5:00am Thursday 21st November 2013
By Alexandra Rucki
The Battersea Arts Centre is perhaps best known for putting on productions that aim at pushing the envelope so you might expect it to shy away from Christmas schmaltz.
The Good Neighbour however brings a heart warming tale, in an unusual format for children and adults alike.
Director Sarah Golding spoke to Alexandra Rucki before its opening night.
Alexandra Rucki: What happens in The Good Neighbour?
Sarah Golding: The Good Neighbour is a Christmas story. The adventure focusses on the secret of George Neighbour, a local man linked to the famous great fire at Clapham Junction which happened two days before Christmas in 1909. It's a show that looks at a special moment in our local history, but universally it's about friendship, adventure, bravery, honesty and being kind to others - all valuable messages to explore at this time of year.
AR: How is it different to your the usual types of productions you get at Christmas time?
SG: The Good Neighbour was nominated for an Off West End Award and has had critical acclaim from a host of national newspapers, but it's essentially a celebration of Battersea Arts Centre’s locality; a local story of a local man for our local audience. We want to share this magical Christmas show with those who live around us in South West London for all to enjoy, as good neighbours, together.
The show provides just the kind of experience you want to have at the theatre with your family at Christmas; it is fun; full of wonder; compelling and intriguing. You get to work together and explore the beautiful old town hall; and you get to enjoy a Christmas party with all the performers at the end!
AR: Can you give a summary of the true story it is based on?
SG: George Neighbour’s story is emblematic of the widespread movement of men and women from countryside to city in the 19th century. Rather than follow in his family’s tradition of gardening, he instead went into ‘service’, first as a butler and then as a footman. When George moved to London he found work in the carvery at Arding and Hobbs, the largest department store in South London. On 20th December 1909 a terrible fire destroyed the building, claiming seven lives, including George’s. He fell into the flames when the floor beneath him collapsed, after having helped two female colleagues onto fire ladders from an upper-storey window. His death and courage was commemorated on a marble plaque at Battersea Town Hall, which can still be seen today in the building which is now Battersea Arts Centre.
AR: Which artists have you collaborated with and what has been their input in the production?
SG: The Good Neighbour started life as part of Battersea Arts Centre’s Schools Programme in 2009, and since then we have worked with over 30 different artists and hundreds of local children to create and devise the show. It's taken a long time to plan the logistics and make the piece - the way the show runs with inter-related journeys is a maze so we have a crack team of stage managers, producers and creative consultants who work to weave it all together seamlessly. In this final version, there are 10 different artists who are creating pieces inspired by George's story within the show; including Matt Blake and Kirsty Harris (both of whom have previously worked with Punchdrunk) acclaimed performance artist Bryony Kimmings, and Kazuko Hohki, winner of the Foster's Comedy God Award.
AR: How will it appeal to children and adults?
SG: Our audiences will laugh, they will be amazed, they will care, they will make new friends, they will dance, and they will discover the wonderful old town hall and many secrets hidden behind each and every door. I remember watching a particularly beautiful section from the show last year and one girl gasped "You guys are wizards!" That's what I want - I want to take people's breath away and make them love every minute of it.
This year, there's also a secret show within the piece that's just for adults. Every night, a handful of audience members (aged 14+) will get the chance to discover a darker side to George's past in an unexpected twist of his tale, adding further dimension to the experience. Parents can book to go on this adult journey while their children take part in a chaperoned adventure. There are lots of points in the show where everyone comes together, and other times when groups are enjoying different things. We’ve also got special things lined up for the youngest members of the family with workshops happening in our dedicated play space for 0-5s, The Bee’s Knees. The Good Neighbour is a new type of family theatre show; there is something for everyone to share together but also different magical parts to explore.
AR: How is the Battersea Arts Centre space used in the play?
SG: Our work is always looking to push the boundaries of what's expected or what's normal in theatre. The Good Neighbour happens in ten different spaces around the building, which the audience get to investigate. The set and props are all created to be held and used by the audience; magical clues where the writing appears before your very eyes, beautiful gemstones to discover and touch, a huge map to write on and draw your thoughts. The work is enjoyable because the audience are in the show, not just watching the show.
Battersea Arts Centre is perfectly placed to present this kind of show. Our building isn't a traditional theatre and our shows happen in unusual spaces and rooms all over the site. This means our audiences don't feel they need to behave in the normal ways a traditional theatre asks you to, and so they feel more able to interact directly with the work. Also, the artists and performers we make shows with like to have a strong connection with their audiences. They enjoy the interactions to make the whole production more alive and more exciting.
AR: How does directing a children’s production differ to working on something for adults?
SG: I love working on productions for all the family. Children are the best audience because they are so honest and they won't hold back in responding should something be funny or not quite right or if something really touches them. They haven't learnt all the so called 'rules' about how to behave in the theatre - they just react as they feel immediately which is brilliant for the work. Children are also able to take their imaginations to places that adults can't, and, if a story is told really well, they invest in it in a way that adults often just aren't able to do anymore. That's why I love creating work for families - it gives parents and grandparents a chance to be children again, to share the experience with their little ones, and for a short while, suspend the limitations that we all have to put on our imaginations to function as an adult in this world.
AR: What are your favourite Christmas/Festive theatre plays?
SG: I love anything that is magical, that taps into our ancient need to tell stories. I don’t think that need goes away when we grow up, and a good piece of family theatre at this time of year gives everyone, whatever their age, a chance to explore within the safety of theatrical experience. I love stories, and I love folk tales. I think it’s fascinating that across history similar stories playing with similar archetypes emerge separately from different cultures. To me, that reveals that stories and theatre have an undeniable importance within our society; they are a necessary way to process and manage who we are and how we relate to each other and the world around us.
AR: What other directors/plays influence this production?
SG: Battersea Arts Centre is a unique theatre because it has a labyrinth of rooms of different sizes in which performances can happen. This means our style of work is very different to the norm, and we’re often able to do things other venues just can't do! When you talk about the pioneers of immersive theatre across a range of different spaces, it's impossible not to recognise the influence of Punchdrunk, whose seminal piece The Masque of the Red Death was created and performed at Battersea Arts Centre in 2007. Lots of different theatre companies and venues are now experimenting with this style of work.
I guess what defines The Good Neighbour is that our show has at its heart a strong narrative thrust. Our audiences experience a host of different environments and ideas within the context of the one show, but the overarching story is as strong one, and therefore at the end, they all feel they have been one clear journey.
AR: What else have you got lined up?
SG: In February Half Term spoken word artist Polarbear returns to Battersea Arts Centre with our production of Mouth Open, Story Jump Out, an interactive piece for 6+ about a boy who loves making things up, but his talent for telling tales leads him into hot water as his stories become bigger and bigger. Alongside this, we are opening our building on Saturdays as of April 2014 for Family Feasts, a range of family activities including workshops, food and shows for all ages.
Good Neighbour, Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, Clapham Junction, December 6 to January 4 2pm, 7pm, £19.50, £16.50 £12 www.bac.org.uk
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