THEATRE CRUISE ON THE "REGENT SEVEN SEAS MARINER"
FEBRUARY 21 TO MARCH 4TH, 2008.
I go to a class every Friday morning, a history-cum-current-affairs class, and the brilliant tutor always brings books and publications for us to borrow. One week I borrowed an American publication called THE NATION, and in there spotted an advert for a Theatre Cruise on the Amazon! I had never been to South America and I was so excited by the notion of a Theatre cruise on the Amazon, I booked.
It turned out that this was the 35th Theatre Cruise organised by the American Theatre Guild, the legendary New York theatre producers, but I had never heard of a Theatre Cruise before. The cruise was to be on a recently built ship, the Regent Seven Seas Mariner, and to sail for four days on the Amazon, then calling at 5 Caribbean islands, from February 21st to March 4th, 2008. I had broken my wrist on January 9th, but the hospital agreed to remove the plaster cast a week early so that I could go on this trip (I couldn't envsion having a cast removed on the Amazon!), and they gave me a removable splint.
Theatre Cruise meant that there would be several top performers on board to entertain. On this cruise we were to have Ed Asner (Lou Grant), Shirley Jones (leading girl in the films of OLKAHOMA! and CAROUSEL), Patricia Neal, Tovah Feldshuh, George Dvorsky, Nat Chandler, Karen Mason, and Susan Powell. The only person I knew on the boat was Patricia Neal, the lovely actress. Peter had been her acting teacher in New York in the forties--we had visited her in Buckinghamshire when she was married to Roald Dahl, and we have met several times since then. She is a warm and charming lady. During the lead-up to the cruise, the Musical Director, Michael Horsley, emailed me, saying that he had heard on the grapevine that I was a "fabulous performer" and would I join them in a concert on the evening of our arrival--to which I agreed. My friend Helen Cotterill scoffs at me for ever appearing without being paid, but if anybody calls me a "fabulous performer", not only will I appear for nothing, I will pay to appear!!
I flew to Fort Lauderdale and stayed with Peter's sister Sylvia and her husband Stip, who have a winter apartment in nearby Deerfield Beach in Florida, for a couple of nights. I and the rest of the The Theatre Cruise group were to fly in chartered planes from Fort Lauderdale to Manaus in Brazil. Manaus is a city in the rain forest on the banks of the Amazon, 1000 miles from the mouth, which has to be reached by air or water--there are no roads. It is famous because, at the end of the 19th century, a magnificent Opera House was built there, with all the materials coming by sea from Italy and France. That first night concert of our cruise was to be from the stage of the legendary Opera House. I had planned and rehearsed my spot, taken a special dress, my music, even special make-up.
We were boarded onto the plane for a 6 hour flight. The take-off had been postponed at Brazilian request which meant we were due to arrive at 5.00 instead of 3.00. As we sat in the plane, came an announcement from the captain. "the baggage on this plane has been incorrectly stowed and affects the balance, so it will have to be taken off and re-stowed". So we sat, and we sat, and we sat!! I was next to a nice lady who was a mother of 7 and a lapsed Mormon, who had met her husband while being a Mormon missionary in Canada. Eventually we took off. The concert had been postponed to 8.00, but when we landed in Manaus it was nearly 7.00!
In the small baggage hall there was chaos! About 200 people searching for their luggage! The Brazilian officials had all gone home at 6.00. The couple of chaps who were there took the cases off the carousel, and they were dumped all over the hall. Everybody was squeezing through the crowds looking for their cases. I needed help, as I had only one workable arm -- I managed to find a helper, but I couldn't find my case! By this time it was after 8.00 and I am whining to all and sundry "Please help me, I am supposed to be appearing on the stage of the Manaus Opera House now!!!" Suddenly my case materialised, but I couldn't get out of the hall because of the crowds. No way could I push my way to the front, with my frantic plea, because of the crowds.
Eventually my case was taken, to be delivered on the boat, and we got onto a coach in the pouring rain which took half an hour to get to the ship. A local guide talked to us -- one of the indigenous people -- telling us that Manaus was founded in the 17th century and had a population of 2 million... and no roads into the city! He also told us of the tragedy of the destruction of the rain forest, and what a disaster it had been for the environment and for his people.
I had to queue to get on board, and found somebody in charge to tell of my plight -- she told me sadly that it was impossible to get me over to the Opera House. I confess that when I got to my cabin I was in tears. I sat alone in the dining room and had something to eat, and unpacked and went to bed!
Next day I discovered that the Theatre at Sea people were a group joining a large, magnificent ship full of people, 700 in all, who had done a 2 month cruise all around South America. They had paid $70 for the Opera House concert, which was a shambles! A few performers had managed somehow to get through to the Opera House, and they performed in the clothes they had travelled in, and the whole concert was over in 20 minutes! They had to refund the money to the audience! I had left a tearful message when I arrived for the organiser of the cruise and the head of the Theatre Guild, Philip Langner, and next morning I received a beautiful bouquet of flowers with sincere apologies -- though of course it wasn't his fault.
