Last Saturday I performed for the first time this year, and what a perfect venue it was to ‘open my account’. At the start of the year The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre contacted me and it was with great difficulty that we were able to find a date in the crowded Christmas season. As 2020 moved on so my diary began to empty with each confirmed booking being consigned to the dustbin with a line stroked through it, but Sharnbrook remained. With the cancellation of my American tour so the diary opened up completely and whilst other venues were falling by the wayside, Sharnbrook asked if they could change dates to one closer to Christmas. There was no problem there, I had plenty of time available!
Britain came out of lockdown but the celebrations of late Summer sent us straight back in again and for a while it looked as if my performances in Bedfordshire would suffer the same fate as the others, but the staff worked on, planning, hoping. Rather than leaving the theatre empty during those long months the volunteers (The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre is staffed entirely by volunteers) began a renovation process and the auditorium was filled with scaffolding as they installed air conditioning units and made much needed repairs to the fabric of the building.
By December the work was finished but there was still no guarantee that I would be able to perform, for the government replaced our second full lockdown with a tier system of restrictions: if Bedfordshire was in tier 3 then there would be nothing we could do. We all listened to the radio anxiously that day – the county of Kent, where I made my film and where I was also due to perform, was in 3 – another date lost, but Bedfordshire was announced as being in tier 2 – the emails started again. I booked a hotel which seemed to be close to the theatre and on Saturday 12 December I packed my car with all of my props and started my 2020 tour.
The theatre is, as its name suggests, in a converted mill building on the Great Ouse river. Having left plenty of time for traffic, I arrived slightly early so decided to drive to my hotel and get checked in. It wasn’t a long drive in any sense of the term, for in fact the two properties were next door to one another and the view from my room was of the rear of the theatre.
Having dropped my bags off I made the long car journey next door where I was welcomed by the extremely enthusiastic, dedicated and professional staff who run it. My contact was Brenda and her husband Gerry (another Gerald, there are not many of us), would be my stage manager for the evening whilst Mark would be running my sound. The stage and auditorium are in a a towering room which, judging by the long ago bricked up windows, was once four stories high. The roof was of wooden timbers which contrasted with the bright metal grid which held the lights. The stage was at floor level with the auditorium holding 187 on a good day (more like 50 in this time of social distancing regulations), rising in a gentle rake. At the back of the stage were flats representing old wooden panelling, which were created for the last production staged – Daisy Pulls It Off, an old favourite of mine that I have directed twice in the past.
I can’t tell you of the sheer sense of pleasure with which I laid out my chair, table, hat stand and stool and began a cue to cue tech rehearsal to ensure that the various sound effects and lighting cues all worked.
I retired to my dressing room, got into costume, checked that my pocket watch was wound and that I had a Victorian penny in my waistcoat pocket and waited for the audience to arrive: all of those little details which give me such pleasure when I am in a theatre.
Out front the staff in their full PPE visors were busily ensuring that the audience were safely admitted having checked temperatures at the door in that terribly aggressive and threatening gun-to-the-head stance that has become part of our lives now. The seats in the auditorium were marked with a cross or a tick and slowly the open seats filled up.
At 3pm I got the nod from Gerry and the show began. It was so good to be on stage again, to be bathed in theatrical light, to have space to move, to hear the response from the small, but enthusiastic audience as I guided them through Ebenezer’s somewhat interrupted night.
At the end of my performance it had been agreed that I would return to the stage to conduct a question and answer session, but before I could do that I had to wait back stage until those that wanted to leave had carefully been ushered from the auditorium. Naturally the pessimistic nature of an actor led me to assume that when I came back into the lights I would be greeted by an empty house so I was most happily surprised to find the large majority of the audience still in their seats. The questions that followed were fun, allowing me plenty of scope to tell my favourite anecdotes – you know the ones by now – but also to discuss the craft of staging the show. One questioner commented on my breaking of the fourth wall, that is talking directly to the audience rather than maintaining the character and scene within the set, and I was pleased that she appreciated this device because it is an important part of the stage show, as well as of the film. In the original text Charles Dickens uses the narrator’s voice in a very personal way, occasionally slipping in little asides as if he is sitting close to the reader guiding them through the story and I have always strived to capture that same approach on stage.
Between the matinee and the evening show all of the volunteers gathered to enjoy a supper of salmon and salad, followed by a delicious citrus polenta cake, all provided by Brenda. It was during this dinner that I learned more about the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre and the amazing team of volunteers that keep it afloat. There was a mill on the site from as long ago as 1086 but the oldest part of the current building was constructed in 1703. Milling ceased in 1969 and the building lay crumbling for a decade until it re-opened as a theatre in 1979.
Sharnbrook Mill Theatre is staffed and run entirely by volunteers who this year were awarded with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, or QAVS. The QAVS is equivalent to the MBE and is the highest award a voluntary group can receive in the UK. Everyone connected with the theatre was justifiably very proud of this recognition but due to the extraordinary circumstances of the year had not yet been able to celebrate, so the day of my show was a perfect opportunity to pat each other on the back and raise a glass.
I felt extremely honoured to be part of these celebrations and to meet so many passionate, committed and utterly professional people. I very much look forward to returning to The Sharnbrook Mill Theatre in the coming months and to performing to a full house in the beautifully atmospheric audiortium.
To view my film of A Christmas Carol visit: http://www.geralddickens.com