On the weekend, I found myself back at the Battersea Arts Centre, surrounded by various adults and some very excitable children. In December 2012, the BAC played host to The Good Neighbour and it was so successful that people begged them to put it on again in 2013. So I went along to see what all the fuss was about. George Neighbour is a young man who lives in BAC and has lost his memory (and is terrified of Christmas and all things Christmassy – and heights, and stairs, and windows…. and just about everything). Aside from the name on his apron and meeting Queen Victoria, he knows nothing about himself; but he believes the clues to his identity all lie hidden in BAC, so it’s up to us to be ‘very brave’ and find them for him.
We are split into groups with a numbered sticker and assigned a guide to lead us through the building, with all groups taking a different route (although you run into each other quite frequently) and off we go on our theatrical adventure. The whole format is rather more aimed at children than it is at adults, but is still good fun. The kids around me threw themselves into the task with great enthusiasm and were absolutely enraptured with the whole concept.
We trailed up and down stairs and crawled through tunnels, searched for bits of paper with instructions and met various characters along the way, each with a small snippet of information which might help us recover George’s lost memory. At one point, we even got to make lightbulbs in the basement (a line of D batteries, alligator clips, lead filaments and a glass jar) – an experiment that I haven’t done since secondary school! In the main council chamber, there was a large map on the floor which kids and adults alike were encouraged to draw on with chalk with all the things they’d found out.
But there were also aspects which encouraged us to think about our own memories. One of my favourite rooms that we visited was home to character The Momentologist – he is surrounded by glass jars full of water, all representing the moments in people’s lives; there’s a great analogy here for adults and children alike in that everyone has a jar, but it’s up to you to fill it memories and it’s never too late to start. He held up an empty jar to say one of the most profound things out of the whole show: “This lady’s jar is empty. She won’t go outside in case something falls out of the sky and hits her on the head… and she won’t let herself fall in love in case her heart gets broken.” As we all walked out of the room, there was a great contrast between the uncontainable enthusiasm of the children and some very quietly reflective adults.
At the finale we all got to share our findings (my highlight of the evening was the child vividly telling us about “the… the funny lady! And she EXPLODED!!!”). Maybe its that I’ve been spoilt with other immersive theatre productions where you can wander wherever you like, but not everyone sees every room on their route (and if you come back, I’m not sure how you can guarantee being put on a route to see the rooms you missed last time). I for one would’ve liked to see the funny exploding lady.
George’s missing identity is revealed and it is with bittersweet amazement that we find out the truth about him. There is a sad ending to the story, but it is told in such a way as to be life-affirming rather than upsetting – one hell of a challenge when some of the youngest in the audience were 6-year-olds. And what a good, brave and kind Neighbour he was.
‘The Good Neighbour’ is on until Saturday 4th January 2014 at Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, London, SW11 5TN. Suitable for ages 6 and up. For information and tickets, go to https://www.bac.org.uk/content/29759/see_whats_on/current_shows/tuck_in/the_good_neighbour