Soho now is the haunt of gaggles of tourists and day-trippers, swanning advertising executives and swooping shoppers. But it was not always thus. For centuries this area was home to some of the poorest and most desperate people to be found in London and it was a measure of increasing civilisation that in 1931 what are now known as the Marshall Street Baths were opened to “improve the health and wellbeing of the local people”. There were two swimming pools, slipper baths for those without facilities at home, a public laundry and a child welfare centre.
It is no praise to our age that this wonderful facility, built to the highest of artistic and structural standards, has stood derelict since 1997, its fate undecided. But that has provided an opportunity for its use for a unique performance, Deep End, by Corridor, a group that specialises in site-specific events.
The visit begins with a “health and safety” briefing from an officious clipboarded man in a reflective vest, who tells you, in a patronising tone, how developers plan to again make this structure great – mostly with (no doubt astonishingly expensive) apartments, and with one small part restored for public use.
Then you plunge into the building’s past, for an experience that covers all of its history, and seduces all of your senses. At the top of the gorgeously sculpted, gold-railed staircase, you listen as far below, water drips slowing into a galvanised bath that sits in the foundations of the workhouse that occupied this site in 1854 when John Snow in nearby Broadwick Street identified the well that caused a disastrous cholera outbreak.
You watch a wartime washerwoman, jauntily dressed in a mix of fabrics, as she labours over a endless tubs of dauntingly white curtains and a strong, distinctive chlorine smell – is it carbolic soap? – floods your nose. I don’t know what carbolic soap smells like, but the word, with all of its associations of poverty and desperate respectability, leapt into my mind.
I thought of the memories of Jane Morgan, one of four sisters who lived in nearby public housing, recorded in a letter displayed in the small museum at the entrance: “It was a blessing to have lovely clean clothes each week.” The attractions of Soho were once very simple indeed.
Moving upward, a more modern age intrudes. You are following signs that keep saying “karate” and sounds of the shouts of combat and the slap of bodies on mats is all around. Then, through a corridor carpetted with a thick carpet of leaves, you step back in time, to a room where a lady dressed in fine underclothes sits brushing her long blonde hair as a maid trudges back and forth filling her bath. An actress, perhaps, reflecting one of Soho’s great industries.
Down a second staircase, you have left the baths, and ventured on to the streets. Befeathered cabaret “girls” preen and prance as a Teddy Boy fingers his cash and considers his fall from suburban respectability. A dancing dragon from a Chinese festival advances to block your progress; a sore-footed east Asian woman waits to greet restaurant diners. Even the 21st-century is represented, with a young advertising type perched on a tiny cafe table with laptop and mobile at the ready. His coffee smells so good it is really tempting to ask for a recommendation.
But you’re here for the baths, and finally you reach the grand centre of this building, the first-class pool. It looks as though it could be revived simply by turning on a tap, the white Sicilian and green Swedish marble walls in fine condition, as is the bronze dolphin fountain.
Elsewhere the building looks like the deserted old lady it is – the paint often flaking with sympathetic theatricality – but here, if you half close your eyes, the swim-suited figure climbing down the deep-end steps might indeed be able to participate in sounds of the carnival that’s in full swing, with its splashings and childish shouts.
It’s here that the performance has its only stumble. A projected film of a waving swimmer is unnecessarily modern and artificial. It seems the artistic director, Gerladine Pilgrim, has suddenly lost confidence in the art of suggestion.
But then in the second-class pool – which today developers want to demolish for a car park – the effective reliance on the power of the simple image returns. A web of branches blocks the entrance gate, entire sections of the wall have broken away, and the changing cubicles that line the sides are dark, potentially dangerous, spaces. No further art is necessary.
Noreen Kent, a 12-year-old in 1944, recalls that American troops held swimming galas in the first-class pool, while she was among the children in the second-class facility. “We were allowed in the water for half an hour as there might be people waiting.” Nonetheless, for the children it was a treat – finished off “by a slice of bread and marg – not butter” at a nearby cafe. But: “No warm showers or hairdryers of course. So in winter we’d come out with wet hair. No wonder I got rheumatic fever.”
It is a reflection of a sickness that pervades a structure that once offered such hope for a better future. You leave past a mother with a fine fancy pram who sits waiting for the baby clinic. But that the nurse she is waiting for is not here; the urgently ringing phone will not be answered. The building can only wait now, silent except when revived by the art of the performer and the power of ghosts.
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