A Christmas Carol, Birmingham, Birmingham Penguin Parade Trail, Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, Great Western Arcade, Japan Crafts, Kevin The Penguin, Spaghetti Junction, The Charles Dickens Museum
On Tuesday I was back on the road again for the first of my final two British events before returning to America again. My first venue was Birmingham, and I was not sure what to expect from it.
Earlier in the year I had been approached by what seemed to be an events management agency to perform on behalf of a shopping arcade in Birmingham as part of a series of special events on the run up to Christmas – not just on behalf of the arcade, but actually in the arcade, at 5 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. I had looked online at images of the venue, and it looked very pretty, and pretty historic, but my show, which is essentially a theatre show? Would it work, could it work? As I set off from Abingdon, I had NO idea what the day would hold and actually felt a real sense of fear for the first time in many years.
Most of my props were still packed in the car, but I had to rearrange them to include my reading desk and various extra props needed for Mr Dickens is Coming, which I will be performing on Wednesday evening. Once everything had been squeezed in, and the boot shut successfully, I was ready to head to the Midlands
The drive to Brum is a fairly quick one, taking me to the famed Spaghetti Junction and from there along the very busy Aston Expressway into the heart of the city, where I managed to completely confuse my satnav unit, and spent quite a time trying to drive into pedestrianised roads, or heading off in the completely wrong direction, before finally I found myself at the Snow Street Railway Station car park. I found a space and then, once again following the map on my phone, this time in walking mode, I went to discover the city, and right opposite the station entrance I saw The Great Western Arcade. Although I had meant to walk to the apartment where I was to stay, I changed route slightly to investigate my venue for the evening. The GW Arcade is, as the online pictures had suggested, a straight elegant Victorian arcade, beautifully lit for Christmas with tasteful twinkling lights and a large Christmas tree bedecked in gold. As I walked through, there didn’t seem to be anywhere obvious to perform. The shops were all independents, no national or international chains, and included a Victorian sweet shop, a whisky shop, some high-end clothes shops, it was all very smart and chi chi.
In the middle of the mall was a slightly larger area, where the Christmas tree stood, and I imagined this would be the best place to perform – but I couldn’t imagine that we would draw much of an audience here and I would simply end up annoying tired commuters who were hurrying to catch their trains at Snow Hill.
For now, though, I needed to check into my apartment, which as it happened was only a couple of minutes’ walk from the Arcade. Around a square which as alive with a brightly lit Christmas market (Oh, yes, Christmas has come early to the major cities of England), and into Temple Street. where the front door to ‘my home’ nestled between two shops. To gain access to the building I had to punch a PIN onto a keypad, and I had great trouble finding the message with that number on it. I had found the apartment on a booking agency which I often use to book hotels, and had received many messages from them, and the apartment owner, over the previous days, but could I find the one about the entrance code? No, I couldn’t! It seemed to be buried deep inside other messages and was only accessible through following a certain unexplained order of clicks. I sat miserably on a bench searching and searching and searching, slowly coming to the conclusion that I might be spending my night in the car, when all of a sudden up popped the relevant page! I quickly punched in the number and took a lift up to the relevant floor, before punching in the second code which allowed me into the flat itself. It was a lovely apartment, fresh, bright and stylish. I put my bags down, freshened up a little and then headed out again, as it was time to meet Katie and Man, my contacts for the event who were waiting for me back at the arcade. We all got on straight away and went back into the arcade to decide how best to stage the event. We all agreed that the area around the Christmas tree would be the most appropriate, even though I would be sharing my performing space with a large blue and yellow fibreglass Penguin, who apparently, so Katie told me, had been nicknamed Kevin. I may have performed in stranger circumstances over the years, but I am struggling to remember when that might have been!
Having seen the location, I now had to decide how much of my set to unload from the car. Looking at the stream of passers-by it didn’t seem sensible to try and create a fixed stage, for I could see that I would have to be constantly moving to allow people through, so I decided on just the hatstand and the stool: everything else I could improvise. Katie and Man kindly offered to help me carry my things and we all trooped into carpark, where for a moment I couldn’t remember which floor the car was on. The garage featured 1/2 floors, so they were labeled 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B. I knew I was on floor 2,but was it 2B, or not…..? You can fill in the rest of the actor’s joke for yourselves. We actually found the car on 2A, and I unloaded what I needed, so that we could set off for the Arcade once more: me with my roller bag and costumes, Katie with the stool and top hat, whilst Man, the smallest of us all, took charge of the large unwieldy hatstand!
