Review: Sanofi play offers snapshots of Dagenham history

PUBLISHED: 13:00 02 September 2015

Well, created by 
Geraldine Pilgrim with residents of
 Barking & Dagenham at the former
 Sanofi Factory, runs until this Sunday, September 6. Photo: Sheila Burnett

Well, created by Geraldine Pilgrim with residents of Barking & Dagenham at the former Sanofi Factory, runs until this Sunday, September 6. Photo: Sheila Burnett

Sheila Burnett

A low, refrigerated hum fills the foyer of the former Sanofi factory as we pass a dozing cleaning lady, before picking up our prescriptions from a white-coated chemist in the adjacent room.

This is not so much a play as an immersive rollercoaster through the lives of nearly eight decades of Sanofi employees – a journey through a collective memory we absorb with every disembodied ceiling voice and silently lurking character.

Beginning in a theatrical museum detailing the history of the site, from the 30s through to its closure in 2013, we are then led by silent, stern-faced chemists through the corridors, locker rooms and factory floors of the past.

We take in sleeping May & Baker workers, starkly depicted by desk lamps. One, I notice on a second walk past, dons a gold, pointy party hat.

Holes in the wall reveal a bird-faced, gas-masked vision of personified death, daubing a red cross on a black wall. Another shows a masked surgeon carrying out an operation on a blonde haired patient.

You want to linger longer, as you’re marched through choirs of chemists and happy-making packers on the production line, dancing and clapping to ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’.

But before you know it you’re whisked off to an eerie row of empty hospital beds, draped by an ongoing scream of a stitch, the red thread of a life-stupport machine draped over the beds, until you see a woman at the end, placidly making the creation.

Plant-growing and phial-filling alludes to the ground-breaking work May & Baker did, not only in pharmaceuticals but also with herbicides.

If it doesn’t seem to make chronological sense, that’s for a very good reason. Memory does not work in straight lines, and the merging of news clips, song, and activity gives snapshots of the past, filmic insights into how people lived and worked in that space, and how they remember it.

Artistic director Geraldine Pilgrim recognised that the driving force behind the project was how much people cared about the place, and this is reinforced by the 170-strong cast, made up of former Sanofi employees and many of the borough’s residents.

When we hear an old woman reminiscing of her career there, and watch a man in the locker room carry out his daily actions, you begin to realise that the now empty building contains an endless store of precious memories.

“There were difficult times, but I loved it - it was the best job I ever had,” reflects one male voice, emanating from the ceiling.

Well is a landmark commission from Creative Barking and Dagenham, supported by funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, an Artsworks Development Grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.

The show runs until Sunday, September 6, with performances throughout the evening. Tickets cost £3.50 to £12.50, with cheaper prices for Barking & Dagenham residents.

For more information visit or call 020 8507 5607.

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