Having returned from America last week, and having solemnly and proudly spending Monday watching the funeral of Queen Elizabeth (wearing a dark suit and black tie in respectful honour of my Monarch), it was time to turn my attentions to the two projects coming up in October.
The first is a performance of Mr Dickens is Coming and Doctor Marigold in my home town of Abingdon, to raise funds for Brain Tumour Research. My fundraising efforts began in April when Liz’s sister Sheila died from the condition and I decided to turn my hand to working on behalf of the charity. The main push to my efforts was entering the Oxford Half Marathon on October 16th, and much of my year has been spent pounding the Oxfordshire roads trying to get myself into shape to complete 13 miles. However I also decided to stage a benefit performance (which will require rather less effort than the Half), and that is due to be performed on 7th October, so my initial work was to put in place publicity for the show. I designed posters and had them printed and started sending press releases out to all and sundry. Ticket sales are looked after by Eventbrite and it was with a smile that the first email confirmations of bookings came into my inbox.
With publicity rolling, I also needed to get back to training. I had run a couple of times in America, but not with any great intensity, so I went out one afternoon to run the 6 mile ring road which surrounds Abingdon. Everything was going well and my breathing was good and the legs felt powerful….until the 3 mile mark when suddenly a searing pain came from my right calf. I immediately stopped (I had promised myself, and Liz, that if anything felt untoward I wouldn’t push on thereby risking further damage), and limped home. What I hoped might be a cramp lingered annoyingly into the evening and through the night, so I feared that I may have suffered my first running injury just as I should be in my final stages of preparations. The next day I called a sports physiotherapist, but he was unavailable, so I just went about my ordinary business without putting too much strain on my leg. The next day it felt better, and I tried a few little runs, just a few hundred yards at a time, and felt no adverse effects, so I was confident that I could get out for a proper training run again.
Today, 23 September, I dropped our children to school and then set off to do two laps of the ring road, which would mean a 12 mile run – the little loop back to home would mean that I would be completing around 13 miles, the very distance that I will need to achieve to complete the event in October. I knew that I had to prove to myself that I could complete 13 miles before arriving in Oxford, and it needed to be done sooner than later, for if I were still pounding out long distances in the week of the event I wouldn’t have any energy for the race itself, so today was the day (leg muscles allowing)
At 8.50 I started to run, and it felt good. I kept a steady pace, not wanting to go off too quickly, and soon was in the centre of the town. I passed the spot where my calf had gone a few days before and still everything was OK. On I ran, past the fire station and later the police station, then turning right opposite McDonalds and climbed gradually towards the point I’d started from.
For much of my training I have been listening to audiobooks to accompany me, but a good friend and keen runner had told me that actually he runs better with nothing playing in his ears, so today I tried this and it seemed to work. My mind, rather than concentrating on the unfolding story, just ambled around. I thought of my forthcoming show, I thought of the performances in the USA, I admired a motorcyclist’s crash helmet livery which was charmingly old fashioned, rather than the multi-coloured ones that are usually so popular. I listened to birds, looked at trees, read the names of haulage companies on the cabs of lorries, and the miles just slipped away under the soles of my feet
I still felt strong, so set off for a second 6 mile lap. I had a choice to make at this point, did I turn round and complete lap two in the reverse direction, which in hindsight would have been the sensible thing to do, or just plough on through familiar scenery? I decided to carry on. Of course it was getting harder, but I was soon in town again (where my 10 year old’s class was gathering to sing Status Quo’s ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’ in the market square for reasons I am not sure of), and on towards McDonalds again, which would be the ten mile mark. At this stage, I admit, I began to find the going tough and I slowed to a walk a few times during those final 3 miles, but I never stopped, I was moving forward the whole time, and when I reached home I checked my Strava app and saw that I had clocked up exactly 13 miles. I had done it! When I had thought about this run I reckoned I could do it in around 2 hours, 10 minutes (I run at an average pace of 9.30 minute miles, but I knew I wouldn’t keep that up over thirteen and had estimated an average of 10 minute miles), and my final time was 2 hours 9 minutes, despite the walking: I was very very proud of that!
So I am in a good place, I know that I can do it, and now can rein back the distances a little to leave me with plenty of energy for the big day – I even have a PB to aim for now, I would like to get to around 2 hours if I could on the day.
