Ipswich: St Clement’s Hospital is focus of new Red Rose Chain play

It’s amazing what you find in skips. In Joanna Carrick’s case it was inspiration for Red Rose Chain’s new play Different Buttons, which explores the legacy of Ipswich’s St Clement’s Hospital.

“I don’t know if I’m supposed to have it but somebody found an original source ledger in a skip. It’s 1882 and amazing.

“It documents in minute detail everything including the state in which they were brought into the hospital, the treatment they received, very often the details of their death, their autopsies. It’s 400 odd pages long and I’ve read it from cover to cover, it completely changed my understanding of the concept of madness.”

Presented as part of the St Clement’s History Project, the play focuses on a girl who’s one of the very last patients to have her mental health assessed there.

Left alone for a moment before the doctors arrive, the spirits of former inhabitants through the hospital’s 140-year history appear to her.

“A journalist interviewed me the other day and he was like ‘oh, were you shocked by how cruel the staff were’ I was like ‘no, that’s not the story here really’,” says Joanna, who also read histories of the hospital before writing the script.

Mistook for a gentleman’s mansion, it was built in 1870 as part of a new movement of enlightenment. The Victorians wanted to leave behind the image you might have of evil institutions where people were chained up and treated much worse than animals.

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Saint Clement’s was created to provide a haven for people at a time when those with mental health problems were thrown into work houses.

“If you went back in time and were a Victorian pauper lunatic, as they were called, and you were incarcerated there, there would be lots of things that would terrify you.

“I’m not saying it was all a peachy bed of roses, but the motivation behind it was quite beautiful and humane; there were amazing grounds which were seen as therapeutic and the gallery in the room where we’re going to be performing was built with the intention of orchestras playing for the patients.”

There are thousands of personal stories of people’s connections with the hospital; many of them very positive and about healing, some of them traumatic and desperate.

Take Herbert for example, a character based on patients from the ledger. A 1880s pauper lunatic, he’s a very extreme case.

“As the case goes on we find the humanity in him, we see traumas of his childhood and we understand him much better and end up loving him a bit.

“You probably wouldn’t want him round for supper,” laughs Joanna, “but my thing is to break through the barriers and bridge the gap between us and people in the past.

“This play is also about bridging the gap between people who might perceive themselves as being normal and people who have other perceptions of what reality and normality is.

“In a way we’re all a bit ‘mad’,” she laughs, “but it’s about finding that common ground.”

Different Buttons runs from tonight to June 2 and is a unique chance to see a performance inside one of Britain’s last remaining Victorian asylums following its recent closure. Read the review online.

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