Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, Nicholas Nickleby, The Market Theatre Hitchin
On Tuesday 5 July my fairly intense tour came to an end, and appropriately it was with the same show that I started with back in May – Great Expectations. In the intervening weeks I have travelled to ten venues up and down the country (and one in Germany), performing six different scripts along the way.
My final venue of this tour was the Market Theatre in Hitchin, which, in pre-Covid days, was a regular summer stop for me. The theatre is in the very heart of Hitchin, just off the old market square, and shares a car park with a large and very popular pub. In previous years, it seems to me, I have always visited on the hottest day of the Summer and often when the England football team are playing a match, meaning that The Sun Hotel is packed with well lubricated football supporters chanting and shouting and cheering and groaning, which hasn’t always proved to be the perfect backing soundtrack to my shows. This year, although hot, it was by no means unbearable and the 2022 World Cup Football Tournament, which would normally be played in the Summer, has been scheduled for November to avoid the extreme temperatures in Qatar, and the Women’s European Cup had not yet begun, so the stars were much better aligned for me.
I arrived at 5 O’clock and was greeted by Glyn, the theatre manager, who unlocked the doors so that I could unload. The Market Theatre is a small venue, converted from a couple of old industrial units. There are two performance spaces, some meeting rooms and an upstairs bar, and the whole place has a very friendly atmosphere. Unloading the car couldn’t have been easier, as the auditorium has a side door which opens onto the car parking area, so I could simply carry everything straight onto the stage. The fact that Great Expectations has a relatively small set helped too.
The first thing to be done for Great Ex is to ‘create’ Miss Havisham in the upstage left corner of the stage. When I adapted Dickens’s 13th novel I decided that I wanted to have the jilted spinster who has such an influence on Pip to be permanently looking over him. I achieve this effect by means of dressing a white hat stand with draped fabrics creating the hint of a human shape. The great thing about this stage of my preparations is there is no ‘set’ way of doing it, so I never quite know how she is going to look on any given evening. On Tuesday she looked stately and severe, which is a good look!
The stage at The Market is small, but Glyn had studied my script and managed to provide me with distinct lighting areas to suggest different locations within the story: the graveyard on the marshes, the forge, Satis House, Jaggers’ chambers and Mr Wemmick’s castle. Fortunately the theatre has recently invested in LED lights, so colours can be changed as the plot demands, meaning that we could play with the atmosphere of each scene also.
When everything was set I retired to the dressing room behind the stage (actually a space that also encompasses a set store and workshop) and tucked into a small salad that I had brought with me. As 6 became 6.30 and moved on towards 7 I played a little Backgammon on my phone as well as watching the news, and so learned of the seismic shift that was beginning in the British political scene as two senior members of the Conservative Party resigned.
I had to get my mind back to the job in hand, as the audience were now arriving and taking their seats, and I paced around in the first costume of the show – the breeches and rough shirt that represent both the appearance of Magwitch and the young Pip in the forge.
At 7.30 Glyn popped his head into the dressing room to check that I was ready, and then disappeared back to the little technical box, where he brought the lights down to an icy, chilly blue, and played my first voiceover, the famous narration that sets the scene in the little churchyard on the edge of the marshes (incidentally, the inspiration for the churchyard in the novel is Cooling Church, where I filmed much of my A Christmas Carol video two years ago).
I bounded onto the stage ‘Hold your noise!’ and so the plot was underway.
I am never certain as to how well Great Expectations will be received, as it is quite a wordy and heavy show, but I am constantly pleasantly surprised by the reaction, and this occasion proved to be no different, for when I reached the end of the first act there was a loud round of applause and lots of talking, which is always a good sign.
I changed from the rough working Pip into the smart London Pip and then slipped onto the stage to clear various items of costume that get discarded through the first half, as well as a scattered pack of playing cards, and I was ready to go again.
Once again Glyn popped in and once again he disappeared to start the Act 2 voiceover which sets the plot firmly in London, and therefore starts Pip’s second stage of his Expectations.
The second act ran as smoothly as the first and Glyn did a wonderful job with the lighting at the point when Miss Havisham’s dried clothes catch fire and consume her in flame. From there the narrative rushes on towards the end as the various plotlines are resolved. I was very pleased with the show and it was a wonderful way to bring my tour to a close.
When the audience had left I loaded the car up once more, said my goodbyes and set off for the drive home. Usually after a show I stay at a hotel close by, meaning that I do not run the risk of falling asleep at the wheel on my way home, for once the adrenaline generated by the thrill of performance subsides, fatigue comes quickly, but on this occasion I wanted to get home so as to be able to watch our daughters’ school sports day the next morning.
The drive was about 90 minutes, and sure enough I did feel drowsy as I drove on, but plenty of water and a few sweets kept me going until I pulled up outside my front door at around 11.30.
It has been an exciting couple of months and I have been fortunate to perform in a marvellous variety of venues, from a tiny yurt in Rochester to the splendour of Wentworth Woodhouse.. The audiences have been plentiful, amazingly supportive and enthusiastic. I have performed for old friends as well as a number of new venues all of which I hope will become a regular part of my travels in the future.
Actually, I was not quite finished, for there was one final venue to perform at, and that was at home. On the 16th of July the Dickens Fellowship is holding its annual conference. Originally we were all due to travel to Haarlem, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, but sadly that event was cancelled and so the conference is being held online instead. I have been asked to give a reading from David Copperfield featuring the plotlines involving the Peggotty’s, Steerforth’s elopement with Little Em’ly and the great storm scene (the conference theme being ‘Dickens and the Sea’) Sadly, I am not going to be available to perform ‘live’, but have said that I shall record the reading at home so that it can be played at the appropriate point in proceedings.
With the house to myself on Friday I originally planned to film in our garden office, sat behind a desk with the laptop close to capture every expression. The room was extremely hot and as I was only going to be seen from waist up there didn’t seem to be much point in wearing the thick Victorian trousers, and so it was that if anyone had been watching they would of seen an odd sartorial display, featuring a frock coat, waistcoat and cravat topping off a rather lurid pair of checked shorts!
In the end the lighting in the shed wasn’t right, for as branches briefly obscured the sunlight, so the built-in camera struggled to compensate meaning that my face was one minute flaring brightly as if it were on fire, and then fading almost into darkness. I moved my ‘set’ inside and recorded the reading a couple of times until I was happy with the result, and then sent it off to the conference organisers.
And now I have a period of rest, my next performance coming in August when I return to the beautiful spa town of Llandrindod Wells in Wales, where I will be performing The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which I haven’t done for years…now, where did I leave that script………?