So, I think that deserves some more sponsorship donations! Thank you so much to all of those who have already contributed so generously, taking the fund up to nearly £1,000, but we need more! So please do check out the link and come with me on my 13 mile journey.
There are certain events in my schedule that mark the never-changing progress of the year – some are important dates for their historical significance and may, or may not, be linked to a performance (specifically February 7 and June 9 being the dates on which Charles Dickens was born and died respectively). The great Dickens Festival in Rochester is always held at the end of the spring half term, whilst Thanksgiving Day in America sees the start of my main tour of the United States. But there is another event, without which my year would seem fractured and incomplete: the Victorian Festival in the Welsh spa town Llandrindod Wells, which takes place during the second half of August.
I was introduced to Llandrindod many years ago by my good friend David Hawes who, although based in Kent, worked with the festival organisers to bring a flash of pizzazz and theatricality to the event. David has always been a great champion of my work and many of my current venues are thanks to his influence and powers of persuasion. Back in 2014 he looked at the Llandrindod festival programme and reckoned that one of my shows would fit in well, so he made sure that the committee booked me to perform at the perfectly named ‘Albert Hall’
I took to the festival straight away and have been returning ever since, meaning that August wouldn’t be August without driving to mid-Wales. Like so many events the LLandrinod festival suffered greatly during the two Covid years, but this year it was back – alive and kicking. The event has relied for many years on a group of both locals and visitors gathering, dressing in Victorian costumes and attending a series of themed events, talks and shows. The town boasts a wonderful small green, complete with a bandstand, and this has become the focus of the activities. In past years there has been a small funfair, a craft fair and some sideshows to provide entertainment for the locals who may have otherwise felt excluded. This year the committee had included a series of non-Victorian events to further boost the appeal, including concerts featuring Dolly Parton, Tom Jones and Witney Houston tribute acts (not to mention that well known Charles Dickens tribute…I must think of a suitable pun-laden name for my act). At the town’s large lake, nestling in the valley, a series of children’s piratical adventures was laid on, featuring treasure hunts and it seemed to me that the town itself was beginning to once more embrace the festival, meaning it was no longer the sole preserve of the stalwarts, although they still are very much the core and beating heart of the event.
My show at The Albert Hall was to be staged on Tuesday night and this year I had been asked to perform a double bill of Mr Dickens is Coming! followed by The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. These two shows were the first that I wrote back in ’95 and ’96 and whilst I have already performed Mr Dickens is Coming a few times this year, I have not revisited Nickleby for a long time and it was with great pleasure that I spent the days preceding my trip going through the lines and finding that they came back to me with a minimum of effort – not just the lines, but the timing, nuances and movements too.
My drive from Oxford to Powys took me on motorways at first, but in no time I was on smaller roads, driving through picturesque villages. Shortly after passing Tenby Wells I realised that the car was in need of fuel and so I stopped at a small filling station. In fact I queued at the small filling station, for the price of a litre of Unleaded was £1.62, by far the lowest I had seen since the prices were coming down from their £2.00 peak of a few weeks before, and obviously people were coming from miles around to avail themselves of a bargain top up. I took the opportunity of the stop to buy a sandwich for my lunch, and I chose a magnificent door-stop cheese and pickle example. This wasn’t a typical pre-packed, limp, flabby, sweaty sandwich, such as you might expect to find in a petrol station, oh no, this had been lovingly built by hand by someone who wanted to make sure that drivers didn’t go hungry!
Shortly after finishing my sandwich I decided that I fancied a cup of coffee, maybe a slice of cake, and I was pondering where best to purchase these items when I saw brown tourist signs for the National Trust property Croft Castle. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘I have a National Trust membership card, so I wont have to pay an entrance fee, and the property is sure to have a tea room, so why not give myself a little treat?’ I was not disappointed, for the tea room served up an excellent slice of coffee and walnut, and the setting was fabulous.
I stretched my legs by walking to the ‘castle’ itself and admiring the views, before returning to my car and completing the journey through the gorgeous Welsh scenery
I arrived in Llandrindod at around 3pm and checked into my home from home in the town, The Portland Guest House where I settled into the room I always have on the very top floor. I lay on the bed, watched a little cricket on the television and had a short nap before it was time to shower and make my way to the theatre – a drive of 0.1 mile, which took me maybe less than a minute. I unloaded my various props, and with the assistance of theatre manager Ben carried them to the stage.
