Retelling the asylums. Harriet Vickers on “The Knitting Circle”

Harriet Vickers

Years of experiences and memories have gone into Julie McNamara’s play The Knitting Circle. Examining the long stay hospitals of the 80s and 90s, through the lives of patients and healthcare workers who inhabited them, the piece takes us through the transition from institution to community care. McNamara is still working on the play, it’s “in progress,” but last week the doors of the Soho Theatre studio were opened up, for three nights, to air the piece so far.

The Knitting Circle takes its name from the women’s group McNamara ran at Harperbury hospital, after she began working there in 1983. This period led her to write Jackee, played by Karen Spicer, the trainee social worker who tries to prepare the patients for their inevitable move out of the hospital, as Jackee puts, into communities that did not want them.

But her own experiences are just a fraction of the material McNamara used to write the play. After letting it be known she was looking for stories many came forward. She was able to collect memories from patients, nursing staff, and doctors from across the country, and also from hostel workers who took in ex-institution patients who became homeless. “We’ve had a plethora of stories from people of every aspect of that culture, and I didn’t just base it on Harperbury,” she told me. The cast were carefully selected because they’d had experiences of, or worked in, mental health, or had some kind of personal connection. McNamara then matched them up with the patients or healthcare workers and instigated visits and workshops.

From this research the play introduces us to characters which only differ from real people in name – “true stories, every bit of it,” said McNamara. These populate the closely named Harpers Park hospital; an archaic, inflexible institution where notes haven’t been looked at for years and the mantra is to “keep calm and carry on.” Some of the characters give short monologues, interspersed with the action, straightforwardly telling us how they came to be there. Patient Celia, again played by Spicer, describes: “They asked my granddad did he want me home. He turned around and he said no, send her away, shut her away for the rest of her life…They put me down as an imbecile, morally defective, feeble-minded.” Others say they were institutionalised for “having too many gentlemen callers,” “setting fire to a waste paper basket,” or even “for being born to a patient.”

The play explores the difficult line of Harpers Park being both a prison and a home for those who live and work there. Although it’s not shown explicitly, McNamara doesn’t shy away from revealing the brutality that went on. One character, describing her mother’s time, said she “was nursed on a women’s villa, but spent most of her adult years pregnant, so there was something going on in there.” In another scene Jackee accuses “those two orderlies took that frail old lady out and they beat her”.

But it’s also recognised how much some of the patients, and even staff, need the hospital. In a telling and also very funny scene, Jackee tries to get the patients in the knitting circle to make some tea, sit down and knit, only for them to refuse or claim to be incapable, and the scene to descend into chaos. When the rigid world of Harpers Park is finally closed some manage to make new lives for themselves, but we’re told many don’t survive. As Jackee says “people who hadn’t been used to traffic, who’d never shopped or cooked for themselves were just left to their own devices, in a community that didn’t want them.” Even Colin Shine, played by Vincent Jerome, the corrupt, violent, gangster-esque staff nurse who describes the patients as “the maggots of society” doesn’t make it: he commits suicide in the nursing quarters.

McNamara wants to develop the play into a bigger piece, to include more stories, and to take it on tour at the end of the year. Despite the fascinating stories that are woven, there were still signs the play was in progress. Some of the characters needed a bit more subtlety, for example Colin, who at times came across as a bit of a caricature. And the tense relationship between him and Jackee was very intriguing, but at times I felt this jarred a little. Also in the group knitting circle scenes I wanted a bit more action, a bit more physicality. But these are more work-in-progress niggles than big complains, and with the years of experiences and memories behind it, I’m very much looking forward to seeing the finished piece.

Harriet Vickers is multimedia intern, BMJ.