In April 2013, I visited London for the first time. This is my travelogue, long overdue, of my three trips to London over the course of a year.
I woke up the morning of April 3rd to the cold. Now, mind you, I was living at Los Angeles at the time, so anything under 78 degrees is worthy of a scarf and wool socks. But the temperature had dropped and the wind was biting. It was legitimately cold. I wrapped myself up in my woolen coat and headed off to the Dickens Museum.
For the past two years, I was part of an absolutely wonderful production of A Christmas Carol at the GTC Theatre in Burbank. I know what you're thinking... You've seen A Christmas Carol. You know A Christmas Carol. But have you ever read the actual book? The text is absolutely gorgeous. Kevin Cochrain took the original text and divided it up between three actors. We had David Allen Jones as Scrooge (who should be the Yul Brynner of A Christmas Carol and playing the role on Broadway every winter), Frank Simons as all the men, and me as all the women. The set was minimal. The only props were these big scarves that became different costumes. And it was gorgeous. Every night, we'd hear sniffles in the audience as Dickens' text moved people to tears. It was one of the most difficult shows I've ever done (I once timed my lines from end to end and I spoke for 45-minutes) and I loved it.
So, it seemed like a pilgrimage of sorts to go to the Dickens House Museum.
It was off in a remote corner, smack dab in the middle of two distant Tube stops. I walked down empty streets with uniform townhomes lined up smartly one right next to another. Most smart souls were tucked away inside in the warmth of their homes. My memory of that walk is colored gray and dusty blue.
I arrived and stepped inside.
This was where Dickens lived. These were the actual halls he walked everyday and walls which held his stories. The museum is absolutely gorgeous and I recommend it to anyone visiting London. It is so well curated with the most amazing collection of his things.
Here was the table where he sat! Here is the podium he used when he read A Christmas Carol aloud!
Here is the actual book of A Christmas Carol!
One of the trickiest passages for my fellow actor Frank and I was this bit about the Cratchit family and how Mrs. Cratchit baked the family dessert in the copper wash house. What the heck did that mean? Well. Here is the copper (it's the tub used for boiling the clothes) in the washroom.
You put your Christmas pudding in that bowl and would cook it in the same vessel used just the day before for washing your underwear! Mystery solved! Also, note to self, if ever one finds one's self transported back to Victorian England, don't eat the Christmas pudding.
I paused for just a moment in the study and rested my hand just for a moment on Dicken's desk just to say thank you.
I left the museum and was shocked to find snow coming down. I exited right next to a bus stop, and it turned out the bus was going exactly where I needed to go! So, I hopped aboard and climbed to the second story. I watched the neighborhoods whiz by, from rich to poor to rich again.
I finally hopped off at Swiss Cottage, which was home to Ye Olde Swiss Cottage Pub.
(Picture ganked from the internet. Imagine this with snow.)
I had not yet been in a pub and had not had the obligatory fish n' chips, so, I walked in. About half-way through my meal, though, I realized I had misjudged my time and it was an hour later than I expected. I leaped up and ran to the theatre as quick as my cold little legs could carry me.
What theatre, you ask?
I had heard that one of my favorite actors, Tamsin Greig, was starring in this new Chekhov adaptation called Longing at the Hampstead Theatre alongside Iain Glen, whom most Americans would know from Game of Thrones. Tamsin is a household name in the U.K., but here in the U.S., you might know her best for her work in Episodes. I was first introduced to her through a show called Green Wing. If you have not seen this series, track it down. I think you can watch it free on Hulu. It is one of my favorite shows in the history of mankind and whenever I need to feel good about life, I pull out the DVD. It will make you laugh and cry and fall in love and just... oh, it is so brilliant. So the plans for my original trip got its roots in my mind when I found out that there was the possibility of seeing Tamsin in this show and another one of my favorite actors from Green Wing, Julian Rhind-Tutt, on a radio taping. I bought tickets and got everything arranged... but then that trip fell through,. And then, on a whim, decided to take this trip. Long story short, due to my brilliant scheduling, by the time I figured everything out, Longing was sold out. They said they would start releasing return tickets an hour before the show, and if a person were to line up, there was the possibility they might be able to buy a ticket.
