Battersea Arts Centre is easily one of the most beautiful buildings in London, and a chance to explore it should always jumped at. Return to Elm House is an interactive family show that makes full use of this striking venue, shining careful attention on the site’s history and venue’s singular, continuing embedding in Battersea life. It makes for a gentle and very different Christmas show experience.
Small kids in Christmas jumpers are everywhere when I arrive, skidding across the tiles of the foyer, sweeping the dead leaves which are everywhere at each other with a broom, shrieking. Five of these later become my teammates, alongside their adults, with varying levels of preoccupation and absorption in our mission. We wear lanyards reading ‘TIME KEEPER COLLEAGUE – ACCESS ALL AREAS’; depending on the reading level of the children involved (aged six and up), there’s the chance to feel let in on something very exclusive indeed.
We’re led by a very animated group – the Lavender Hill Timekeepers – to the ‘council chamber’. There’s something of an emergency taking place: a mysterious door has appeared in this room, and dead leaves line the Battersea Arts Centre corridors, as fast as they can be cleared. The Timekeepers fall over themselves like a mass of eager puppies, charming the children, and teach us the Timekeepers’ salute: the repeated bending of both thumbs, like clicking an old-timey watch.
The Archivist (a beaming, almost shy Chevin Dash) welcomes us; she is responsible for the recording of history here, at the museum, she tells us – and the BAC does indeed house the Wandsworth Borough Collection. We see the door, which once opened summons someone to us. We hear her voice, and projections on the walls of the chamber read with some of her words, show us pictures of the Victorian times she lived in.
This is Jane Nassau Senior – Jeanie – and she needs our help. Unfastened from her own time by the opening of the door of her home, Elm House, which once stood on this very site, we must find the elm trees which once also grew here to learn her story and recover her spirit before she fades completely.
An almost incredible real-life figure who was friends with George Eliot and helped in the running of the National Society for Aid to Sick and Wounded in War, forerunner to the Red Cross, Florence Nightingale even called her “a noble army of one”. Jeanie was the kind of person who must have made Sarah Golding, the BAC’s associate artistic director and creator of Return to Elm House, feel like literally rubbing her hands together in glee upon discovering.
Elizabeth Bartram, the Timekeeper leading my team to find out more about Jeanie, is irrepressible and warm; one by one the children and even the adults hold one of the enchanted elm tree boughs which “moves” (it really does vibrate!) us in the right direction. Elizabeth makes sure to remember our names, to appoint two different children each time the door-holders for the rest of the group as we navigate around the building, and before long, we’re led to our first elm tree.
Beside it is a plaque which says COURAGE, and behind a curtain next to it is a door, opened by sticking a hand through the mouth of a brass lion embossed on it. Though most of our five youngsters eye this with alarm, one steps up to the challenge, revealing a huge, seemingly beating gold heart. Elizabeth prompts the children to define what courage means, to consider why this heart is here, to remember a time they might have showed courage themselves. We find a small chest with more clues to Jeanie’s life and Elizabeth talks us through her transformation of the poor schools and her founding of the fostering system.
Even as the kids in the group are occasionally caught up in the general excitement of the treasure-hunt aspect of the tour, and insistently suggest we take the chest back to the chamber for safekeeping, Elizabeth reins in their impulses and more outlandish guesses. We find HOPE, next to a window showing a couple of large metal dandelion clocks, which we all wish upon. Jeanie, we learn, was the first woman to ever perform a job for government. “Imagine a government or school council of just men. That would be unfair, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t want that, would you?” asks Elizabeth.
(Yes, we would, is the reply back from the group. They’re tickled pink by the idea. A couple of mums look embarrassed. Still, they’re likely only six.)
We take our discoveries back to the chamber to reunite with everyone and for some final moments of magic; the use of projections as well as the unrelenting goodwill and enthusiasm of the actor-guides coupled with the details of Jeanie’s life combine in a way which can’t lose. “I wish it would go on,” whispers one of my group’s boys, about as ringing an endorsement as there can be from a person just this tiny.
The strange art pieces the groups come across – a mirror with a message for HONESTY, a hidden gong which sounds out for INTEGRITY – will go on to become permanent installations here, thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund: this is only their first incarnation. They stand for a palpable love for this building and a pride for the long history here of people like John Archer, John Burns, and Charlotte Despard; in short, people who cared, not unlike those behind this loving production-cum-tour.
Return to Elm House is on at Battersea Arts Centre until 30th December. More info here.