'Return to Elm House' review or 'Magic, show us the way!'

Return to Elm House, Sarah Golding 
BAC, 8th December 2018
Written for The Guardian



Why does it say ‘caution, caution, caution’?” Blue, aged eight, is concerned about the yellow tape draped about the Battersea Arts Centre. But this show is all about letting children in, not keeping them out. The caution tape is quickly lifted and the kids are invited inside and given access to all areas. They’re here to explore the history of one extraordinary woman, Jane Nassau Senior, who used to live on this very spot. It isn’t long before the children (ages six and upwards) are leading from the front, charging about the building and gulping up historical facts as they go.
The action begins outside the re-created front door of Jane’s home, The Elm House, which is surrounded by rubble and scattered leaves. This is where Britain’s very first female civil servant – Jeanie to her friends – forged her career, helped revolutionise workhouses and kickstarted the notion of foster care. The memory of Jeanie’s work is fading and it’s down to the children to preserve her place in history. We’re split into small groups and led around the venue by an impossibly chirpy Time Keeper. Our Time Keeper for the day, Elizabeth Bartram, does a stellar job at cultivating curiosity in the kids and just about managing to keep them under control.
Each group is also given a giant stick, which mysteriously rumbles and directs us towards a series of simple but thoughtful installations created by a variety of artists. The first child tasked with holding the stick excitedly cries out – “Magic, show us the way!’ – and with that we’re off. We stumble across a giant golden heart, which radiates warmth and throbs when we rest our heads up against it. The word “courage” is emblazoned on the wall and the children discuss what courage means, and why it’s important. Later, we come across a huge sculpture of a dandelion and talk about hope. We’re encouraged to make our own wishes, which include – among the children and adults – unicorns, a pet and a large glass of prosecco.
The joy of Sarah Golding’s show (and this was also a feature of Golding’s 2015 BAC festive show, Town Hall Cherubs) is that she gives the children in the audience real responsibility and agency. Their hopes, ideas and individual personalities are carefully folded into the fabric of the show. Archive photos are scattered at each installation and the children are asked to describe what they see. One photo is of a group of children who are now living in much kinder conditions, thanks to Jeanie’s pioneering work. A boy studies the photo carefully and proudly tells the gathered audience: “They’re smiling. They look happy. It’s not a fake smile. Their eyes are smiling too!” Brilliant.

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