A Christmas Carol, Blaenau Ffestiniog railway, Byers'Choice, Charles Dickens, Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biogrpahy of a Rail Crash, Doctor Marigold, Ford Mustang, Running, The Signalman
On Tuesday it was back to work, with two more performances of the same double bill that I performed in Georgia and at Byers’ Choice, in Burlington, New Jersey.
The two down days were spent at Bob and Pam’s cabin and enabled me to relax, follow the continuing news coverage from home, and to prepare for forthcoming shows. On Sunday the rain fell from dawn till dusk, and as Bob and Pam were at the cabin too, we all had a very lazy day, watching sport, reading, and completing a jigsaw puzzle that featured scenes and characters from the works of, guess who? Charles Dickens if course.
On Sunday evening Bob and Pam said their goodbyes and drove back to their home in town ready for the working week, leaving me in the middle of the woods alone with just a cacophony of insects in the trees to keep me company.
On Monday morning I woke early and looking out over the Delaware River valley I saw that although it was misty, the rain had abated, so I decided to go out for a training run.
At the bottom of the hill there is a canal with a towpath that runs for miles in both directions, so I set off at 6.15 and spent just over an hour running out and back, at one time being accompanied by a family of deer who bounded and skipped alongside me for a while. Unfortunately my running app on the phone refused to pick up a GPS signal, so I have no idea how far or how fast I ran, but based on previous experience it must have been about 5 or 6 miles all told including the long slow trek back up the steep driveway.
After I had showered and cooled down a little I decided to drive out to a nearby general store to pick up a few things for breakfast, and the rest of my stay, and it was now that I was introduced to my transport for the next couple of days, and what a splendid beast it was! In the garage sat a magnificent midnight blue Ford Mustang Convertible. I got into the drivers seat (the car sort of swallows you up, you sit so deep within it that you become part of it) and turned the key which opened the stable for all those horses to be freed. I assume it is a V8, it certainly sounded like one. I carefully reversed it out of the garage, and then placed my foot on the gas pedal (somehow I have to use the American terminology for this car) to propel it forward up the cinder track, and such was the power that the rear wheels simply spun on the loose surface leaving two little marks in my wake. My second attempt was much more gentle and off I went with the roof down. The lanes and roads around the river are narrow and have speed limits no greater than 45 mules per hour, so I couldn’t exploit the sheer power deep within (which was probably just as well), but to slowly cruise was wonderful. I think I love that car and may pop it into my hand luggage when I leave and steal it!
After I had shopped I returned to my woodland retreat atop the hill, had some breakfast and then settled down to various bits of work. The main focus of my morning was to work on the script for ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ which I am due to perform on Friday in Massachusetts. I have performed this little tale on many occasions and know the script very well, but this week’s performance is slightly out of the ordinary. During lockdown the Charles Dickens Museum in London asked me to perform an online version of the story, and I cooperated with my friend and fellow actor Jennifer Emerson, who is based in Massachusetts. Together we reworked the script, so that she took on the role of Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, whilst I enhanced the narrative with the recital of letters from Dickens, giving accounts of the planning for his American tour, his journey and his observations during his stay. It is an interesting challenge to learn, or at least re-learn, lines which have to fit within a script featuring another character. I am used to learning large chunks of text for my shows, and I have become quite adept at that over the years, but returning to the fragmented nature of dialogue, and having to make sure that another performer gets the correct cues is a much more disciplined task, so I have been spending quite a lot of time just pacing around the cabin muttering to myself.
At 10 o’clock on Monday morning I had a Zoom call with Jennifer and we went through the script together, making a few changes and discussing how we would actually stage the performance (of course last time we did it we were in different countries, so it was very much a vocal performance rather than a physical one).
When the call was over I did some more work on the lines, and then prepared myself to drive back to Byers’ Choice where 200 copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’ were waiting to be signed. Once more I settled myself deep within the Mustang and rumbled my way into Chalfont. The boxes of books were in the Conference Room, and I settled down to add my autograph to each copy, whilst listening to the BBC news coverage of events in Edinburgh as the Queen’s coffin was laid in state for the first time.
The signing didn’t take too long and when I had finished I went to find Bob to discuss another issue. The wonderful warning light that David had built for my performance of The Signalman was so impressive that I had suggested it would be great if I could take it to each of the forthcoming venues where I am due to perform the piece again. I will be driving to each, but the prop is over 6 feet tall and, especially in the case of Burlington, I would be driving in the Mustang which, for all its beauty, is not built to transport goods. I’d suggested that I keep the roof down and we had the light sticking up out of the top, maybe we could connect it to the brake pedal, so that it glowed ominously every time I slowed, but of course Dave and Bob had a more practical solution. I was taken to a workshop and witnessed the frame being sawn into two parts, with brackets to re-assemble it. Both parts would now fit in the Mustang and Dave had even installed a switch into the unit so that I could turn it off at the appropriate point of the show. I arranged to drop by in the morning, on my way to Burlington to pick up the finished article, before driving back to the cabin where I did a little more line learning, and then played myself at pool in the basement – and won!
Tuesday promised to be a busy day as I had two performances of my double bill, making it more like four performances. I gathered all of my costumes and props, loaded them into the Mustang and left the cabin at 9.15 and drove to Byers’ Choice to collect the light. As it would have to go into the back seat of the car, and as it had four metal plates to attach it again, Dave had also made some covers to avoid the metal edges damaging the upholstery, a very sensible precaution that I would never have thought about. I finished loading the car and then started the hour’s journey to Burlington, and the beautiful old United Methodist Church on Broad Street.