From then on, it was a wonderful experience. On that first day we were not due to sail from Manaus until the late afternoon, and in the morning was one of the most memorable experiences of the whole cruise. It was a 5 hour trip on the Amazon in a small boat. There were about 40 people on the boat to start with, but then we transferred to canoes with outboard motors, each one holding just 8 of us. So we were able to explore the small tributaries through the rain forest. Children came alongside in small paddle canoes to show us the local wildlife, including monkeys, snakes, little alligators, and even a sloth.
The Amazon rises dramatically hundreds of feet for 6 months, then falls, so the bankside houses and buildings and gardens are all floating. There are huge water plants and forests growing in water.
One of the most remarkable sights was to see where two branches of this great river meet. One branch is the Rio Negro, and it is totally different from the Amazon -- all the fish, the minerals underneath, the colour (it is much darker than the Amazon), and on the Rio Negro there are no mosquitoes. There is a clear line where the two rivers meet.
In the afternoon, I took a taxi to the famous Opera House, and it is truly magnificent -- it is smaller, but it compares in beauty with any European Opera house. Lovely wood and gold and tiles and murals and ceiling paintings. Caruso is supposed to have sung on its stage, but I wonder how he got there!
We stopped at 2 other places on the Amazon -- to see a Boi Bumba dance show, like I imagine the Rio Carnival.
And we ventured deep into the rain forest to see all the tropical fruits, the nuts, the rubber trees.
Rubber used to be the main source of income in that area until the forties, when the seeds were smuggled out to Kew, and sent to the far east. Now the main source of income in Manaus is the growth of IT factories like Sanyo and Phillips -- all this in a city inaccessible by road and with a grotty little airport!
Then we sailed into the ocean. We stopped first at Devil's Island, which is 3 small islands, St Joseph's Island, Royale Island and Devil's Island. We got off at Royale Island, but very near was Devil's Island where Dreyfuss was incarcerated alone, shackled at night, for 14 years. The rest of the prisoners were on Royale, about 1000 in 1852, Their cells and the houses of the guards, were at the top of a hill, which I climbed with certain difficulty, but it was worth it. There is even a hotel up there now -- though I cannot imagine it to be a desirable place for a holiday! I don't think I could have got down the hill without the help of an Englishman called Simon!
There was a special treat in Barbados -- the Governor General invited the Theatre at Sea group to a garden party. Must be like the Queen's garden parties at Buckingham Palace. There was a 30 piece Police Band and when the Governor (well, actually it was his deputy, because the Governor was off the island) appeared from the mansion and came down the sweeping staircase to a fanfare, we all stood for the Barbados National Anthem. We were given an effusive welcome by the Minister of the Arts, and three of our brave performers from the ship actually sang! I was one of those presented to the (Deputy!) Governor!
Also visited the charming island of Dominica (not the Dominican Republic) and San Juan in Puerto Rico. Our last call was the tiny island of Grand Turk, one of the Turks and Caicos Islands. That was a totally different experience -- we lay on a glorious beach and swam in the bright turquoise ocean.
On board it was a life of sybaritic grandeur. We didn't sleep in cabins, we were in "suites". Every suite had a bedroom with a dressing table, a separate dressing room, a sitting room with a desk, a fridge, a big TV... AND we all had a balcony with a table and chairs. As, I suppose, on all cruises, the food was exquisite (the young head chef of the French Restaurant turned out to be from Brighton!) For some reason, I was treated as a VIP, which meant that every afternoon a snack was delivered to my suite, such as prawns or caviar.
The only problem was that when the ship left the river and sailed into the ocean, it rocked from side to side. In the old days I used to get very seasick, but in those days the boat rocked from front to back -- I would be at the bottom of a wave and my stomach would be at the top. But with modern stabilisers, with the sideways rock, my tummy was O.K. But walking was difficult -- I staggered from side to side, and was very frightened that my broken wrist might get knocked.
The activities were non-stop--including very good lecturers, my favourite was the charming son of Jacques Cousteau, Jean-Michel, who is carrying on his father's dedication to the health of the oceans. There were usually two performances on board, at 6.15 and 9.15, not only from our group, but others, including resident dancers and musicians. Everywhere were fine paintings -- there was an art expert to lecture, and I went to an Art Auction, where passengers were spending thousands of dollars to buy paintings. A girl I had had dinner with the night before, the daughter of the Mormon lady, spent $10,000! It was fabulous to be so spoiled -- the crew were unfailingly attentive and charming. Our Captain had a distinctive French accent, he was from St. Malo, M. Phillippe Fichet Delavault, and during his farewell speech he said: "You will know when the cruise is over. You will drop your towel on the floor of the bathroom, and it will still be there an hour later!"
On the final night there was a concert with all our Theatre at Sea performers, and I was asked to join in. I introduced myself by telling that I had been invited to perform on the first night, but then Manaus Airport happened! That was all I needed to get a laugh. It was great for me that so many people came up to congratulate me that evening and the next morning -- even on the dock when we got off the ship.
If anyone would like to see photos of my trip, just send me your email address to email@example.com and I can send you my album.
Trip of a lifetime? Absolutely!!