On Friday it was time to get to work. I woke early thanks equally to being in the wrong time zone, but also thanks to a tropical storm beating the roof and window panes of my room. I logged on to the BBC news coverage and watched as the news of the Queen’s death and the King’s accession still played out, eliciting the same emotions in me as the day before. I noticed that many of the correspondents wore black arm bands and decided that that was a suitable way to show my respects during the days and weeks of official mourning. The only problem with that plan was that I didn’t have a black arm band, or even any material to make one, but a quick online search showed me that there was a fabric store on St Simon’s Island, just a 30 minute drive away and as I had plenty of time on my hands I decided that I would make the journey.
I cant remember when I had last been at the Jekyll Island Club Resort, it must have been 15 or 20 years ago now, in a completely different era of touring, and readers of my blog posts will know nothing about it, for my performances there predate ‘On the Road With….’.
Having performed at The Dickens on the Strand festival in Galveston Texas in 1994 I was approached by Caroline Jackson, an entrepreneurial lady who wanted to build a tour around my show, and offered to become my US agent. At that stage I had no thoughts of touring and simply enjoyed the experience of the single trip to Texas, with a stop in Kansas City tagged on. Caroline, however, had bigger ideas, and promised great things if I signed with her, which I did, and so this amazing story began.
In her efforts to find venues for the first tours Caroline signed an agreement with The Historic Hotels of America chain, an umbrella organisation that marketed various hotels which were, naturally enough, historic, and it was through that connection that I first performed at Hershey, Williamsburg, Ojai, The Memphis Peabody and many others, including on Jekyll Island.
As I had driven towards the hotel on Thursday afternoon I had tried to remember what it had been like – I recalled the people I worked with and the sheer sense of fun, but had no real memory of the physical layout of the hotel. Vaguely in my mind I recalled the dining room being slightly awkward to perform in, I seemed to think quite long and narrow, but that was all. As I arrived I remembered the grandeur and elegance of the property – anywhere with a croquet lawn is quite special!
On Friday morning I went down to breakfast, which was served in The Grand Dining Room and it all came flooding back to me – yes the room was long, and had four rows of pillars through it, making five distinct corridors, albeit not filled in by walls.
I remembered that to perform A Christmas Carol I had to work the room, making sure I was always on the move, with no fixed area to focus the acting on. I also remembered that the banquet staff would be clearing the previous course as I performed, meaning that there were ample opportunities to include the waiting staff in the story (thinking back, I am sure that they must have hated it), and one poor guy always managed to be in the wrong, or the right, place during the Fezziwig ball and I would end up dancing a jig with him.
As I looked at the room over my eggs and bacon I dragged my mind from the past into the present and looked at the possibilities for my evening performance of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold. I knew that the evening was going to be an intimate affair and I doubted that we would need the whole dining room, so how else could we stage it? The answer was the door to the room, for as you enter there is a full width area, unencumbered by the pillars, at one side was a large bookcase (perfect as a backdrop for Marigold), and at the other a fireplace (suitable for The Signalman.) That seemed to be the perfect place to perform, I also noticed the large wooden desk with a sloping top, used to check guests in, and wondered if I could appropriate that for the desk in the Signalman’s hut.
After breakfast I immediately walked to the car and set off to St Simons Island. It was a beautiful drive, across flat wetlands where herons flew in such numbers that they reminded me of seagulls.
I drove on across various bridges and soon I was pulling up outside the fabric shop. To my dismay I realised that it actually sold fabrics for furnishing – curtains, drapes, furniture coverings etc, and didn’t have anything that would suit my purpose, but the owner did suggest the next shop which specialised in quilting, so I tried there instead. As I walked in a lady was using a huge machine, reminiscent of a Victorian cotton mill (except it was powered by electricity and had a laptop attached to it), to create a huge piece of work. She was concentrating hard, as the needles darted this way and that to create the elaborate pattern, and I thought it best just to wait quietly until she had finished that particular section, On she went, ignoring me completely, not even a quick ‘Ill be with you shortly’. Finally she stopped, looked up, saw me and jumped in the air at the same time shouting ‘JESUS CHRIST!! OH GOD!’ Such had been her concentration she had no idea I’d even entered the shop and then suddenly there was this apparent apparition standing at her counter watching her. After holding her chest and panting for a while, she calmed down and I apologised for scaring her so much. I explained what I wanted and why, and she immediately began to talk about The Queen and Charles and, inevitably, Diana and Camilla. She was very kind and she was the first actual person I had spoken to about the Queen since she died and I found myself becoming very emotional all over again. My new friend very kindly made no charge for the small amount of fabric, seeing as what it was for.
