‘Nobody gets off lightly in here’
The Knitting Circle is about a a group of women locked up for decades in a Hertfordshire asylum.
Julie McNamara lived and worked as a nursing assistant and social work trainee in the Harperbury hospital in Radlett, Hertfordshire, in the 1980s.
That was on the eve of the introduction of Care in the Community, a government policy which saw the closure of most of the large asylums and their replacement with smaller group homes.
Harperbury was one of six ‘big bins’ in Hertfordshire and could accommodate up to 2,000 patients.
It survives to this day, in a smaller form, and is now known as Kingsley Green.
At the time she worked there, McNamara wanted to do something constructive for the women at the hospital, but Sister Mary Frances, an old style nursing sister working there, warned her that she could not be seen to be doing anything political.
“She told me the only way you can get away with it is if you do something for the hospital shop.
“She suggested I form a knitting circle,” recalled McNamara.
Years later McNamara came across an old tape of the knitting circle conversations, which gave her the idea for the play.
“I heard those voices and I said whatever happened to those people on that tape?” she said.
So she put out feelers on the survivor networks and was amazed at the response.
“I was absolutely inundated. I am still hearing from people with nowhere else to tell their stories.
“There were thousands and thousands of people who were put away for no good reason.
“I lived and worked with a woman who was put away for 48 years for stealing a bicycle aged nine.
“I met people who had children to their own fathers or grandfathers.
“These were young, young women. They were placed in these asylums ‘for their own protection’ and described as ‘morally deficient’.”
The play is based on the testimonies of 70 women, including a woman who was born in an asylum and wondered why she had never been adopted.
“When she traced her mother she found she had done 34 years in this ‘bin’. She had been nursed for years in a women-only ward, and had 12 pregnancies. She had a PhD in Philosophy,” said McNamara.
“The only way these women survived was through their own love for each other and through utter mischief,” said McNamara.
One of her favourite stories was from Anne from Enfield.
“Every Christmas the Friends used to give them chocolate brazils. She had never liked brazil nuts so she sucked the chocolate off and gave the nuts to the nurses as presents.
“It took them four years to find out,” said McNamara.
McNamara started to think of new ways of working with actors, because she wanted them to hear the voices of the people who were telling their stories.
“I wanted them to hear from the patients themselves. I wanted them to hear from former staff members,” she said.
So she cast six actors and matched them with some of the survivors and staff.
The play is a moving and authentic portrayal of a group of patients and staff as they struggle to maintain their morality, dignity and individuality in a world where the only thing to look forward to is the next cup of tea.
And where, if you step out of line, you can expect a cold bath, a beating and a spell in isolation.
“Nobody gets off lightly in here,” says Colin Shine, the charge nurse in the piece, played by actor Sanjiv Hayre.
McNamara says the people who gifted her their stories think of this as their play.
“It’s been enormous fun. I’ve had huge mischief.
“The people who have given me their stories have stayed in touch with me for the past three years. It’s become a huge tribe,” she said.
McNamara is now in talks with producers about turning the play into a film.
The Knitting Circle will visit Oxford, Liverpool, Wolverhampton, Deptford and Bristol.
The performances have integrated sign language interpretation, and some, such as the performance at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Theatre on 9 May, are audio described.
In Bristol, the cast will be joined on stage by some of the survivors, who will receive a public apology.
In February Ireland’s Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, apologised on behalf of the Irish state to the survivors for the appalling treatment of hundreds of women in the Magdalene Laundries, and McNamara believes those who survived the asylums deserve the same from the British government.
When I heard that, I thought my God we’ve heard not even an acknowledgement of what women went through in the asylums, in the so-called long care system where, for the most spurious of reasons, women were thrown away for the rest of their lives.
Nobody is after compensation, she points out, but every single story-teller who gifted their stories to this play wants an apology.
McNamara believes services for today’s mental health patients are patchy.
“It’s chequered. It depends where you live, it depends whether you’ve got money, it depends whether you’ve got access to the protocols that allow you to be treated, it depends whether you’re black or white, whether you are rich or poor.
“It is an appalling time to be unwell in the mental health system in this country, because we are taking a huge retrograde step by selling off the health service and by decimating the welfare system.
“Nye Bevan must be spinning in his grave,” she said.
You can catch The Knitting Circle at the following dates, times and venues:
May 8th and May 9th at 7:30pm at the Bluecoat, in Liverpool, L1 3BX.
May 11th at 7:30pm at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton, WV1 1SE
May 15th and MAY 16th at 7:30pm at The Albany, Douglas Way, London, SE8 4AG
May 20th at 8:15pm at The Brewery at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol, BS3 1TF