Throughout my working year most of the venues that I perform at are repeat bookings, meaning that I know who I am going to meet, where I am going to change and how the room feels. The fact that I have so many requests to return is a wonderful compliment, and makes me feel very satisfied about what I am doing. Occasionally, however, I will receive an email out of the blue asking me to visit a new city and organisation and this is always exciting but slightly nerve-wracking. Such a thing occurred last year when I was contacted by The Leeds Literary Festival with a request to appear as part of their 2022 event. In fact they had wanted me two years ago, but the onslaught of Covid put paid to that. We communicated via email and phone until we settled on Wednesday 2 March as a suitable date, and I would perform my double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold in The Leeds Library.
The day dawned grey and rainy and I spent the morning loading the car up with the various props that the two shows require, and it is quite a collection: for The Signalman I have a large clerk’s desk, which is in two parts – stand and top, a small table, a chair and a stool. On top of the desk is a large wooden box with the image of Victorian signalling equipment pasted to the front, representing the ‘telegraphic instrument with its dial, face and needles’ that Dickens describes. There is a large book, a railwayman’s lamp (complete with a battery-operated candle to make it flicker) and a new addition – a theatrical spotlight (or at least, an interior designer’s approximation of one) on a stand to double for the dismal danger light at the mouth of the tunnel which is so important to the telling of the story. For Marigold I have a small set of wooden steps, a stool (a smaller one than that which features in The Signalman), a wooden crate, an anodised pail with a small metal shovel, a kettle and a rolled up blanket. Alongside all of the hardware I had to pack two costumes and of course a box containing copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’ All of this filled pretty well every square inch of a Renault Kadjar and it was with a sense of relief that all of the doors shut successfully.
The drive to Leeds takes about three hours and I left with plenty of time in hand just in case the notorious M1 roadworks should delay me. As it happened my journey was very smooth and I had plenty of time to stop for lunch before arriving in the heart of the city at around 3 o’clock, ready to check in at my hotel, The Plaza Park. Being in the very centre the hotel had no car park, but I was able to leave the car for a few minutes in order to get directions to a large parking garage nearby, from where I could easily walk back. I had an hour in my room, during which I had a shower to freshen myself up before going to the venue.
Even though the Library was only a five minute walk from my hotel, I needed to drive so that I could unload all of the furniture and props ready for the show, but as I made my way to the car I had a phone call from Carl, who had booked me. In our various emails I had mentioned to him that I would arrive at the library at 4, unload and then go to park the car, and he had suddenly realised that he hadn’t told me that there was no vehicular access to the library at all, so I would need to park in another parking garage, where he would meet me and help me unload.
By the time I was finally parked on the second level of the QPark garage it was almost 4.30 and I had agreed to appear on a Leeds Lit Fest live podcast at 5, so other than taking my costumes and a few smaller articles, Carl and I decided to delay the unloading process until later. We took the lift down to the ground level and walked along a typical city centre street, through the bustle of a weekday evening, past a McDonalds and a Starbucks until we arrived at a rather nondescript door, squeezed in between a branch of the CoOp Bank and a Paperchase stationery shop.
A blue plaque on the wall suggested that the may be more to this building than met the passing eye, and Carl pushed the door open and I found myself in a small marble hallway at the bottom of a curling grand staircase, which lead up to an Aladdin’s cave filled with the treasure of books!
The Library was founded, so a small wooden sign informed me, in 1768, but moved to its current location in 1808. At the top of the stairs is ‘The Main Room’ and this is the modern section of the library where up to date novels, audiobooks and DVDs can be found but, even so, it has a wonderfully antiquated feel to it, with an iron spiral staircase at one end and books packed into the shelves from floor to ceiling.
Through a small door between shelves and then I am in the ‘New Room’ which was built 140 years ago. It was in the New Room that I was to perform and I had to pause for a moment to take in the grandeur and splendour of my surroundings. The room was narrow and again the walls from floor to ceiling were lined with books over two stories. Opposite my small stage was a magnificent wooden staircase leading to the upper level and around 70 chairs were laid out in the body of the room, this was going to be a wonderful space to perform in.
For now though, I had to concentrate on the podcast and was shown into the Old Librarian’s Office, which would also become my dressing room.
There waiting to greet me was Molly Magrath, who would be interviewing me, and huddled behind two laptops was Jack who would be looking after all the technical side of the session. We had a few minutes before the broadcast was due to start, so they pulled out some gems from the shelves – a travel book dating back to the 1400s (the author never left England so it was a complete work of fantasy!), and a second edition of The Hobbit. Molly also handed me a beautifully bound first edition of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming and this was a real treasure for a Bond fanatic like me to hold.
5 O’clock came round and without ceremony Molly was talking to the little webcam about my visit, and we had a great conversation about the theatricality of Dickens and how I prepare my shows for the stage. It was a really good interview, not too rigidly bound by questions, just a flowing chat. I had done a little research into Dickens’ visits to Leeds and unfortunately he hadn’t seemed to be too impressed by the City. He first visited in 1847 to give a speech at The Mechanics Institute. The visit was in December and he had a terrible cold, but the experience of Leeds wasn’t a pleasant one. He didn’t return for a further 10 years but his memories still burned brightly, for he wrote home to his sister in law on that second occasion that ‘we shall have, as well as I can make out the complicated list of trains, to sleep at Leeds-which I particularly detest as an odious place-tomorrow night.’ Charming!
