A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Courtyard by Marriott, Ebenezer Scrooge, Marriott Hotels, The Berkshires, Ventfort Hall Mansion
I woke up in my Comfort Inn in Manchester not at 3am, or 4am, but I actually made it to 6 for the first time on the trip! I had been woken to the sound of a car alarm sounding in the parking lot, and I vaguely had a memory of hearing a similar alarm at a previous hotel which rather worryingly suggested that it might have been my car.
Saturday morning would be taken up with driving to The Berkshires, the beautiful mountain region in western Massachusetts, and it looked as if it were going to be another amazing day to drive, with clear skies and a light frost on the ground. Before leaving I had time to watch some more practice from the Grand Prix and as soon as the session was over, I checked out and got on the road.
For audio accompaniment on this trip, I listened to a series of podcasts about the forthcoming Ashes cricket series. I hope that my English readers will forgive me for a moment, while I explain about The Ashes. The greatest rivalry within the international cricket calendar is that between the Australian team and the English team, which dates back to 1882 when the Aussies first beat England on British soil. On the next day an obituary to English cricket was published in The Times newspaper and the wooden bails (part of the equipment used during the match) were burned and the ashes placed in a tiny ceramic urn. Ever since that little urn has been the trophy that the two nations have played for. An Ashes series only comes around once every few years, alternating between England and Australia, and in the winter of ’21, ’22 the series is being played in the Southern hemisphere, where England have only won once in the last 34 years. The podcast was made by the BBC cricket correspondent and delved into all of the preparations inherent in sending a team to the land down under and was a very interesting listen.
My route took me back towards Boston and then skirting to the west of the city I drove straight back through Worcester where I was just a week before, and once again admired the beautiful old railroad station with its twin white towers making it look like the old Wembly football stadium in London.
The views as I progressed west became ever more spectacular, with dark lakes shimmering with a thin skim of ice on the surface. The traffic became less, and the mountains appeared on the horizon. After two and a half hours of driving I left the freeway and took the route signposted for ‘The Berkshires’ and soon was driving through the pretty town of Lee and on towards Lenox. By this time the final qualifying session for the Formula 1 Grand Prix was starting, and I was able to listen to the radio coverage, via the F1 App on my phone connected to the car’s audio system: it is amazing what we take for granted now and how technology has advanced during my years of touring (remembering the old days of trying to connect a large heavy laptop to a modem, and enduring the whining, beeping and screeching of the dial-up connection). On the final miles of my drive, I listened to the first two thirds of the action until I pulled up outside The Courtyard by Marriott in Lenox.
As I unloaded my bags, I suddenly realised how much I have relied on Marriott during this tour. Not only have I stayed in hotels run by the company in Long Island, Nashua and now here in Lenox, but also my PCR Covid test was conducted in a Courtyard hotel in Oxford, before I left England.
I checked in as quickly as I could and then rushed up to the room to catch the final moments of qualifying on the TV, and I wasn’t to be disappointed as it came to a thrilling climax, with one of the two drivers still fighting for the World Championship crashing out at the very final corner of the very final lap.
I didn’t have much time in the hotel as it was now 1pm and I had to be at my next venue at 1.30. I quickly ate a chicken salad (which Joe had bought for me before the show in Manchester, but which I had not eaten, and it had remained well refrigerated in the car overnight), gathered my belongings and hurried out, not forgetting to take the little carboard sleeve that my room keys were held in, for I have reached that time of the trip where I struggle to remember not only the number of my room, but even the floor I am on!
My venue in Lenox is Ventfort Hall, a beautiful mansion built at the end of the 19th Century for Sarah Morgan, who was the sister of J Pierpont Morgan, which is an interesting connection in itself, in that the original handwritten manuscript of A Christmas Carol was purchased by Morgan and is annualy displayed in the library bearing his name in New York City. I have performed at Ventfort on two previous occasions, and it is a great venue, with the ambience of the small and elegant room really adding something to the storytelling – actually, it is very simmilar to the General Crook House in Omaha. In previous years we have seated an audience of 80 in the little parlour, packed hard in with not an inch of space left. But this year, due to Covid, the audience numbers had been reduced and the seats spaced out. I was greeted by Haley who looks after the running of the house and who has a background in theatrical stage managegement, and she ran through the precautions with me. The audience would all be masked and would all be required to show their vaccination certificate before admission. On the stage, or at least, on the floor at the end of the room where I was performing, she had stuck a line of blue tape, which marked 6 feet from the front row, and that was my ‘acting line’. I placed the props, having changed a very elegant and obviously antique chair for one that I could stand on. When the stage was ready, I introduced to Chris who would be operating my sound cues. Chris had also supplied the wooden stool for the set, from his own home, so I asked him if it was ok to knock on it with my wooden cane, for that tends to leave little indentations, and he said he would be delighted and honoured to have such a souvenir of the show in his house!
It was getting towards 2.15 now and some of the first guests were beginning to arrive, so I retired to my ‘dressing room’, which is in fact the room where Sarah Morgan dressed. I had a chaise longue at my disposal, and a table laid with a bottle of champagne and a plate of strawberries (all fake, unfortunately!)
I changed into my costume and waited for the 3pm start time, and when Hayley gave me the word, I went into the great hall ready to walk through the audience and to begin.
It was strange experience to be in a room of fully masked people without wearing one myself, and I half wondered if I should have done the show masked, but there is no way that could have worked. I made sure that I remained behind my blue line as much as I could (which led to a somewhat linear performance).
The audience were a little quiet at first, maybe sharing my uncertainties about being in this confined space together, but soon the atmosphere began to lighten, and laughter filled the little parlour, and at the end as I took my bows the 50 strong audience stood and cheered.
We had a short Q&A session and then the audience left the room to have an elegant tea at tables spread throughout the house. Usually I would join them, but this year I returned to my changing room, where I noticed a plate of cakes, sandwiches and fancies had been left for me – they were on the table next to the champagne and strawberries, so I had to check that they were, in fact, real; and they were, deliciously real.
I changed back into my normal clothes and slipped out of the house in as inconspicuous manner as I could manage considering I was wearing a bright red Christmas sweater, and drove back to my hotel admiring the Christmas lights which decorated the town of Lenox.
I was due to be taken out to dinner in the evening and Hayley had offered to pick me up at 7 o’clock. There was light snow flurrying in the air and my beanie hat and gloves were still in the car, which sat glowing richly in the winter night.
Fully wrapped up against the chill of the evening I waited for Hayley who arrived bang on time, and we drove to the nearby town of Great Barrington where we joined Alice, Patrick and Stephen in ’10’, a restaurant specialising in steaks. We have all met and dined together before and it was great to get together once more and pick up where we left off, two or three years ago. The food was as fine as the company, and we shared a convivial evening with plenty of laughter, although perhaps inevitably the conversation continually returned to Covid issues.
After the last of the desserts had been finished, we left 10 and said our various goodbyes. Patrick and Stephen would be driving me back to Lenox, as Hayley lives in Great Barrington, and as we drove we talked about the power of American Equity, the actors’ union, as well as the benefits and frailties of the British National Health Service – not bad for a thirty-minute drive!
Back at The Courtyard I checked my little cardboard sleeve to confirm where my room was and retired for the night.