Well (Sanofi Factory, Dagenham)
A week-long performance reflects on the history of the May and Baker factory
Pharmaceutical pills drop from the ceiling onto the factory floor, landing with the pitter-patter of raindrops. No-one is there to catch them, so this puddle of pills spreads slowly outwards. Dagenham's Sanofi factory, home to the chemical manufacturing company May and Baker for almost 80 years, closed down in 2013. Its new owners moved operations to mainland Europe, leaving this east London community without one of its major employers.
Geraldine Pilgrim, one of the early initiators of site-specific theatre in this country, has re-opened its doors. A large community cast bring the building back to life for one last time, before a major regeneration project starts up. A snoozing cleaner wakes up, like Sleeping Beauty, and walks her round again. Technicians glide down the corridors pushing trays of equipment. Scientists stand between shelving units, combining coloured liquids in volumetric flasks.
Pilgrim finds a metaphor in the history of medicine. Behind the closed blinds of office rooms, just visible through the cracks, are yesterday's medics: an Eygptian woman mummifying a corpse, a plague doctor hidden beneath hideous sacking daubs a red cross on a door. It's a way of saying that there is a point to progress, even if it comes with a cost.
'Pilgrim is sometimes guilty of romanticising industry'
However, just as medicine has become more clinical, less visceral, so too has the workplace. Contemporary scientists in their crisp labcoats sing a calming choral composition as they work, while their predecessors, packing pills with giddy abandon downstairs, sing and dance and beam. History seeps through the building, with 60s-style secretaries and modern hazchem suits rubbing shoulders - a reflection of the building's jumbled architecture; half state-of-the-art, half outdated and municipal.
Well is, first and foremost, a show for its community and a relationship to the factory complex itself is a big benefit. The show has less to say about medicine and manufacturing as subjects, and Pilgrim is sometimes guilty of romanticising industry and mystifying science. Certain parts feel workaday, with some scientific instruments displayed as objects of fascination in themselves, and the stranger images are the ones that stay with you: the patient stitching her own heartbeat monitor, the elderly couple dancing softly beneath a disco ball - both alive thanks to modern medicine.
They are, however, few and far between, and while Pilgrim's practice has never been about "raising ghosts," Well can feel too like a straightforward (and straightjacketed) tour of a disused factory. You find yourself longing for some sort of transformation - a little less science, a little more magic.
Well runs at the former Sanofi factory in Dagenham until 6 September - more info here