It was at this point that I realised that I had left my top hat and walking cane at home. These items do not have a huge role in the show, in fact they only appear in a single scene very early on in Mr Dickens is Coming to create the jaunty demeanour of Mr Micawber, who uses the cane to as a metaphoric set of scales to measure the happiness or misery of his income. The show can be played without these simple items, but it would be a shame, and as the large majority of the audience would be in costume, I reckoned that I may be able to borrow a hat and cane from somewhere: I asked Ben to make appropriate enquiries on my behalf.
I had plenty of time to prepare, for the show wasn’t due to start until 8pm, although some of the audience arrived expecting a 7.30 curtain up. Having carefully set the stage I ran through parts of both shows, until the first of the public began to arrive, festival regulars in full costume, and having said a few hellos I made my way back to the dressing room, where I changed into costume and waited. As time passed Ben appeared holding a hat which he had commandeered. No cane yet, he was working on it!
I could hear the audience gathering and eventually, with ten minutes to go, a walking cane appeared too: I was ready to go.
At 8 o’clock Queen Victoria (aka my good friend Rita) made her entrance and the whole audience were asked to stand as she processed to her front row seat, as I stood waiting in the wings, desperate to get going (I am like a caged beast in those last minutes before a show starts, pacing to and fro waiting to be released). When the Queen was seated Ben faded the houselights to black and then illuminated the stage and I walked on to a round of applause. The Albert Hall could really have been built to suit my style of shows – the size and elegance of the auditorium and the imposing and powerful height of the stage, makes it perfect for me. Mr Dickens is Coming went well, getting laughs at the right moments, and I was very careful with the top hat (a particularly fine vintage example), and cane during the Micawber section, but as I made my way into the sinuous, repulsive Uriah Heep passage and then to the exhausting sword fight of The Bagman’s Uncle (masquerading as a 1960’s James Bond movie), I threw everything into the show.
At the interval I waited until most of the audience had left the auditorium then changed the furniture round in readiness for Nicholas Nickleby (not a huge set change, it must be said, just changing the red reading desk from stage left to stage right, and moving the chair from stage right to stage left.) I made sure that various prop letters that are needed for Nickleby were where they should be, and then waited until the Queen returned and I could begin once more.
As I had discovered during my rehearsals Nickleby came back to me as if I had been performing it regularly all season and I had lots of fun leaping from character to character. I used a slightly different voice for Ralph Nickleby, making him a little older than he used to be, but it didn’t go well as my throat began to tighten, so I reverted back to a safer option for the balance of the show.
The story raced from Devon to London to Yorkshire back to London to Portsmouth back to London again and finally to Devon once more before reaching its conclusion over Smike’s grave. I left the stage and returned to take my bows as the audience applauded my efforts. It had been a fun night.
As soon as I was off stage I began packing up my costumes and props as the 8.00pm start time meant that it was late, and I had dinner to enjoy yet. Ben and the rest of the Albert Hall Crew helped me load my car up and I drove back to the Portland from where I walked back to John Abell’s home where we traditionally have a late night Chinese take away in the company of his mum Julie, and this year we were joined by Marina from the festival committee and her daughter Mia. We tucked into the meal, drank some champagne that John had bought for us, and finished off with chocolate brownies. There was lots of chat about films, running, the festival and various other topics, and it was a perfect way to wind down after such an energetic and exciting evening.
It was late when I walked back to Portland but even then the adrenaline was still keeping me awake so I switched on the television and found an old episode of Inspector Morse. I knew it was time to turn the lights out when the murderer was revealed and I hadn’t realised that anyone had yet been murdered!
On Wednesday morning I woke to find the town wrapped in cloud with a wet drizzle soaking everything, this was a pity for I’d planned to head up into the hills and play some golf that morning. I went downstairs to breakfast and devoured bacon, sausage, egg and toast and as I ate, the skies seemed to brighten a little and I decided to go ahead with my original plan after all.
Llandrindod Wells golf club is a lovely course which I have played on a number of occasions and the weather Gods welcomed me as I pulled into the car park, for the clouds disappeared and revealed a blue sky behind. I was greeted by the club pro Phil Davies, and we chatted for a while about the festival and Charles Dickens, before I set off on my morning’s adventure. The course is very hilly, especially over the first 4 holes as they rise up to the highest point, and I asked Phil if I could rent an electric trolley for my heavy golf bag. I have not used one before and it took me a while to get used to the controls – at first I had the speed setting too high and the thing flew off up the course dragging me behind it. I would have reduced the setting if I’d bothered to ask how to do that, but I had no idea how to control the thing as it threatened to pull my arm from its socket. Eventually I discovered a little dial on the handle and my journey up the mountainside became more sedate.
