Abel Magwitch, Anthony Gormley, Castleford, Charles Dickens, Fire, Gateshead, Great Expectations, Jury's Inn, Just Giving, Miss Havisham, Mr Dickens is Coming, Newcastle, Oxford Half Marathon, Pip, The Angel of the North, The Word, waistcoats
As summer turns to autumn my thoughts turn to a series of trips to America, but before I fly to Jacksonville on Thursday, I had one performance in Britain. I was returning to The Word, the magnificent National Centre for the Written Word in the north eastern city of South Shields.
In a remarkable attempt at efficiency I had decided to load the car the day before and had even created a spreadsheet with all of the props and costume pieces that I would need listed and a little check box waiting to be ticked next to each. I was due to perform Great Expectations and of all my major shows this one probably has the smallest set, meaning that packing the car is a relatively quick process, albeit one that always leaves me with the feeling that I have forgotten something. But, I had checked all of the boxes on my list, so it was all OK.
South Shields is tucked away in the far North Eastern corner of England, not far from the Scottish border, indeed just over the River Tyne is the town of Wallsend which marks the end (and also, presumably, the beginning) of Hadrian’s Wall. The drive from Oxford is around 4 1/2 hours, and allowing for a couple of stops for lunch and leg stretching I needed to get on the road at about 10.am.
Last time I drove to The Word I suffered a puncture within 20 minutes of starting and had to carry out a tyre change in the darkness and rain, so I was relieved that this year the journey was smooth and adventure-free. I listened to some podcasts and coverage of the morning practice sessions from the latest Grand Prix weekend, and in between took the time to run the lines of Great Ex. which still resolutely refuse to permanently in the way that the words of A Christmas Carol and Mr Dickens is Coming! do.
I stopped for lunch at a motorway service station and as I returned to the car I thought I would just check my costumes, which were hanging over the passenger seat, and to my horror I realised that I had failed to include a fancy waistcoat, despite ticking the relevant box. The costumes of Great Expectations lead from ragged at the opening (representing the convict Abel Magwitch and the Spartan life of the Gargery family in their tiny forge,) to a slightly old fashioned tail coat in which young Pip is sent to meet the intimidating Miss Havisham. At the end of the first act Pip is informed that he is to receive a huge income and be raised a gentleman by the largesse of an unknown benefactor (assumed to be Miss Havisham, of course) and at that point he changes into expensive and extravagant clothing.
As I drove on I debated as to how I could sort this problem out and decided I couldn’t really get away with wearing the very drab and plain waistcoat from the first act, so began looking for a shopping centre along the route where I could maybe find a store where I could purchase a fancy waistcoat – a wedding supplier would be perfect. In the end I found an outlet village in the Yorkshire town of Castleford and made my way in.
There used to be a television in the early 90’s programme called ‘Challenge Anneka’ in which the host, Anneka Rice, would leap out of a helicopter and try to find some equipment or products to complete the week’s challenge (usually refurbishing a community centre or school). She would run around shouting to anyone who happened to be present, ‘where can I find a timber merchant? Hello! can you help, I need a supply of timber, can you tell me where I need to go?’ and off she would run with camera crew in tow. Well, I felt a little in the same boat as I arrived at the crowded mall and I wanted to grab passers by and shout ‘Waistcoats, I need colourful waistcoats, help me, where is a waistcoat shop, can anyone help?’ Fortunately for the residents of Castleford the very first shop I saw was a men’s outfitters called Eden, and I thought I’d make a start there. At the very back of the shop I found a very smart double breasted waistcoat in a midnight blue with a pale check across it. Although not garish and bright, it exuded a sense of style and actually reminded me of one of the waistcoats that Dickens himself wore, and which was highlighted in the recent exhibition at The Charles Dickens Museum ‘Technicolour Dickens’.
Fortunately they had my size and, being an outlet centre, the price was very reasonable, so I bought it on the spot and resumed my journey north with a sense of relief.
I was due to stay in a hotel at Gateshead, on the banks of the Tyne, and just had time to check in , before continuing my journey along the river to arrive at the magnificent cylindrical building that houses The Word. I have performed at The Word on three previous occasions, so I know the form, which is to ignore all accepted traffic laws and drive up onto the pavement and park outside an anonymous looking door, through which my props can be easily carried to a lift. I was greeted by Pauline Martin and together we emptied the car before I could go and park a short distance away.
When I returned, Pauline had kindly loaded the lift and got everything to the top floor and all I had to do was to set the set, which involves draping and dressing a white hat stand to represent the figure of Miss Havisham and placing a few bits of furniture, as well as carefully leaving some items of costume on stage that are required during the first act (including my new waistcoat which was due to make its debut without rehearsal…).
