On a wall opposite Blackhorse Road underground station in Walthamstow, east London, a giant spangly heart declares: “Welcome to the home of people who make and create.” Up the road is the childhood home of one of the borough’s most famous makers, William Morris, now a hands-on museum. Aircraft engines were once built on the site of the nearby arts centre Gnome House. And round the corner from two former tin-toy factories is Blackhorse Workshop, where children and adults learn about welding and woodturning.
The workshop’s new installation for children aged seven to 11, Atomic 50, has been created with Abigail Conway for Waltham Forest’s year as London borough of culture. It takes place in an old school building in Leyton, in the south of the borough, and celebrates the area’s history of manufacturing and metalwork. It’s also a hymn to tin as an eco-friendly material. That’s enough to interest Aggie, my nine-year-old daughter, who has been learning about recycling and counting our ever-growing mountain of plastic wrappings.
With two dozen others, all clutching time sheets to clock in and out, we assemble inside what is billed as an “immersive ghost factory”. Aggie jumps when a knockabout trio of actors burst in, clad in blue boiler suits. Elizabeth Bartram, Lauren Deanna and Michael Armstrong – aka Mags Nesium, Ally Minium and Tim Smith – are our cheery guides through rooms exploring ancient, industrial and domestic uses of tin.
It starts with a surreal little sketch. Plastic-wrapped strawberries and peaches pass by on a conveyor belt while we listen to the lament of tinned fruits who tell us they’re sweeter and safer for the environment. Then we gather around a giant dining table, spoons and dishes dangling above, with tin-whistle music in the background.
But the main purpose is to get us making, not watching and listening. Our guide tells us about the dangerous work down the Cornish tin mines – more about this would have been interesting – and we’re asked to design a useful item made from natural resources. The kids’ ideas quickly put the adults to shame. Aggie sketches out a giant cat-shaped bus carved from wood, another girl has an elaborate design involving wind turbines and one boy invents a new type of car. When we’re led into a workshop and given goggles and gloves, I’m wondering how much of Aggie’s cat bus we can possibly whittle. But instead, we get instructions to make cone-shaped metal trumpets.
“Punch, roll, rivet,” is the drill, but there’s nothing really dynamic about the scene. The actors have got their work cut out making sure we assemble our trumpets and move on before the next group come in. The banter is all a bit superficial – quick puns, throwaway gags – and there’s none of the atmosphere suggested by the “ghost factory” that had intrigued Aggie. Still, Soraya Gilanni Viljoen’s beautiful design for the next room – a wood with a homely tin hut – brings the smell of bark as well as a fun badge-making activity with designer Lua Garcia. It’s all done with a personal touch: the actors are open and encouraging with the children, who now strike initials into their metal badges. This is Aggie’s favourite bit and she proudly pins on her badge while I follow with the slightly wonky trumpet.
A bit of digital wizardry is behind a lovely final scene that brings the audience together to share their experiences. I’d have liked a clearer picture of the local history and I’m not sure if this is an “immersive” installation or just a giant arts and crafts session. But if it’s not entirely riveting it feels as if it’s been made with love.
Atomic 50 is at Leyton Sports Ground, London, until 30 April