The round of golf was wonderful and I actually had the course to myself for the morning. The scenery surrounding me was stunning, the air was clear and little swifts swooped around me as I walked.
I actually played very well until the last few holes when maybe the effects of the show took their toll, but for whatever reason I rather lost focus and talent at the same time, but it didn’t spoil what had been a great morning.
I had one more commitment at the festival and that was to attend a strawberry and champagne picnic on the green. I asked Phil if I could change in the golf club’s locker room, and he asked if I would pose on the course in costume, which I was delighted to do. I even tried a drive from the first tee but my frock coat didn’t allow for me to swing properly and the ball bobbled embarrassingly before coming to rest a few yards in front of me. Phil very kindly said it looked as if I had a good swing!
Back down in town I made my way to the green where another of the costumed ladies was setting up her champagne table. Joyce has always put this event on, she brings all of the champagne and punnets of strawberries; It is her gift to all of those who make the festival such fun. Over the last year Joyce has been through many difficult times and it was doubtful whether she would be attending this year, but just a week before she announced that she would be present and the reception would be on!
At 1 o’clock the costumed folk began to gather and set up tables for their picnics. linen cloths were laid, teapots filled, china cups and saucers laid and cake stands filled – it was so splendidly British!
Marie, another regular visitor, helped Joyce set up and when the ‘bar’ was complete Joyce looked as if all the woes of the world had left her and she looked genuinely happy with a beaming smile. We all had a glass of champagne (fortunately there was a non alcoholic version that I could drink) and we all toasted to happy times.
And that was the end of my 2022 visit to Llandrindod Wells. I said my goodbyes and set off back to Oxfordshire. I have left in previous years wondering if the festival could survive and not sure if I would be returning, but this year it seemed in rude health indeed and the future looks bright!
My week celebrating the 210th birthday of Charles Dickens continued on Sunday 6th February in two homes – his and mine.
On Sunday evening a specially filmed version of my old show Mr Dickens is Coming was due to be streamed by The Charles Dickens Museum, which is based at 48 Doughty Street, the home that a young Charles moved into having enjoyed instant success with The Pickwick Papers.
Cindy Sughrue, the director of the museum, had approached me last year with the idea of my developing a version of the show that would utilise many of the rooms in the museum, meaning that I would have a wonderful backdrop for my performance whilst the museum could be shown in its best light. The original idea had been to film it before Christmas, but various issues with my tour, obtaining visas and some family concerns at the time meant that we decided to delay the project until early in the year, using the birthday as a suitable time to screen.
Monday 17th January was selected as a filming day, with the 18th being held as an extra. The advantage of these particular days being that the museum is closed on a Monday and Tuesday, thereby giving us full rein to use whichever rooms we needed, whenever we wanted without disturbing the paying public.
I arrived at around 10.30am, and was met by Jordan Evans who is the Marketing and Events manager at the House who was responsible for co-ordinating the entire project. We would be working with videographer Alex Hyndman who has filmed in the museum often, most particularly with actor Dominic Gerard who performs his brilliant A Christmas Carol from the house in December, and as I arrived Alex was setting up cameras and lights in readiness for the first takes.
I quickly changed into costume, which included one of my oldest waistcoats – a black one with shining golden embellishments, and bright patches of colour. I saw it back in the 1990’s hanging on a bargain rail outside a charity shop in the pouring rain. I had been looking for a garish waistcoat for the show, and this one seemed to be calling out to me: ‘buy me! buy me!’ And I did.
I had re-written my old script whilst taking the virtual tour of the museum, which is available on the Carles Dickens Museum website, and had tried to feature each room in a way appropriate to the part of the story I was telling. My opening shot would see me striding down the centre of Doughty Street towards the camera and then entering the famous red door to begin, and this, Jordan decided, would be the first scene to film. The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray, as Rabbie Burns wrote, and on the morning of filming we discovered that it was bin collection day, so the elegant street was lined with piles of rubbish and recycling rendering our idea for the long view of Doughty Street impossible to capture. The three of us stood in the street pondering our next move and I realised that I was holding my hand up to shade my eyes against the low-in-the-sky sun shining along the street (which apparently runs East-West). ‘Guys,’ I said, ‘why don’t we use my shadow on the pavement?’ and so the show opens with a panning shot of a top-hatted shadow striding along, until the camera pans up to show me walking up to the door.