It was an early start, 6.pm, and at 5.30 Pauline asked if she could let the public in and I retired to my little backstage store room to change and prepare for the show. From what I could hear there was a goodly-sized audience gathering and I was keen to begin. The problem with the room at The Word is that it is not a particularly theatrical space, especially as regards to lighting. Pauline had told me that when the building was built they had been promised spot lights, but that they have never materialised, meaning that the choice is strip lighting on, meaning my face is illuminated but so is the rest of the room, or strip lighting off, meaning that my face and figure is in shadow. We went for lights on.
At 6 o’clock I hid myself behind the stage and waited for the voiceover taken from the opening passages of the book to finish and then bounded onto the stage in the guise of Abel Magwitch: ‘Hold your noise, or I’ll slit your throat!’
Great Expectations takes quite a bit of concentration from the audience, and I am always a little concerned that it may not work, but the crowd in The Word followed every scene intently, meaning that I could tell the story without further worry. As I came towards the end of the first act I arrived at the moment when Pip has to change into his new smart London clothes, and so I picked up the new waistcoat. There was one problem in that whilst the fabric of the garment itself is suitably traditional, the lining is VERY garish and modern. This wouldn’t normally be a issue, but as I had to actually put the thing on, I couldn’t help the audience getting a glimpse of modernity. Maybe in the future I will get somebody to make a plain lining, but for now it did a good job and I was proud of its debut.
The end of the act arrived and the applause was long, loud and greatly appreciated. During the interval I changed properly (the ‘posh’ clothes are simply put on over the rough costume in the final scene of the act) and then snuck back to the stage as surreptitiously as I could, to remove a few props and discarded pieces of costume, before waiting for Pauline to give me the nod that Act 2 could begin.
The second half was as successful as the first and when I left the stage as Pip holding hands with Estella (my ending is based on Dickens’s second version, rather than on his terribly downbeat first attempt), the applause was once again very generous in both volume and longevity, and Great Expectations had hit the mark.
I took my bows and then changed and started to pack up my props and costumes. By the time I re-emerged onto the stage most of the audience had departed, but a few folk were still in the room and came up to chat, congratulate and pose for selfies before they headed down in the lift.
Various staff members at The Word helped me to get all of my stuff downstairs while I fetched the car and drove it up onto the pavement once more. I said my goodbyes (hopefully I will be back next year, possibly in March to celebrate World Book Day), and drove back to Jury’s Hotel in Gateshead.
The great thing about starting a show at 6pm was that the hotel restaurant was still serving food when I returned, and I was able to sit in the bar and have a piece of chicken roasted with lemon and thyme and wind down slowly.
I didn’t sleep terribly well through the night: fitful describes it, but towards morning I was beginning to doze off when suddenly the fire alarm went off screeching loudly in my room and flashing a red light, meaning I had to vacate the room, follow the green emergency exit signs and make my way down to the street with all of the other guests, where we waited for about half an hour as two fire engines arrived and investigated.
Fortunately there was no inferno, or even a smoulder, and we were allowed back to our rooms to catch a few more winks until the breakfast service began.
I treated myself to a ‘full English’ (ignoring mushrooms and black pudding) from the buffet and sat at a window seat looking over the Tyne towards the city of Newcastle on the opposite bank.
My fast suitably broken I packed up my bags and began the drive home, making sure I drove past Anthony Gormley’s amazing Angel of the North sculpture that towers over the A1 road. It is always a lovely experience to be in the North East and I shall be back in Newcastle in November to perform A Christmas Carol at The Literary and Philosophical Society.
And now thoughts turn to two important projects, the first being my trip to America during which I will mainly be performing the double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold at a variety of venues. At my very last stop, however, I am due to perform A Child’s Journey With Dickens, and was able to ask the venue if I may share the stage with actor Jennifer Emerson. Jennifer and I gave a Zoom performance of the piece last year, during which she took the role of Kate Douglas Wiggin whilst I played Dickens, so I was especially keen to reprise our performance whilst actually being in the same room, city, state, country and continent!
The other event which is looming ever larger is the Oxford Half Marathon which is to be run on 16 October. I have been in training for a few months now, and need to make sure that my efforts don’t flag, even though I am travelling and performing. When our daughters go back to school next week I shall make sure I get a few runs in, and hopefully a few in America too, even if that means availing myself of treadmills in various hotel gyms.
You will remember that I am running the race to raise much needed funds for Brain Tumour Research, and as an extra event I have scheduled a performance of Mr Dickens is Coming on 7 October in my home town of Abingdon with all profits going to my JustGiving page.
Please do support me in my efforts, you can donate to the fund by following the link at the end of this post. I am so grateful to all of those who have donated already and am keen to raise as much as I can for a cause that has had such a big impact on the life of Liz and me this year.
I shall let you know how the training is going in another post soon.