Ground-breaking theatre project raises important questions about mental health care

Evie Woods and Charlotte McGuinness in rehearsal for Dr Hills' Casebook 

Evie Woods and Charlotte McGuinness in rehearsal for Dr Hills' Casebook - Credit: Robert Fairclough

Ground-breaking theatre project raises important questions about mental health care

Tonight, online screenings of innovative play Dr Hills' Casebook, recorded at The Cut in Halesworth, are set to begin.

The production is the final stage of a unique artistic alliance between Norfolk Records Office, the Restoration Trust and UpShoot Theatre Company, financed and funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund. It  was devised by researchers and creatives with mental health issues, and has been co-created with participants to highlight the quality of mental health care both nationally and in the local community. 

Dr William Hills was superintendent of the Norfolk County Asylum between 1861 and 1867. During his six years there, he developed a revolutionary approach to mental health care. Patients benefited not only from sympathetic treatment, but enjoyed communal singing, dancing, and the opportunity to work on the asylum’s farm, for which they were paid. Once discharged, they were also offered follow up consultations to monitor their progress in the community. 

The cast of Dr Hills' Casebook

The cast of Dr Hills' Casebook - Credit: Robert Fairclough

Hills' regime was out-of-step with the majority of other Victorian asylums – which were little better than prisons – and ahead of its time in considering people’s whole wellbeing rather than simply treating their mental disorders. Impressed by Hills’ story, members of Change Minds, a research group for people in recovery from mental illness established by the Restoration Trust, developed the idea of a new research group, Dr. Hills’ Casebook, in 2019. Darren France and Laila Choate, directors of the UpShoot community theatre project, considered the asylum patients’ stories to be material that, as Laila puts it, “would make fantastic drama. Change Minds’ researcher Richard Johnson then introduced us to Dr Hills, and we both thought, ‘This is it. This is a brilliant opportunity.’” 

Granted access to patient histories from the Norfolk County Asylum held at the Norfolk Records Office, Dr Hills’ Casebook members researched their lives and responded creatively to them with original writing, artwork and craft making. Additionally, the group’s findings were used as the basis for the play about Dr Hills and his work, written by Belona Greenwood. “This play was very different from just sitting down and working on your own,” she says. “It was very collaborative and I like that. Among other things, it’s about social justice and empowering people, which means there’s so much resonance with today. These days, more and more, a stressed life can cause mental illness, and Dr Hills recognised that.” 

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic meant the original plan to take the play on a 186-date tour was changed. Local filmmaker Julian Claxton was employed to film ‘Dr Hills’ Casebook’ at the The Cut in Halesworth so it could be viewed online – an unexpected bonus, as the play will now have a potentially bigger audience than a theatre tour could have provided.

Director Laila Choat, writer Belone Greenwood and group facilitator Darren France

Director Laila Choat, writer Belone Greenwood and group facilitator Darren France - Credit: Darren France

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Even then, the rehearsals which began in late January at the Cut had to be suspended. “It was a bit of a shock when it came to a halt,” Julian remembers. “I knew things hadn’t, perhaps, gone quite according to plan, and I got the feeling that there was tension, largely from the stresses of putting on such an extraordinary production in extraordinary times. I was notified a bit late in the day, to be honest, but these things happen for a reason and I think postponing it has been to the benefit of everyone involved.” 

As well as being made under unusual circumstances, UpShoot’s production is strikingly innovative. As well as being based on the actual case histories of seven patients in the Norfolk County Asylum, the actors stay on stage for the play’s duration and assume different characters by wearing various costumes hung on coat stands at the back. Throughout, the story is told from the perspective of William Jabez Edwards, admitted as a patient in 1884. He subsequently worked at the asylum and became a good friend of Dr Hills. There are also songs, dancing and the story moves back and forth between the asylum in the 19th century and the plight of Liz, an overworked 21st century mental health professional. 

“Bel has written a clever script,” says Ben Elder, who plays the central role of Jabez. “Some of the dialogue I say is so good it knocks me for six every time I say it… We had a really good cast and everyone brought something special to the production. My strength is movement, so if you leave me alone on a chair on stage for five minutes, I will work out some interesting ways of using it. There were so many instances in the play where that happened.” 

William Drew-Batty, the play’s composer, is one of the many people involved who has personal experience of mental health issues. “Through a family member, I was aware of anxiety and psychosis,” he reveals, “and mental health problems generally through my teaching. In the past, I’d come across children where you could see that something wasn’t quite right, who needed help that the school system wasn’t giving them. From a composer’s point of view, I wanted to get all that into the music in some way. I’ve been listening to the score recently and it’s really heartening, because there are aspects of it that do exactly that.” 

Russell Turner and Ben Eldedr rehearsing for Dr Hills' Casebook at The Cut, Halesworth

Russell Turner and Ben Eldedr rehearsing for Dr Hills' Casebook at The Cut, Halesworth - Credit: Robert Fairclough

“I think the message of the play is incredibly important,” believes Ben Elder, summing up the feelings of the cast, crew and research team. “In this day and age, it’s good to have strong female characters, but young men have been a little overlooked when it comes to their mental health, and the biggest killer of 18 to 40 year-old men in this country is suicide. That statistic blows my mind. Jabez is right in the middle, at 35.” 

Following the June screenings, there will be online question and answer sessions with members of the Dr. Hills research group. COVID-19 permitting, the team are hoping to secure funding for a short theatrical tour at the beginning of October. 

Tickets for the play, screening on June 17, 18, 20, 24 and 25 are available at Eventbrite.