The Geffrye Museum’s annual ‘Christmas Past’ exhibition looks at the past 400 years of festive traditions in middle-class English homes, and offers a wonderful insight into so many of this seasons now commonplace activities from the food we eat, to the decorations we put up, sending cards, hanging stockings, and kissing under the mistletoe! Based in Hoxton (East London) the museum comprises of eleven period rooms all in former 18th century almshouses originally built to house London’s poor and elderly from 1780 to 1880. The first period room dates from 1600 and they continue through to the present day, each one furnished accordingly to reflect changes in middle-class society, behaviour and tastes. I enjoyed witnessing the evolution of Christmas in the home, from the evergreens (a Pagan custom adopted by Christians) and ‘kissing boughs’ (early mistletoe) of the 1600’s, to the Rosemary and Bay of the 1700’s, and the introduction of fir trees under the reign of Queen Victoria in the 1800’s. I was also surprised by how much I learnt; I was previously unaware that Christmas was banned in this county during the Civil War as parliament was at the time dominated by Puritans who disapproved of the excess that Christmas encouraged (and the ban was only lifted in 1660 when the monarchy was restored), or that sending Christmas cards is a late nineteenth century English invention introduced by Henry Cole who sold the first commercial card in 1843 and it became a popular custom from 1870 when The Post Office introduced a cheap rate for postcards and unsealed envelopes. The almshouses are situated within tranquil gardens and there’s also an impressive on-site café serving local East London produce, so I’d certainly advise visiting the museum before the Christmas show finishes on 3rd January!
I am deeply suspicious of immersive theatrical experiences and have a palpable dislike of forced audience participation, so had my concerns about attending Dreamthinkspeak’s new production at Shoreditch Town Hall. Inspired by The Duchess of Argyll’s residence at a London hotel for over a decade until her eviction in the 1980’s, ‘Absent’ uses the Town Hall’s labyrinthine basement as the set for a journey “guests” can enjoy at their own pace. Upon arrival, I immediately bought into the deception of it being a real hotel, complete with reception and check-in area, functioning bar, and doormen leading you down to the basement where the hotel façade continues. With no idea what to expect when entering the first bedroom, black and white films of a glamorous dinner and a two-way mirror allowing you to see into the next bedroom where a drunk and disorientated older woman is packing her suitcase, ease you into the story. Moving down the corridor, you can look into each of the hotel bedrooms via keyholes and peepholes to view the same woman at different life stages; an innocent child, elegant young lady, and lonely older woman. Influences range from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, to C.S Lewis’ Narnia and Orwell’s 1984 – and the integration of film, installation, eerie soundtrack and detailed miniatures of the rooms you are standing in, make navigating your way through the building intriguing and utterly absorbing. The maze-like basement constantly alters in scale, and oscillates between the real (actual rooms) and the imaginary (film, installation, replica miniatures) making you feel as though you are stepping into scenes you have been watching or moments from the past. As you exit the final room a doorman is required to inform you that the experience is over, testament to its authenticity and to how convincing an illusion has been created.