It’s an unnerving sort of place, St Clement’s Hospital; an imposing red-brick structure sited in what is now a residential area of an east Ipswich suburb. As the last operational Victorian asylum in the UK, the building served its community for well over a century and has had unsettled souls of every description pass through its hallways. Naturally, at the end of its intended life, stories both harrowing and heart-warming will have permeated the institution’s very walls.
It is a selection of these stories that the writer and director of Different Buttons Joanna Carrick has chosen for her site-specific production, the latest from independent performing arts company, Red Rose Chain.
Ruth Taylor, played with up-to-the-minute precision by Rachel Clarke, is a contemporary patient on the first day of her admittance, crossly filling in the psychiatric assessment forms. But Ruth is not alone in the waiting-room as time shifts and releases four ghosts who interact with her – and each other – from their respective eras. However, these shades are not there to haunt or to exact revenge for the often-barbaric treatment they received in less enlightened times, but rather to interrelate as a real-life family would with its joys and tense moments of revelation.
Carrick has cleverly drawn her characters from throughout the hospital’s 145-year history; leather-cutter Herbert Brett from 1889, journalist Zacharia Elliot from 1870, fortune-teller Nora Little from 1924, and amateur astronomer Bobby Finn from 1969. These she has woven into an unlikely group of comrades, all with some link or other to the institution that they occupy.
Returning to the fold is former Red Rose Chain stalwart Jimmy Grimes as Bobby; no longer the juvenile lead, Grimes has matured nicely into a formidable character actor and imbues his charge with the most minute and exquisite mannerisms.
Carrick’s cracking script and unwavering direction are demanding of her cast and engaging of her audience. The cramped and stifling St Clement’s common-room is not the easiest of spaces in which to perform or to watch, but Different Buttons is an admirable piece of theatre that offers its stories both sensitively and effectively.