Burlington is one of my regular venues and I have been performing A Christmas Carol there for many years, so it was a pleasure to bring some more of my repertoire there this year. I pulled up outside the Church and went in, where I found Laura in the office preparing for the day’s events. Laura is our main contact at Broad Street and has been at the helm of the events since the very beginning, she is the centre of an active and deeply committed group of volunteers who put on amazing events. Laura told me that the audiences would be smaller than at Christmas, and we needed to decide where to stage the events. We could use the beautiful sanctuary, with its wrap around balcony and multi-level performing space, but a small audience may look rather lost in there, and also the day was hot and humid and there was no air conditioning in the hall.
The alternative was the basement room, also used for services, but much smaller and less beautiful, however it was cooler and the smaller space would suit the intimate nature of the double bill, whilst giving the impression of a larger crowd – the decision was an easy one in the end.
I unloaded the car, reconstructed the danger lamp, and then we all (me, Laura and the crew) worked on making the performance space look good. Lecterns and flags were removed, as well as large amounts of crucifixes and other religious iconology (I felt somewhat heretical, but as it was the members of the church community who were suggesting it, and doing the clearing I reckoned it was OK!). Laura asked if I wanted a large black cloth that is usually draped over the organ in the Sanctuary to be draped over the altar table, but an idea came into my head – was there any way we could hang it on the wall behind to create the great black void of the railway tunnel? Before I knew it people were clambering onto the altar, stretching up and trying to pin the cloth in place. In the end, the effect was perfect, but I am sure that I will be going to Hell for this.
The help continued as the team provided me with a very old book to represent the ‘official book’ that lies on the Signalman’s desk, and also a rather lovely miniature bell to stand on top of the signalling equipment. Both of these items looked superb on my set: along with the Mustang, my luggage promises to be bulging with nefariously purloined contraband when I leave on Saturday.
Even as we were setting up the first audience members began to arrive, so having checked that everything was in place, I retreated to my changing room, where the ever-attentive Marcia brought me my traditional pot of tea and biscuits – what a pre-show treat.
At 12.50 I made my way back downstairs in my Signalman costume, complete with black armband, and at 1 on the dot Laura welcomed the guests and handed the room to me. The audience were attentive and engaged, and the performance was intense and powerful, I enjoyed myself a great deal. The fact that I am continually performing the same repertoire on this trip means that it is becoming tighter and more effective with each show and I can relax much more. I finished the half, as I have done throughout this trip, by relating the anecdote of performing The Signalman on the Blaenau Ffestiniog railway in Wales##, where the audience had been brought up the mountain side, through the dark sombre slate hills, by train, and when I finished the show they all got back onto the (unlit) train and began the precipitous and precarious descent. Feeling that I should wave goodbye I had stood on a foot bridge across the line and waved in the manner of the spectre in the story, with one arm across my face. It is a good way to finish the act as it gets a bit of a laugh and just raises the spirits a little after the solemnity of the show itself.
At the interval I changed into my Marigold costume, with sleeves casually rolled up, thus displaying my war wounds from Jekyll, which have yet to heal fully and then returned to the room to change the set round in as anonymous a way as possible. When all was ready Laura called the room to order and Doctor M took over in his entertaining way. The audience laughed, were shocked, gasped and sobbed as the story toyed with their emotions and the applause at the end was wonderful – another group of people had become Marigold converts.
When the show was over and bows taken, we all made our way into another hall where tables are laid out, whilst tea, cakes, cookies and large slices of pumpkin pie are served. This is always a very nice informal way to conduct a meet and greet, autograph session, as everyone just watches until there is no line and ambles up to my desk to chat. On this occasion a very kind gentleman presented me with a large resin beer stein complete with characters from A Christmas Carol in relief – people are so generous. Throughout the session everyone offered sincere condolences for my country’s loss, there is a very genuine sense of grief and sorry here too.
The session drifted to its end and I returned to the hall to re-set for the evening’s performance of The Signalman, so that everything was ready. I changed and all of the Broad Street team walked to Francesco’s restaurant for a late lunch/early dinner. I enjoyed a salad with crispy chicken and honey mustard dressing, whilst the chat and banter was as entertaining as ever – these people are good people, kind people, generous and fun people.
Back to the church, and I had an hour or so to rest before the 7 o’clock show. My dressing room was in a large room used for Sunday school teaching, as well as for games and play. In the middle of the room was a pool table, so I had a few frames and once again I beat myself – I must be getting quite adept at the game as I keep winning.
Soon it was time to get back to business and I got back into costume ready for the 7 o’clock start. The evening audience was smaller, but just as attentive. My good friend Kevin from the New York branch of the Dickens Fellowship was there, which was great to see, but it meant I couldn’t get away with any incorrect facts as I spoke of Staplehurst (he knows his Dickens, does Kevin!), fortunately he was nodding a lot, which was a good sign.
Both shows went well again, although I was feeling the fatigue during Marigold, but the effect at the end was the same as in the afternoon and many a tear was surreptitiously wiped away.
At the reception I chatted with Kevin and his wife, and with many other regular fans, who have been coming to see A Christmas Carol for many years and who were delighted to see some of my other material. Soon, though, they drifted away and it was time to get changed and then start to dismantle the set, break down the light, and carefully pack everything into my mighty steed ready for an hour’s drive back to the cabin. I really felt very tired, but had the windows wide open as I drove. There were lots of deer along the way, but fortunately none ran into my path, which was a relief. At about 11pm I pulled the car into the parking space outside the house, locked it, and went inside.
Sleep came very quickly on Tuesday night.