into the main entrance where I found myself in the centre of a huge spiralling atrium alive with life, energy and bustle. The Word is a library, but it is so much more for it appeared to be a hub for the whole town. As I took in my surroundings I saw that there was a gift shop and a café. In the centre of the atrium a small stage had been set up and prizes were being awarded for a short story competition.
I made my way up the spiral staircase to level one and there discovered lots of smaller areas and meeting rooms, one of which was proudly called ‘The Charles Dickens Room’
I was met by my contact for the day Gemma and together we started to unload my car. My performance space was on the third floor, so that meant numerous crowded rides in the lift. The room itself was white, light and airy with a large circular ceiling feature which is a motif repeated throughout the building. The window looked out across the Tyne.
Once all of my set was in the room I bustled around putting it all in place on the small temporary stage. My dressing room was a store room just behind the stage area and funnily enough it reminded me of being at the Woodneath Library in Independence, Missouri – a very similar establishment to The Word.
Before I knew it 2 o clock was approaching and the audience was ready to be let in; actually so was I, for I had popped out to the bathroom and the door to the performance room clicked shut behind me, consigning me to the hallway with the waiting crowd until Gemma returned with her security pass to let me back in.
The crowd was a good one, and I stayed in the room to chat as they came in. One gentleman wore a Green Bay Packers cap and I was able to tell him about the time I visited the stadium. Another lady was a huge fan of Dickens and had attended the festivals in both Rochester and Broadstairs. When the room had filled I took my cue from Gemma and made my way to the stage to begin.
Mr Dickens is a well grooved show and soon the audience were chuckling over the Micawbers and squirming with Uriah Heep. In no time I arrived at the part where instead of talking about Sikes and Nancy I diverted into Miss Havisham and Estella, as rehearsed in the car on the journey up.
As soon as I mentioned Charles Dickens friendship with George Cooper Apps who, if you remember, told a story of a relative who was left standing at the altar, there were nods of affirmation in the room. South Shields is proud of its connection to one of the greatest characters that Charles created, but the looks of pride turned to concerned looks of doubt as I started to suggest that maybe it wasn’t Apps who was the inspiration for Miss Havisham, perhaps it was Miss Dicks from the Isle of Wight, or Eliza Donnithorne from Australia. However relief returned to the faces when I pointed out that Mr Apps was the only one to stop his clocks, and therefore must be the true Miss H: South Shields had stakes its claim!
The Great Expectations passage brought me to the end of act one, and I announced that we would have a 10 minute recess while I changed the set for act two. As people stretched their legs and ran downstairs to buy a coffee, I removed the reading desk, the screen and the hat stand, I brought the clerk’s desk to the stage and proudly fitted my signalling prop which was making its debut. I put the little wooden chest next to it, and the bell on the top and before I knew it I had my signal box. Just time to swap my colourful waistcoat for a black one and it was time for Act 2.
The Signalman held the audience in its grip – the dark, brooding, claustrophobic nature of the story surrounding them all. We were all so involved in the narrative that there was an audible gasp when my little bell suddenly slid from the little chest and fell to the floor with a clang! I hadn’t touched it, I hadn’t been near it as it moved. Was this a poltergeist, the spirit of Charles Dickens reaching out to me? Or maybe I just need to pack some Blu-Tak next time.
The show came to its conclusion at around 3.30 in the afternoon and the audience gave me a warm and long round of applause. It seemed wrong to disappear into my ‘dressing room’, so I stayed and chatted to everyone as they left, until it was just me and the staff from The Word remaining.
As I changed Gemma and her team fetched a cart and started to load my furniture onto it, so we could get everything back downstairs again, and soon I was trying to remember the intricate jigsaw that would allow everything to fit back into the Renault.
I said my goodbyes and headed back south collecting more Eddie Stobart lorries on the way.
On the following morning a Twitter feed popped up with an image from a local newspaper describing Charles Dickens’ Jnrs visit to the town of Jarrow in 1886. Apparently the audience had been sparse and Charlie had ‘stormed out because he was annoyed at the poor attendence and the masses of people promenading along German Ocean Rd and not listening to him’
I must state that 2019 Jarrow afforded the Dickens family a much warmer and more generous welcome and I hope that I shall return often!