Nigel and Louise's Basement Grotto
Shoreditch Town Hall
In the winter of 2014 Nigel found some Elves eating cheese sandwiches in the postroom, down in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall. They were on a break from making toys in The North Pole and thought they would come to London for lunch. They showed him the secret magic portal that they use to travel and told us we could use it to visit Father Christmas whenever we wanted and bring whoever we liked along with us.
So we did !!
"THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I still believe in Santa and thanks to you so do my children. Truly magical."
"Santa's grotto was utterly fantastic. Kids enthralled, parents dewy-eyed with joy. A huge thanks for your fun and magic!"
"Fantastic basement grotto. Beautiful, magical, funny and - amazingly - only a tenner."
TIME OUT ****
Screw trying to persuade some old man in a hot department store that you’ve been good this year. There’s a new Christmas grotto in town – and you actually get to travel through a magic portal to the North Pole.
It’s a colourful sensory adventure in which kids are encouraged to get involved. The magic portal is all bright fluorescent lights and eerie tinkling music, which we’re led through by a bunch of impossibly upbeat elves, who like cheese sandwiches and say ‘brilliant!’ a lot. We do a little dance, play snowmen statues and then a beautiful, ghostly white puppet Rudolf comes to help us find the napping Father Christmas.
There’s a bit more preamble through some lovingly-designed rooms, but, really, this is all about the grotto. It’s essentially Barrett as Father Crimble sitting in a huge bed covered in pillows in a room with fluffy clouds hanging from the ceiling. He tells us a softly-spoken story filled with delight that had most of the kids on the bed entirely captivated. Presents are handed out – an obvious winner – and Santa switches into an amazing flying jumpsuit to bid us goodbye.
A handful of the young crowd were a little scared to begin with but, egged on by the bravery of the others and the very friendly elves, they soon got-on-board with this wonderful, magical, strangeness.
Because it starts long before the show begins: a miniature play in four acts.
M, L & B annually visit two or three perfunctory grottos populated by identikit Father Christmi.
L & B travel through them as though on a conveyor belt, receiving cheap and gendered plastic tat.
M quietly despairs.
School run, 25/11/2014, 8.45am
M: I bought lots of tickets for Christmas theatre last night. One of them is like a grotto, but it’s a theatre grotto. I know the people who are doing it a bit.
L (looking somewhat askance): Will it be weird?
M: Yes, it could be quite weird.
Act 3, Scene 1
School Christmas fair, 5/12/14, 4.33pm
M, L & B have queued for 10 minutes in the cold.
A woman in a cheap costume-shop elf outfit ushers them into a sparsely decorated garden shed. Identikit Father Christmas sits on a bench.
IFC: Have you been good this year?
L (looking somewhat appalled): Er, yes.
IFC: Well then, let my elf give you your presents.
The presents are gendered.
M quietly despairs.
Act 3, Scene 2
Journey home, 5.47pm
L: Mum, why is seeing Father Christmas always a bit … embarrassing?
M: Why do you find it embarrassing?
L: Because he always asks if you’ve been good.
M: Mmmm. It’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?
Act 4, Scene 1
Basement, Shoreditch Town Hall, 4.20pm
Temporary Cafe. Sign on the wall reads: Health and safety meeting for all departments on 24 December.
Cardboard boxes fill the room, a miniature city of skyscrapers, terraces and bungalows. L & B are clambering, leaping, stamping, throwing, tumbling, crawling, yelling, laughing. Within eight minutes, half the boxes are flattened, most displaced, and the scene is one of cheerful chaos.
M: Make sure you’re doing some creating as well as destroying, you two.
Other parents: Ha!
M notes that this is probably the best fun L & B have had all year.
Act 4, Scene 2
Elves lead children and grown-ups through the magic portal to the North Pole. One of them looks like a mermaid, another like Big Bird’s lime-green cousin. A conga begins. L is visibly unimpressed. Together we summon Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer, a pearly white puppet glowing serenely. B strokes his hind legs. L crawls underneath him. M is enchanted. Their faces are radiant. Rudolf leads L & B to an elfin workshop, where they make a bouncing toy.
Act 4, Scene 3
Father Christmas’ bedroom is fluffy and soft and lined with billowing clouds. His capacious bed is scattered with pillows, and when he wakes up his eyes twinkle. He tells the children the absolutely true story of how last year the London presents accidentally ended up in Inverness and all the pets and urban foxes came to his aid. B is enraptured. So is M. L is restraining herself from testing out the trampoline capabilities of the bed. It’s all good.
Father Christmas distributes gifts by age, without reference to gender. Then he climbs into his brand-new, pillar-box red flying suit, topped off with a shiny red helmet, and waves us on our way back to London.
Act 4, Scene 4
M: I loved that!
Other mum: Wasn’t it wonderful? I thought that was so good.
M takes L & B home, wondering if they’ll ever encounter another grotto so thoughtful and lovingly detailed in design, storytelling and fun. On the train she posts the box office listing on twitter. She wants to give Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari a big hug, to thank them for making proper magic. She writes a review instead.
photos by Ludo De Cognets