Thursday, June 12, 2008


It’s hard to believe that as recently as the early 1990s, long term incarceration in institutions variously known as mental hospitals, psychiatric hospitals or asylums would have been the lot of anyone unfortunate enough to be judged to have insufficient mental capacity to care for themselves. Perhaps it was a mark of how successful this “out of sight, out of mind” policy was at hiding these institutions and their inmates from the public gaze that one such existed quite recently less than ten miles from where I live, and I was completely unaware of it, even though I frequently used to drive within a few hundred yards of its boundary. Well, no-one was likely to put up a sign saying “Loony bin this way” were they? (Apologies, but that would have been the very-non-PC vernacular, at least in the days of my youth…)

Perhaps life within those walls wasn’t as hard as I imagine it might have been - judging by the photos here the windows were large and one imagines the interiors were quite bright - but even though this wasn’t a secure unit, it’s hard to shake the associations with prisons that arise from the aerial views of those bleak ward blocks, surrounded no doubt by a high perimeter fence.

In the 1990s though, the policy changed to one of “Care in the Community”. The cynical side of me says that this was as much because of the savings that could be made as it was for any potential benefit to the patients arising through integration. Not only did local authorities no longer have to foot an enormous maintenance bill for the upkeep of these sprawling, probably decaying Victorian edifices – they also netted a tidy sum in the sale of prime building land.

Nearly all of the land associated with that 1000 bed hospital-of-which-I-was-unaware is now covered in houses – largish executive-style detached homes, but so closely packed (and hence delivering maximum profit to both developer and council – the givers of planning permission) that you must be able to see straight out of your bedroom window into your neighbours’. Nearly all the land, but not quite. Due both to its size and to the general policy of isolation from the community, this hospital, as so many of its kind, was almost a self contained village with amongst other things its own bakery, farm, railway station and chapel.

Other than the crumbling remnants of the station platform, the chapel is all that now remains. It’s ironic perhaps that a building once a place of worship should have been preserved through the get-rich-quick gambling dreams of the Great British Public. Rather than being bulldozed to make way for yet more brick boxes, it has now been converted to a theatre and performing arts centre, courtesy of a grant from the National Lottery.

It was here that we played the most recent show in which I’ve taken part, Wild Wild Women, which ran last week. Although the theatre is tiny, with a mere 125 seats, the conversion has been cleverly planned – a huge amount has been squeezed in without the place feeling small or cramped, at least as far as the public spaces are concerned. (Backstage is rather more restricted). No way could this have been achieved without external funding – it could never be a viable business if it was saddled with the debt of development and I’m sure it must struggle to stay afloat financially even without that burden.

The full height of the original chapel interior is still evident in the entrance hall, where the glass-sided lift gives full wheelchair access to all three levels. To the right, where the altar would have been, is a coffee shop/bar, and above that a mezzanine floor provides a meeting area which seems to hang in the space, approached by a bridge from the first floor landing, occupying space yet without destroying the feeling of spaciousness.

The theatre itself is in what would have been the nave, with a ceiling at two thirds height. Above this is a dance studio/rehearsal space and administration offices. Two of the original side arches remain, maintaining a link with the building’s past.

The band was tucked out of the way in the high level gallery along one side of the theatre (visible running left to centre of the above photo, and from where the preceding shot was taken). Although only a four-piece – piano, bass, drums and clarinet doubling alto sax – it was still unbelievably cramped, all strung out in a line and competing for space with all manner of theatrical/technical paraphernalia that had been dumped stored up there. The drummer had to do without toms, just snare, kick drum and cymbals – all credit to him, you would barely know the difference. All the more so since, strung out in a line, eye contact with the Musical Director on keyboard was near impossible for him.

This is the fifth show for which I’ve played bass this year – no doubt the time spent practicing and rehearsing has been in part responsible for my continual tiredness and for the downturn in blogging over recent months. Perhaps now that I have no more shows lined up I’ll be able to stop burning the candle at both ends and get back on even keel.

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