Writer and Director: Joanna Carrick
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Despite a more open approach in recent years, mental health issues are still often something of a taboo subject. What goes on behind the doors of medical facilities a dark mystery. Head back 140 years and the subject was even more off-limits, authorities building large, commanding facilities on the outskirts of habitation, care and confinement often combined behind closed doors.
For 143 years St Clements hospital served the community of Ipswich but now, as one of the last former Victorian asylums lays silent and awaits redevelopment, the ghosts of former patients emerge to tell their shared experiences.
Although from differing eras and all facing their unique issues, the fears they face share a commonality, the outcome they face though wildly different.
We meet Ruth, a present day patient, filling in endless forms in the hospital as she waits to be assessed. As Ruth waits we drift through the history of the building. Zachariah Elliot, a journalist extolling the features of the ‘pauper asylum’ as it opens in 1870, but perhaps not quite the detached observer he first seems. Herbert Brett, who in 1889 has delusions of marrying Queen Victoria’s daughter. Nora Little a 1920s fortune teller, and Bobby Fynn, a withdrawn late 1960s stargazer, complete the rosta.
Researched from the hospital’s actual users, Joanna Carrick’s script, which she also directs, weaves multiple strands and eras into an evocative and moving whole. We shift across the years but never lose sight of the human impact the facility had, the distressing tales of those who perhaps needed more help than they received, and those who were conversely subjected to more treatment than needed. It’s full of chilling facts, the realisation that the hospital was built a full 18 years before Jack The Ripper terrorised London a stark reminder of the long annals of staff and patients that have populated its wards.
Performed in the hospital’s original common room, a room optimistically designed to allow male and female patients to meet and dance to an accompanying orchestra, it’s hard not to be drawn into this emotive tale. While much of the story is harrowing and not necessarily easy to watch, there is a spirit of hope prevailing, a sense that lessons have been learnt from the past and a more open future awaits.
There’s strong performances throughought the company (Rachel Clarke, Jimmy Grimes, David Newborn, Christopher Ashman, Lauryn Redding), giving dignity to the characters portrayed.
Different Buttons, a reference to a patient’s unorthodox sewing habits, not only marks the closure of this historic institution, it provides a vehicle to open debate on the often difficult subject of mental health. It’s not always an easy discussion but it’s a journey worth taking. As one leaves the building and walks through now deserted corridors, one can almost hear the echoes of the past calling out.