For the rest of the day we moved from room to room, planning how to shoot each scene and taking care not to touch the historic furniture and artefacts as we did. In the nursery on the top floor I performed the passage about John Dickens next to his bust, and then Alex was able to swing the camera round as I walked behind the original prison bars from The Marshalsea Prison, where the family had been sent for debt. At the end of the scene I moved out of shot, revealing a picture of Mr Micawber on the wall behind me.
We managed to get the whole show filmed in the single day, wrapping with a final shot in the little courtyard garden, and I drove home again, leaving Alex to cast his editing magic wand over the whole thing.
During the intervening weeks Jordan made sure that social media was covered with information about the screening, and Alex had made a short trailer for the film too, which meant by the 6 February we had a goodly number of viewers signed up. I would be watching the film, and then taking questions afterwards, from our new garden office, which we have yet to paint, so it would look rather as if I were sitting in a sauna. During the afternoon, after I had driven back from Sharnbrook, I went up into our loft and grabbed a large picture of Charles Dickens as a young man, one of Henry Fielding Dickens, my great grandfather, and one of me on stage, and hung them in such a way as if to suggest I was in a picture-lined study (I am sure that I didn’t fool anyone!).
I was scared watching, for I knew that many viewers would have highly academic backgrounds, and Mr Dickens is Coming was never written with that in mind: it was always a light-hearted script designed to entertain primarily and doesn’t really bear serious analysis, but Alex had done a great job with the editing, and it came across pretty well, I thought. We had viewers from Australia, Japan, America, Georgia, Malta and many other countries, such is the international influence of Charles Dickens.
When the final shot in the garden faded to black, Cindy Sughrue’s camera flicked into life, which was my cue to switch mine on as well. The comments in the chat room scrolled quickly as various viewers from around the globe congratulated me and asked many questions, which Cindy put to me to answer on screen. We spent around 30 minutes chatting until Cindy would the session up, and having said farewell, I logged off, leaving Charles Dickens’ home behind me and walked back down the dark garden towards the warm, welcoming glow of my own house.
With the approval of my American visa, and the return of my passport to confirm my status, I have been able to confirm with all of my 2021 venues that the tour is on! And suddenly it seems as if Christmas is rushing upon me all of a sudden. That feeling was added to last week with my first performance of A Christmas Carol (and here am I harrumphing at the sight of Christmas cards, decorations and foodstuffs in the shops) of the season.
I had been invited to return to Alderwood Senior School in Aldershot where I performed for the students a few years ago. I have been fortunate in recent years for A Christmas Carol has appeared on the GCSE syllabus meaning that schools have been keen for me to visit and not only perform the story but to talk about the context of its publication too. My previous trip to Alderwood had been slightly difficult in that some of the students didn’t respond positively to the event and in particular the question and answer session afterwards, so this time the head of English, Jaqcui Moller-Butcher came up with a cunning plan! Rather than squeezing the show into available lesson times and forcing it onto an entire year group, she and her colleagues conceived the idea of offering it as a two act theatrical evening which only those who signed up would attend. The event became more than just a rendition of a text to study, but an education of how to behave during a live theatrical show. .
I arrived at the school at 1.15 and was greeted by my old friend, and passionate Dickensian, Glenn Christodoulou who had put all of the wheels in motion to make the day happen. Glenn and I have known each other for many years and I have performed at various schools where he has worked. As I drove through the school gates Glenn was standing ready, guarding a reserved parking place for me, and welcomed me warmly. We unloaded the car together with the help of a student who offered his assistance unbidden, which impressed me, no end. Having signed in at the school’s reception desk and proudly bearing my sticker announcing that I was a VISITOR, we made our way into the main hall which was laid out with chairs. At the far end of the hall the stage rose above the floor waiting to be filled with Victorian London, but the front had been decorated by the English department with various quotes from A Christmas Carol. ‘At least,’ I thought, ‘that if I forget a line I can just take a look at the banner to remind me of what to say!’