So I walked around the corner to this contemporary little theatre and found myself in line about an hour later than I originally planned and hoping that I had not completely screwed everything up because I stopped for some fish and chips. It is funny, though, how life conspires sometimes to bring you the most wonderful experiences. I happened to be behind two Indian women. One of the things I love so much about London is that people just talk to one another. In America? We would all have been scrolling through our Twitter feeds. Instead, we struck up a conversation. It turns out these two women were both professors of literature. We sat there talking Brecht and Chekhov and Shakespeare. We talked about the educational system in India vs. America vs. the U.K. It was rich and beautiful. And then suddenly the man at the counter said he had a ticket available. And the one woman looked at me and said, "You go ahead of us. You came all the way from America. I want to make sure you get in to see this show."
Who does that?
This moment was and is my time, my lessons from England in a nutshell. There is a gentle kindness that infuses everything. In America, we are so terrified of one another. We are living with this low level of fear in everything we do. And it makes us mean. You don't know it until you step out of our borders to somewhere else and feel that weight being lifted from your shoulders. There is a better way to live, one where strangers are just a few words away from being friends and kindness is not an invitation for people to use you as their stepping stool. One where a person you just meet finds more joy in giving away an experience than having the experience themselves. I thank those women for teaching me the power of keeping my heart just a little softer.
They happy ending was we all got in to see the show. We celebrated as each ticket was released. We waved at one another from our seats. And oh... that theatre... there was not a bad seat in the entire house. I walked in and was blown away.
The stage was covered in grass and trees. A small cottage sat hidden in this indoor wood. The light had the shadows of a forest. And then the play began. Exquisite does not even come close. The actors connected with each other and the material in a way we rarely see in America. There was not a single weak link. It felt like you were peeking in, eavesdropping from a neighboring tree. Everything was so natural, so real, so... Chekhov. It was Stanislavsky (the guy who invented the acting processes American theater has convoluted into The Method, who worked with Chekov) done as he meant acting to be done. There is something so profound to see actors at the height of craft wielding words worthy of their gifts. Tamsin and Iaian were so heart-breakingly good. There was electricity and energy and it was like falling into life. It was so real. By the end, I was on my feet. I was sobbing snot bubbles for a half hour on the Tube ride home. I could not let go of that world. I did not want to let go. The whole message of the play Longing is to leap when those instincts say take a chance. If you do, happiness awaits. But if you don't, only tragedy. And wasn't that my entire trip? This trip I took on a whim? This moment in time I decided to heck with everything, I'm going to do this thing that makes no sense? It suddenly made sense. Profound sense.
The thought of going back to my hotel just didn't seem right. I need more theatre like an addict needs crack. My heart and head were too big for the walls. I needed to go sit in a darkened room with 1000 more perfect strangers. To have one more moment. To have one more taste. And then, starting at me on a poster at one of the stops, was an ad for Quartermaine's Terms. Mr. Bean, a.k.a. Rowan Atkinson, was doing his first "straight" play (meaning non-musical, actual play) in twenty-five years. It was closing in six days. And there was a 1/2 price ticket available. I grabbed my stuff and ran.
The theater was the Wynham, one of the most gorgeous old theatres on the West End. Think gold gilt and velvet.
I was way up there in the balcony, seated next to a lovely mother and daughter pair visiting from Wales. The show, again, was fantastic. Rowan Atkinson is who he is because he is so brilliant. It seems like such a dumb sounding statement, but in Los Angeles, so many "stars" are made because of connections, the right look, luck... You see them on stage, though, and it is about as exciting as dropping a match into water. Don't get me wrong. Acting on film is HARD. It is a different beast than stage. But here were all of these actors who were just as good on stage as on screen. It was like finding this whole world where the norm is Jackie Joyner-Kersee. What do you do with that? How do you go back to a town filled with mediocrity once you see the possibilities of what can be? The answer is, you can't. But I didn't know that yet.
In the meantime, I was being transported by Rowan's performance and the message of this play: that we have meaning, even if we do no realize it. We touch lives. We have succeeded in ways we do not even realize, because all we can see are our own failures.
And so I floated home along the busy streets of London, surrounded by teems of people whose hearts and souls had just been sated by a rich and hearty banquet of ideas.