He did, however, return to Leeds 3 further times to give readings, and indeed actually performed Doctor Marigold, as I would be doing later on the evening of March 2.
When Molly wrapped the podcast up I went to find Carl and together we walked back to the car park and began the task of shifting all of my stuff back to the library; it took as three trips to get all of the furniture into the lift, down to ground level, past McDonalds and Starbucks, into the front door, up the narrow staircase, through the Main Room and into The New Room. And it was raining!
At last everything was in and I began creating the set for The Signalman. The stage was not large, but there was plenty of room to place the clerk’s desk with the telegraphic instrument and bell atop it, and the stool beneath. I placed the table a little downstage and placed the chair at the back, so that the Signalman, unused to visitors, could grab it, dust the seat off, and place it for the stranger to sit on. Immediately behind the stage was a display case which was the only bit of furniture in the room that was not an antique, and I was able to put my new red light on top of it, meaning that it towered above the scene in a suitably imposing manner. When the first act set was in place I took the opportunity of running through a few lines and as I did another member of the library staff, Ian, busied himself putting programmes on chairs and preparing a makeshift bar for the evening. When I had finished my brief rehearsal Ian introduced himself and asked if I would like to see the basement, an offer that I was delighted to accept. We descended into the bowels of the building where there is a huge collection of very old books, many in a terrible condition. Ian explained that in days of yore the library had been lit by gas jets which had created acidity in the air causing irreparable damage to the leather bindings. The plan is to restore every volume, but at a cost of over a million a shot, that project is a very long term one. I looked along the shelves and there was a first edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’ final, unfinished, novel. It was such a treat to hold in my hands something that connected me so closely to my great great grandfather. Elsewhere in the basement were racks of periodicals and newspapers just waiting for keen-eyed researchers to discover some wonderful long-lost fact. As we ascended the stairs once more, Ian said wistfully that he never tires of showing off the collection in the basement and that everybody notices something new.
Back upstairs I retired to the Librarian’s Office, my very grand dressing room, and ate a small salad and some fruit before getting into costume for the first act. Outside, the audience gathered and began to take their seats. Ian had told me that this was the largest audience that the New Room had held since the beginning of lockdown. At 7.30 Carl poked his head in and asked if I was ready, and on my replying ‘yes’, he said a few words of introduction and then left the stage to me.
I welcomed the audience, made reference to CD’s rather uncomplimentary words about Leeds, and then launched into a brief description of the circumstances behind the Staplehurst rail crash, vital to both the telling of The Signalman and to the selling of my book at evening’s end. Soon I was into the dark, claustrophobic ghost story and , as ever, I surprised myself by the sheer physicality of what is a very short performance. The emotional intensity of the piece is exhausting and I continually find that by the time I finish every limb is aching from the tension.
On my concluding the story and then announcing the spooky fact that although Dickens was not killed at Staplehurst, he did die exactly 5 years, to the day, after the crash, there was a gasp from the audience, partly in surprise and partly out of relief that they too could relax back into the real world.
Having left the stage and allowed a little time for the audience to drift away, I started clearing the furniture from The Signalman away and setting the stage for Doctor Marigold. In the office I changed into a new costume (long corduroy Victorian-style trousers, rather than the breeches I used to wear), and after twenty minutes or so I returned to the stage to perform my favourite show in the character of the ever resilient and cheerful cheapjack, Doctor Marigold. At one point in the monologue, Marigold describes building a cart with books in ‘rows upon rows’ and so the book-lined walls of the New Room formed the perfect setting for the second half of the story. The audience were rivetted and entranced, as audiences tend to be when witnessing this little gem of a story for the first time.
I finished and left the stage and there was generous and warm Yorkshire applause when I returned to take my bows. Having taken a few minutes to cool down, I made my way back into The Main Room, where I chatted, sold and signed my book, until the audience drifted away into the night.
I changed back into everyday clothes, having briefly donned my black frockcoat again for a couple of photographs that Ian wanted to take on the New Room staircase, and then faced the proposition of taking all of my furniture downstairs, up the street, into the car park, up the lift and back to the car again, however Carl suggested that I actually left everything in the Library, for in the morning the bollards closing off the pedestrianised street would be down, allowing access to the shop fronts for deliveries, and so I would be able to drive to the front door, which would make things much easier.
I walked through the streets of Leeds, back to my hotel and was delighted to discover that they offered a 24 hour room service, so I ordered a plate of fish and chips and let the adrenaline of the evening gently subside, until eventually I fell asleep in the early hours of Thursday morning.
I woke with a start at around 7.40, and decided to get the car loaded before having breakfast, so I quickly showered and retrieved my car, before driving slowly past pedestrians hurrying to work, along the pavement of Commercial Street. Carl and the library caretaker were there to assist and in no time all of my furniture was squeezed into the Renault – actually, we seemed to have hit on an improved system of loading, in that there seemed to be more space than when I had loaded up the day before.
I said farewell to Carl, promising that I would endeavour to find a date for a repeat visit in the winter tour, and returned to the hotel where I enjoyed a hearty full English breakfast before getting on the road for home. The journey was smooth once again and I arrived back in Oxfordshire at midday.
As I unloaded the car I discovered the reason that loading had been so easy, for I had left the ‘telegraphic instrument’ prop in the library. I will next need it for a performance in Preston, Lancashire, at the end of March, so Carl and I will have to work out how to reunite it with the rest of the set, but that is all for another day. For now I could reflect on a wonderful evening, in a beautiful setting, and a new venue for my future tours.