I drove back to Jekyll Island, returned to my room and fetched my sewing kit (which I travel with to patch up costumes if they suffer from the rigours of the tour), and started to hem the edges before completing a small hoop that snuggled onto my arm without slipping.
Having completed my needlework I went to the little pantry store in the hotel and bought a chicken salad, which I ate on an outside deck whilst admiring two little green lizards running to and fro.
I spent the afternoon running through my lines for the two shows and getting frustratingly tangled up in both, which was slightly worrying. The best thing would have been to gone for a walk, but yet another tropical rain storm had settled over the island and I was restricted to quarters.
Variety was provided by a meeting with the hotel staff about the evening’s event and to my delight they told me that they were indeed setting up in the wide space at the entrance to the room, and yes it would be fine to use the sloping desk for my set.
We chatted about the timetable (guests were dining at 7.30 and I would start performing after they had finished an hour later, which meant it was going to be a late evening.)
I went back to my room and did some more rehearsing, with more success this time (I actually put costume on, which helped me to concentrate more), and then settled back to wait for the start of the show. As I sat on my bed I remembered that I had a very early start in the morning, in fact I would need to set my alarm for 3am to leave the hotel at 3.30, so I began to carefully pack everything I could in my suitcase, and left it lying open on the floor at the end of the bed ready to add my costume and wash bag to it in the morning.
At 7.45 I got fully into The Signalman’s all black costume, including my black arm band which naturally didn’t show, but I knew I was wearing it, and made my way down two flights of stairs into the small bar area, which is just outside the dining room, and where quite a group was gathering and starting a rowdy evening. In the dining room a more sedate and elegant evening was progressing as the guests were served their main courses. I sat in a large leather arm chair to wait. At various stages some of the guests came out of the room to get some fresh air, or stretch their legs and chatted to me. One lady had actually been at one my previous performances here when she was a young girl, apparently I stole some asparagus from her plate during the show, and she has never forgotten it.
I received updates during the rest of dinner from the hotel’s audio visual guy, Dante, and eventually, at 8.30, I got the word that the dinner service was complete and cleared and that I could start. There was nobody to make introductory remarks or welcome me to the stage, so I simply walked into the room and began.
The lines for the Signalman flowed well and the dark eerie light that Dante had created with a couple of floor LED spotlights added to the atmosphere in the lonely signal box, and when I got to the end of the show the audience applauded warmly. I announced that I was going to disappear to perform a quick costume change and would be back in a few minutes to continue the evening, at which I made my way behind the large book case and changed costume in a sort of cupboard/passage way/storage area just a few feet from the stage itself. Soon I was in the corduroy trousers, collarless shirt with rolled up sleeves (black arm band showing clearly this time), plain waistcoat and rough laceless boots. I re-emerged with as little ceremony as I could so that I could move the furniture around and place the little flight of steps that would represent Marigold’s cart, without the audience thinking it was part of the show. When the set was ready, I waited until the guests had all returned and started once more.
Doctor Marigold went as smoothly as The Signalman, with just a couple of minor line errors, that while frustrating to me, didn’t effect the show itself. I reached the end and again received lovely applause and then stayed on the stage to do a little Q&A session, before everyone prepared to leave. I posed for some photographs and then collected all of my props and the Signalman’s costume and made my way up stairs to my room. In the bar the boisterous party was still in full fling, and at the centre of it were two British gentlemen, so I joined in with the banter for a while before retiring for the night.
I packed my costumes into the little roller case – it is amazing how much that can hold, set the bedside alarm and my phone for 3am and left the large case open ready for the morning.