The town of Dagenham was unusually quiet. But all the while, ghosts were gathering in the abandoned factory. I know because last night I saw them for myself…
I never thought very much about the May & Baker factory of my hometown of Dagenham. When I was little, I naturally presumed its purpose was to bake things. “Good old May & Bakers,” I used to say as I tucked into whatever sweet treat lay in the kitchen. Except nobody ever said “May & Bakers.” On account of our unfortunate accent, to us it was known as “Maaaan Bakers” leading me to my second presumption that the bakers at the factory were all men, and manly men indeed which was why you had to elongate the vowel.
It was only when my mother reminisced to me about being given a rescue guinea pig left behind from the animal testing facility at the factory that I had to rethink my baking theory. May & Bakers were not in fact baking cakes but creating vital medicines, and it hadn’t actually been called May & Bakers since the Sanofi company took it over in in the 1990s.
When the factory closed its doors in 2013, I was vaguely interested and then forgot all about it, more concerned with possible theories about what was going to take its place. That was of course until last night, when Geraldine Pilgrim’s “Well” opened the doors onto an entire new world that had existed on my very door step. “Well” seeks to bring to life both local memories of the factory and its significance on the world stage through its contributions to the medicinal industry.
What is truly striking about this piece is the sheer amount of people that wanted to play a part in the factory’s farewell. From young women in lab coats to grey-haired former employees, the size and diversity of the cast is a real tribute to both the factory and the people of Barking and Dagenham.
A cleaner sleeps resting against a hoover in the lobby. A group of scientists make use of the fantastic acoustics to create a haunting choir as they methodically inspect their test tubes. At one point hundreds of pills pour down from the ceiling like rain. What Pilgrim has created is a haunting, dream-like world in which the past has permeated through the walls and lives on. And yet it is also incredibly playful. A scene in which factory workers dance to the cheery tune of “Don’t worry, be happy” recreates the sense of working class comradely which lies at the heart of factory.
As I exited the factory I felt a real sense of loss for something that I had not even truly realised was gone. I often find that you can’t say the name Dagenham without getting a bit of a snigger. I’m normally the first to bemoan it. And yet it inspired this. Under its shabby exterior, there lies a cultural wealth just waiting to be explored. With pioneers like Geraldine Pilgrim and Creative Barking and Dagenham placing a flag down, the relics of its past may be gone but the future looks bright for Dagenham’s arts and heritage scene.