The second half of my 2021 tour began on Tuesday, when Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and all the rest packed themselves into my car for the journey to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, where I would be performing at the Literary and Philosophical Society in the city, more commonly known these days at the Lit and Phil.
However before I could drive North I had to make a brief stop in Oxford to get an official PCR Covid test so that I can gain my Fit to Fly Certificate which will allow me to return to the USA on Friday morning. This was a repeat of my previous appointment a few weeks ago and once again I entered the Courtyard by Marriot hotel in the centre of Oxford and rather furtively announced to the front desk that I was there to be tested. ‘Of course, sir, through the double doors and knock on the door of suite 1, then wait.’ It all seemed very covert, and I thought that when the door opened I should have some code phrase to say: ‘The tulips are surprisingly lacklustre this year.’, to which the voice on the other side of the door would reply, ‘unless you are in Spain, where they are glowing’. However any James Bond fantasy that I may be imagining was swept away when the door was opened and I was welcomed in with a friendly smile and a ‘Good morning. Mr Dickens?’
When the paperwork was filled in I was asked to administer my own test, which I hope I did effectively, and within 15 minutes I was saying ‘goodbye’ and hoping that I have not caught Covid in the week since I last took a test.
Now I could take the cast, as well as the props to Newcastle. The drive was very uneventful and there were no traffic delays on the M1 motorway, which is almost unheard of. I had plenty of time in hand and stopped once for a coffee and leg stretch and then again for lunch. It was around 3pm when I passed Anthony Gormley’s amazing ‘Angel of the North’ sculpture and then crossed the Tyne by one of the many Newcastle bridges, The Lit & Phil is in the very heart of the city and my hotel, SleeprZ is about one hundred yards down the street from it and I found a parking space half way between the two buildings and carefully reversed into it. My first job on arrival was to find a branch of my bank so that I could get some loose change as a float: my new book, Dickens and Staplehurst, A Biography of a Rail Crash (I’m not sure if I have mentioned it before, but it is available through my website, or Amazon), retails at £8.99 meaning that I would need change. I had also invested in a contactless card reader to help me with my after-show sales. Newcastle was definitely ready for Christmas with twinkling lights strung over the streets, department store windows seasonally decorated and. buskers singling carols with varying degrees of tunefulness. It was a lovely sight and the streets were bustling and full of energy.
I found the bank and having got a small bag of coins in various denominations, made my way back to the hotel to check in. The SleeperZ hotel is a very simple one, with compact rooms, but they are brilliantly designed and are bright and colourful. For my performances at the Lit & Phil it is perfect for my purposes. I lay on the bed and watched TV for a while until it was time to return to my car and onload the props. At The Lit & Phil building I was greeted by Kay who books all of my events at the venue. Even though I hadn’t been in the lovely old building for two years, thanks to last year’s lockdown, it seemed like I had only just been in the same room, setting up my furniture in readiness to perform. The large and somewhat heavy chair, carefully draped with the red cloth, the hat stand, the little table with the candlestick and the simple stool which starts the show as Bob Cratchit’s office stool and ends up as Tiny Tim’s shrine. This last piece of furniture was making its theatrical debut, as I had managed to leave my old stool at a venue somewhere in the summer and a search online found a new one which looks much more rustic and aged.
Having prepared the set, I then arranged my merchandise (the Staplehurst book, and my souvenir brochures that Ian and I produced a few years ago). I had designed and printed a price list proudly bearing the legend ‘Contaclass Payments Accepted’ but realised that it was still laying on my desk at home, so Kay kindly offered to print off another one (I had the relevant file on my laptop). It was 6 o’clock now and with a full hour before I was due to begin the show the audience were starting to arrive and take their seats, so I withdrew to a large meeting room that Kay had given me for a dressing room. My costumes had just been dry cleaned, and felt fresh and stiff as I got into them. I applied new velcro pads to the lapels, and made sure that the Victorian penny was in the waistcoat. I tied the cravat, using a large flat screen TV as a mirror, and set the pocket watch to the correct time. I was ready. With twenty minutes to go I ran through some lines, actually the extra pieces that make up the two act version of the show, although I wasn’t not performing that programme, I would be on the following evening so it was a good opportunity to remind me of the lines.
Shortly after 7 Kay knocked on the door and said that we were ready to go, so I wrapped my scarf around my neck, placed my top hat on my head and made for the room where I would be preforming. After a short introduction Kay clicked play on the CD player and my opening music filled the room (during the week I had emailed Kay to ask her if she wouldn’t mind operating the sound, and when she replied that she would do that I responded by asking would she rather just do the first cue or would she like to follow the script and do all 5 sound cues? I have never known a faster response to an email and almost before I had hit send, the reply came back ‘JUST ONE!’
The show went well, I was not on a stage but performing on the floor in close proximity to the audience, some of whom remained masked but most not. The small room meant that I didn’t have to project too much and it was nice to be able to be quiet and reflective especially in the Cratchit scenes. The new cast member played his role to perfection, by the way, and looked perfect with the wooden cane laid on it, creating an atmosphere of true pathos. An extra bonus was a deep resonance to the knocking as Scrooge arrives at his Nephew’s house on Christmas morning.
The applause at the end of the show was very generous and long, and after I had taken my bows I stayed on the stage to do a brief Q&A session which was fun, before putting on my mask and taking up station at the merchandise table where I sold plenty of books and the new contactless terminal performed well.
The audience drifted away into the night and I was able to get changed again. By the time I emerged from my meeting room all of my props and furniture had been carried to the front door, and as I emerged onto the streets the bells were ringing out from the nearby cathedral (Tuesday night is campanology practice night), it was a lovely way to be welcomed to the street and reminded me of Scrooge flinging his windows open on Christmas morning to be greeted by the joyous peal of bells: ‘He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!’
I was back in my hotel just after 9 but the kitchens in the small lobby restaurant had already closed, so I ordered a pizza via Uber Eats, which was duly delivered and I wound down my evening laying on the bed watching a documentary about the super volcano under the Yellowstone National Park.
On Wednesday morning I have a 6 hour drive to the other end of the country to perform again and then it is time to make preparations for my return to America on Friday.