(reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 12 March)
The Red Rose Chain may not be a theatre company whose name immediately springs to your mind. Yet it’s well-established in Ipswich for its community work as well as for its professional productions. it has also run a highly successful sequence of outdoor theatre productions called the Theatre in the Forest which has now found a home, along with the rare breeds, at Jimmy (Doherty)’s Farm near Wherstead.
Based at the elegant Gippeswyk Hall, the Red Rose Chain has just opened its adjacent modern Avenue Theatre, a flexible performance space which accommodates some 100 spectators. Joanna Carricks’ Different Buttons is a piece for five actors inspired by the former St Clement’s Hospital (aka lunatic asylum) which opened in 1870 and closed in 2011. Carricks’ research has been aided by Gordon Morris who worked at St Clement’s for over 40 years.
In the play we meet characters from different periods of the asylum’s 140-year history, people whose afflictions are common to all eras, though their diagnosis and treatment have changed unrecognisably over that period. There are caring staff and violent as well as sad patients.
The wife of one businessman of the 1870s is hospitalised as insane, though we might nowadays conclude that she was suffering from post-natal depression. Sons and daughters who had just become too difficult to handle in a cramped environment or were behaving in a fashion likely to embarrass their families (such as an unmarried girl’s pregancy) were also consigned to an asylum, also as a matter of routine.
Ruth (Lucy Telleck) is a modern patient; given a self-assessment form, she completes it with increasing annoyance. Bobby (Daniel Abbott) lives in a regressive world of his own, with no real understanding from the father who visits so reluctantly. Herbert (David Newborn) lashes out at anyone who won’t pander to his delusions.
Though Nora (Rachael McCormick) has come to accept that she’s likely to be in the asylum for life, she manages to rebel just a little (the buttons of the title are the ones she deliberately mis-matches when repairing other inmates’ clothing, just as she uses white cotton for all visible seams). Pompous Zacharia is played by Tom McCarron , who also takes on doctors who try to help their patients and one of those sufferers.
The action flows across a central acting area with chairs at one end and a bed at the other. It makes for an interesting piece of documentary theatre, probably more effective for not being site-specific as I understand the first version had been. Stepping back is one of those theatrical paradoxes – it brings people closer, and therefore more sympathetic, to the action.
Different Buttons runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 28 March.