Back for its second year at the Battersea Arts Centre, this is a show that slots in well – in the rooms around buzzing main performance spaces, into a niche for theatre that doesn’t stick children to their seats with waves of sound and sugar, and most of all into its location. Instead, it extracts every drop of sentiment, history and charm from the unmanicured BAC’s in an unexpectedly thoughtful adventure in stories.
The devised script sends the enigmatic George Neighbour on a journey to discover who he is – with a lot of help from his new friends. The ethos is family-friendly Brechtian, with children relishing the frame-breaking approach to a Christmas show that never quite happens. Monique (Monique Duchen) is particularly popular, masquerading as a clownish techie with a penchant for dancing. Volunteers divide the audience into 10 teams, the last of which gets the adult-only honour of seeing a “hidden show” and avoiding the shape-throwing, funny face pulling and shouting-out animation of the kids’ teams’ leaders. Each team becomes detectives, following separate, sometimes converging paths round the BAC into a succession of tiny, poignant worlds.
The BAC is fascinating in itself, for its combination of the grand – big marble staircases and columns – the decrepit – damp patches moldering and paint flaking like a forgotten library – and the downright whimsical, like the mosaic bees on the entrance hall floor or the stained glass dome that springs up surprisingly from an inner ceiling. But where The Masque of the Red Death, Punchdrunk’s early foray into full-on immersive maximalism, disguised these details in a fug of incense and velvet, the BAC’s mustier corners are part of an approach that’s rooted in the real. We’re directed to find “the room with the nose”, which turns out to have “Noes” painted above its door, a defunct remnant of council chamber voting mechanisms. Kazuko Hohki’s has installed a beehive which turns out to be a reference to the fields of fragrant flowers that used to cover Lavender Hill, and their swarming inhabitants.
Sometimes the atmosphere is seethingly intense – especially when crawling into a hexagonal, soft-carpeted, bee womb surrounded by projections of flowers, then emerging into a flurry of blue light and snow. At other points, it’s more sober – a man fills jars with happy memories, represented by water, reminding adults more than children (who seldom need reminding) to live life to the full. Another room encourages us to think about and record things we’ve lost, in a kind of cosmic lost property office that files the physical and metaphysical alike. There’s a lot of satisfaction in discovering each room – they really feel like little forgotten worlds, with lives that stretch on long before and after the show’s duration. But it’s not quite the breathless satisfied surge of a treasure hunt or detective novel, and George Neighbour’s own story and mystery feels distant and vague next to the successive stories and mysteries closer to hand – I ended up feeling just as much sympathy for a lovable talking lightbulb in the centre’s dank basement.
Believing in George Neighbour and his BAC friends is as soft and tempting as believing in Father Christmas, but this is a more grounded and sombre kind of deception. It’s concerned with time and place and stories that don’t have a beginning, middle and end. At a time of year where days are weighed down with so many memories, it’s a heady, enchanting mix.