I placed the props onto the stage and was making my way to the little English department office when Glenn introduced me to Jacqui who was busily making final preparations for the show and was in a flurry of excitement. My first job was to spend a little time with a few students from the drama class who had been prepared with some questions to ask. Usually on such occasions I am required to talk about A Christmas Carol to English students, so it was nice for a change to chat with theatre folk for a change. I began by giving a quick run done on my career from cockerel to A Christmas Carol, and then opened the floor to questions, which the class had come up with prior to the session and which were on slips of paper handed out to everyone – thus ensuring that we wouldn’t lapse into the awkward silence which is often a feature of such occasions. The questions were interesting, but the most fascinating one was the very last one: ‘What do you like about being an actor?’ What a simple and yet completely complex question that is! I had to think for a long time before answering and even now with the benefit of time it is difficult to articulate my thoughts.
When I first started in theatre, back at school, it was the whole process of making shows that I loved – the camaraderie, the team spirit, the achieving something that seemed impossible. I loved the creativeness of directors and designers and the ability to ‘see’ the end product. Now, that is all well and good and the theatre students could identify with it, but it certainly doesn’t explain my passion for what I do now. I could have come up with a flippant answer about liking the applause, but that is not it either – I love being able to create a world which is inhabited by an entire audience, through just my words and movements, In my show Mr Dickens is Coming! I have describe a Victorian audience watching Charles Dickens read and the line I wrote, way back in 1995, was ‘They were no longer in a theatre, nor was Charles Dickens on a stage before them. They had been transported as one by the talents of a brilliant performer and were now crowded into a dingy counting house in the City of London, their company that of Ebenezer Scrooge.’ Maybe I was writing, none to modestly it must be said, about myself, for that is what I enjoy – I like manipulating people’s sense of reality and for just a few minutes allowing them to travel to another time and place. And, as I think about it, it is not only the audience who take that journey, but myself as well.
The Q&A session done I returned to the office and changed into the costume that will become a close friend and ally over the coming weeks. The end of day bell rang and the students who had elected to come to the show began to arrive – I was astounded by the amount of people who filed in and politely took their places in the hall (I was standing at the back with Tom, the head of drama, who would be operating the light and sound desks whilst following my script.)
When all of the audience were gathered Jacqui addressed them in a firm and forthright manner that this was an opportunity to experience a live theatrical performance and to that end concentration and quietness would be expected. She informed them that this experience would help with the work they would be required to do regarding the context of A Christmas Carol, for this is how a Victorian audience would have seen the story performed. I was worried when she started a sentence ‘remember, this is NOT entertainment, it is education!’, but immediately she backtracked, stressing that the show would be very entertaining, but the experience of not looking at phones or talking to neighbours would be invaluable to them. Her final advice was ‘to be the best audience that you can be’ and then it was time for me to perform.
So often in schools I have to shoehorn a performance into a rigourously observed timetable, meaning that my script has to be hacked about, but on this occasion Jacqui had asked for the full 90-minute, 2 act version meaning that I could really welcome back the story with open arms. I loved being able to move across the stage, using the blocking that I have perfected over 26 years and it was soon apparent that the show still fits like a comfortable suit (although some of the more recent additions pinched like new shoes they will soon gently mould themselves into the correct form).
At the end of the first act there was nice applause, and by the time I finished the second there was a very generous response as I took my bows, the students certainly had been the best audience they could be and showed a huge amount of credit to themselves, the staff and the school. When I had left the stage Jacqui stood up and proudly congratulated all present and then called me back to offer me thanks and a gift of a rather nice looking bottle of wine – ‘Look at the label, its not just any old bottle.’ I investigated and discovered that the label bore the legend ‘Ebenezer Seppeltsfield’. Brilliant!
While the audience had been impressive with their behaviour during the show what transpired afterwards was even better for many of them set to and assisted in putting all of the chairs away. As the tidying was going on I left the hall, cross the reception area to return to the English department office, where I could change. The cleaners were out in force and the large expanse of floor was shining where it had been washed. It may been the result of a guilty conscience but I was certain that one of the cleaning staff looked at me in a most disapproving manner as I crossed the clean expanse, and she re-engaged her polishing machine in my wake. Unfortunately that was premature, for I discovered that the office door was locked meaning I had to return to the hall to find someone with keys, thereby necessitating a further two trips (there and back) over the glistening floor earning additional scowls. When I was changed, I packed everything in my little roller case and made my way back to the hall to say goodbyes – another set of footprints and a pair of wheel tracks! Incandescent cleaner now, and it was best that I made a quick escape before I was savaged with a wet mop! Having got the car loaded I said goodbye to Glenn and headed back for home.