The show was due to start at 5 0’clock, and it was about 4.20 now, so I changed (in an empty shop unit), whilst Katie and Man optimistically put out some chairs for the audience. I emerged in costume, and Man immediately taking lots of photographs (her area of expertise being in digital marketing and website design)
As I posed and grinned, I noticed a gentleman hovering nearby clutching a copy of a book that I knew very well, and which filled me with a feeling of warm nostalgia and happiness; it was the white edition of A Christmas Carol published by The Dickens House Museum (now The Charles Dickens Museum) in 1965. Why did this particular edition have such an effect on me? The very first time I can remember the story being read to me, it was on Christmas Eve and I must have been 5 or 6. My Uncle Claud and Aunt Audrey, with their children Kate and Rowland, were staying for Christmas and Claud read from the same, white-covered edition to us all, so introducing me to a story that has shaped my life. I have later editions of the same book, with a red cover and a green cover, but to see the white edition made me quite sentimental.
I soon fell into conversation with Barry, the book’s owner, and it turned out that he was a member of the Birmingham branch of The Dickens Fellowship and had been since 1965 at which time he was the youngest member of the society. ‘Now,’ we ruminated, ‘I am the oldest!’ We chatted for quite a while, and he shared his lifelong passion for Dickens. Barry was a wonderfully cheerful and knowledgeable gentleman, who had worked in that most Dickensian of industries, the law. At least I knew I had one audience member, and I began to feel more confident about the hour or so ahead of me, and gradually a few more people arrived and sat down, obviously come specifically to see what I had to offer. At five o’clock, I stepped into the space, with Kevin watching over me, and began. I didn’t have the usual music cue, so instead simply welcomed the group, now numbering10, by telling them that the very first time that Charles Dickens performed A Christmas Carol in public, it was in the city of Birmingham, and that he had told the audience that they should laugh or cry and feel free to express their emotions openly, rather than sit obediently in silence. I hope that the present group would do the same, and off I went.
Of course, the show was compromised slightly by the surroundings, and as well as concentrating on my acting I also had to be aware of the people using the arcade for their journey home, and make sure that I didn’t get in their way. Some simply marched straight through the set without caring, or possibly without even noticing what was going on, others hesitated, unsure if they should proceed, and to those folk I took the action to one side of the area and incorporated a slight gesture in the manner of a police office on traffic duty, as if to say, ‘please come through, its fine: it’s a pedestrian arcade after all!’ The nods or whispers of thanks from those people, made the performance even more special. Some people even stopped, watched for a while, and then took a seat, meaning that I had a larger audience at the end than I did at the beginning – it is always best that way round. Katie and Man sat together outside The Good Intent, a rather nice-looking pub situated opposite Kevin’s plinth, and from where quite a few interested drinkers watched the goings on with a sense of curiosity and, I hope, some admiration.
I cut a few bits of my longer script out, trying to judge the interest levels of my audience in the somewhat chilly alley, but kept the bulk of it. I finished, of course, with ‘God bless us, everyone’ and as I took a bow, I was greeted by one of the most welcome, and unexpected standing ovations I have ever received. I shook hands and chatted with the audience members, and the nerves of that morning seemed but a distant memory. The crowd gently dissipated, drifting away into the Birmingham night, as if they themselves were spectres, and I returned to the empty shop to change, while Katie and Man put the chairs away.
By way of celebration, we had a drink in The Good Intent, Man insisting that we bring my props into the pub rather than leaving them out on the arcade, so we sat at a booth protected by a hatstand which actually was rather useful for us all to hang our coats on.
The evening finished with another trip to my car (me taking charge of the hatstand this time), and we shared hugs and said our goodbyes before Katie and Man visited the Christmas market, and I bought a pizza to eat in my apartment far above the noisy and bustling city streets below.
It had been a fascinating day, and I am still not sure why Kevin, the blue and yellow Penguin was there – but he had been a fine companion, nonetheless.