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Posts Tagged ‘May & Baker’

Well is ‘a performance journey’ through a disused pharmaceutical factory, where I worked for five years in two periods in the 1980’s. May & Baker had been there since 1834, but closed its doors after 178 years, the victim of rationalisation following a handful of mergers and acquisitions during its last two decades. Employing 4500 at its peak, it was a vast 85 acre site which was a community in itself. Many of the buildings are now demolished but new occupants, like a college faculty, are emerging. To mark its move to its next phase as a business park, Creative Barking & Dagenham commissioned this piece, where the people of the borough chose the artist they wanted to work with and over a hundred local people participated. It also provided something like 50 placements for college students.

White-coated guides lead you into the factory building where the cleaner has fallen asleep. After being given our prescription we spent a brief period in a ‘museum’, then continue with our guide through offices, laboratories and the factory floor, where people are engaged in a variety of activities connected with the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, but also with the use of medicines. For me, it was a bit like seeing ghosts haunting a once active and thriving manufacturing facility. As you slowly walk through, you observe short scenes, mostly mute though there is some dialogue, live and recorded, together with some singing and a touch of dancing. I particularly liked hearing the memories of former employees (one about pensioners coming in for lunch on Wednesdays clogging up the canteen made me smile in recognition) and the representation of a happy workplace with the girls breaking into song and dance.

Many of the spaces were themselves theatrical and used to great effect. I liked the gentle pace of it. It’s best approached intuitively rather than looking for meaning in each moment. Together, the moments create a vivid, accurate, somewhat melancholic impression of a workplace and its role in the world. I don’t think you have to have a connection to appreciate the work, but having one led to a combination of nostalgia, lost memories returning and a touch of sadness. I attended with six former colleagues and the animated and lively discussion afterwards was another part of the experience for us.

This was the sort of community project that contributes so much and I’m sure both the participants and audience will retain it in their memory for a long time, in my case enhancing the other memories that go with it. Geraldine Pilgrim has researched her subject(s) well and both its creation and execution were outstanding. I’ve called it the May & Baker factory because that’s what it was known as for 150 years, but also with a touch of bitterness that it was the subsequent owners who ripped out its heart, destroyed the community and took jobs elsewhere, not always for sound business reasons.

 

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