As soon as I had finished in Aldershot it was time to start re-learning two more shows – Mr Dickens is Coming! and Doctor Marigold, which I was due to perform the following weekend at The Victoria Hall in Sutton Scotney. Although all of these shows are regular parts of my repertoire, they have, like all of the others, lain dormant for two years and it is as if I am learning them again for the very first time. Even as I drove home from Alderwood School I was quietly trying to piece Marigold together in my mind.
For the next few days I had the script permanently open on the kitchen table so that I could repeatedly go over tricky passages whenever I had a moment spare and as the week progressed I began to feel more and more familiar with the old scripts again.
Saturday arrived and it was time to load the car up with all of the pieces of furniture that I would require: the replica of Dickens’s reading desk, a chair, a stool, a set of old wooden steps, a wooden crate packed with a kettle a bucket, a blanket and an iron shovel. Along with two costumes I can report that this collection fills an entire Renault Kadjar, with no room for passengers.
I arrived at The Victoria Hall at 5pm on Saturday afternoon and was greeted by Eryl Holt and Alastair Black who have looked after me during my many visits to the hall. Over the years my shows at the hall have become very popular and well supported within the village and this year’s was no exception, having sold out earlier in the week. Eryl is a successful professional actor in her own right and with Alastair they have galvanized the community into supporting the arts. The couple have staged very successful home-written pantomimes over the years as well as producing outside events, such as my shows.
I loaded all of my furniture onto the stage and set up for Mr Dickens is Coming! (remembering to hide my newly purchased white cat in the wings). Throughout the week most of my line preparation had concentrated on the quite complex Doctor Marigold, but as I had plenty of time before people were due to arrive I decided to do an entire run of the first act, just to be sure that all of the different sections (Micawbers, Uriah Heep, The Bagman’s Uncle, Miss Havisham etc) were fully in my mind. There is something exciting about rehearsing in an empty hall and I loved every second of the run through.
Preparations complete I withdrew into the large meeting room, which doubled as my dressing room, behind the stage and ate a small salad and read a motorsport magazine before getting changed with 30 minutes to go, I could hear the audience gathering and it was a pleasingly noisy atmosphere. With 5 minutes to go Alastair came to check that all was ready and I stood in the wing space while Eryl introduced me ‘We dont expect to have a fire alarm tonight, but we may for this show is SO amazing you might just explode!’ Well, goodness, that was quite a billing to live up to….
I walked into the bright stage lighting and began with the faux ‘words of Charles Dickens’ which did their job of relaxing the audience and setting the tone of the first act. I really cant remember the last time I performed Mr Dickens is Coming! Certainly two years of course, but maybe as long as three, but it fell back into its rhythm and pace so easily. Laughs came at the right moments and the whole hour rushed by, to be concluded by a wonderful round of applause,
Back stage I changed into the Doctor Marigold costume and then, in character, went and changed the set, replacing the reading desk and chair with a rickety set of wooden steps, a small milking stool, a pale, kettle and shovel – all arranged as if we were at the front of Marigold’s cart at a country fair.
With the stage set I again retired to await Alastair’s word. When the hall lights were off I stepped onto the stage in the guise of my favourite Dickensian character. Doctor Marigold held the audience entranced as it usually does, and at the very end, there was a gasp of shock and emotion as there used to be when Dickens himself performed the piece. I had real tears in my eyes as I returned to take my bows. It was lovely to become Marigold again, he is a nice man to inhabit.
Once the show was over Eryl took to the stage to announce the results of the inevitable raffle. This year Alastair has been responsible for raising funds to completely restore the clock which has stood in the tower above the hall since 1902. The clock is an 8-day winding clock, which means it has to be wound, by hand, each week. The solemn duty of winding has only been carried out by a respected few whose names are preserved in the hall. As Alastair told me about the history of the clock and the complicated work of removing it from the tower and presenting it to a specialist clock restorer, the letter from Charles Dickens to his clock mender came to my mind:
The evening was a resounding success both from an artistic and fundraising point of view and everyone involved was very happy.
When the audience had left I loaded all of the furniture back into my car and having said my goodbyes and started on the drive for home. As I drove I started to run through the lines for The Signalman, which I will be performing on 31 October – a ghost story on Hallowe’en