24:7 Theatre Festival: Telling Lives unlocks the secrets of Prestwich asylum

by Tom Midlane Senior Features Writer

A fascinating new play at the 24:7 Theatre Festival sheds light on the history of Prestwich asylum.

Coming to 24:7 on the back of five star reviews from the Buxton Fringe festival, Telling Lives is a beautifully crafted exploration of madness and the way we treat the mentally ill.

Described by author Eric Northey as a ‘Brechtian fiction’ after the radical German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, Telling Lives incorporates theatre, music and movement to delve into the personal histories of inmates at the asylum.

Talking to Mancunian Matters about the genesis of the play, Northey says he was looking in vain for photographs of Hope Mill in Pollard Street in the Greater Manchester County Record Office when the archivist suggested he take a peek at the records of Prestwich Asylum, built in the 1850s.

“She brought out these books the size of paving slabs – and weight of paving slabs – and from page one I was amazed. Every page had a photograph of an inmate – their name, address, occupation, the nature of their disease, their illnesses, and you suddenly get a picture of Manchester 150 years ago – or in the 1850, or whenever you choose.”

For Telling Lives Northey opted for the 1890s, a period he was interested in from literature. The play incorporates a mixture of real and fictionalised inmates, but the lead character Lily Handley (played brilliantly by Dolly-Rose Campbell) was a real inmate plucked from the archive.

A Manchester girl institutionalised for having a baby out of wedlock. Handley was admitted to Prestwich playing an invisible piano, a poignant image that made its way into Telling LivesShe was eventually released, but sadly couldn’t cope in the outside world.

“The last entry is her book is ‘readmitted’,” Northey tells me. “It’s a tragic word because we now know that she spent the rest of her life in Prestwich asylum and died in 1923.”

Alongside Handley, Northey uncovered a colourful cast of characters like the John MaGarrigal, who lived with the perpetual struggle of having two people in his head: famous Manchester detective Jerome Caminada and serial killer Jack the Ripper.

These characters were originally used as the basis of poems, beautifully set to music by Christopher Cotton, but the material quickly took on a life of its own and grew into Telling Lives. Speaking to Northey it’s clear that for him this is about reclaiming the lives of Handley and the 5000 other asylum patients buried ten deep in an anonymous mass grave in Prestwich’s St Mary’s Church, unacknowledged until 2006. 

“The idea that somehow the lives of so many people have gone down into oblivion with no recognition of either their suffering or their achievements. I thought somehow that was wrong. You’ve got people here who needed recognition.”

For Mental Health Week in October, the cast plan to perform the play as part of a commemoration at St. Mary’s, when the names of all the asylum’s inmates will be read out.

Recognition is a key word for Northey, who points out how little there can be for the mentally ill: ““If you’re relatively sane and mentally well-balanced, you get that recognition from your friends, from your family, from your occupation, from your associates.

“If you are mentally ill, it is often a very very lonely existence, still today just as it was in the 1890s – in fact, maybe even worse today as you might have, in inverted commas, ‘care in the community’ but there’s very little care and very little community for the mentally ill, but at least in the asylum there were other people you could make friends with, you were fed well and they got meaningful work and periods of quiet, at least until the First World War.”

Northey tells me that when he set out on his researches he expected to find what he calls “the mythical vision of the asylum as the place of people chained up, people brutalised, but until the war period you’ll find lots of examples of good practice, you’ll find kindness.”

Indeed, Telling Lives paints a picture of the Victorian asylum as a surprisingly progressive institution, embodied by Prestwich’s medical superintendant Dr Percival (played by Martin Drew).

Northey draws a direct parallel between the Victorian optimism of Percival, and his belief that mental illness comes from some curable change in the chemistry of the brain (Percival proclaims in the play “unlock the chemistry of the brain and the mind will reveal itself”) and the modern-day search for a cure-all drugs to stabilise the mentally ill mind.

A volunteer for numerous mental health charities, he nevertheless shies away from the idea of a ‘cure’:

“You see walking about Manchester who are on things like haloperidol, their legs are in movement all the time – you win some, lose some. It’s not like a headache or bronchitis, we’re just not that simple.”

Northey says he hopes Telling Lives can play a part in helping to “inch values towards a more human area”. His aim, as he puts it, is “to give people who are lucky enough not to be mentally ill a sense of what it’s like to hear voices that you know are coming from inside you, but the boundaries between inside and outside is so difficult and is transgressed so easily that you think the voices are coming from outside.”

However, Telling Lives is not drily didactic or ‘educational’ – this is a play about the extreme lives of the inmates of Prestwich asylum and the bonds they form to survive. The acting throughout is powerful, the songs are beautiful, and Phil Minn’s choreography is breathtaking. In one scene the patients all dance together (with echoes of the party scene in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), while measuring each other – parodying the Victorian obsession with measuring and quantifying.

Director Sue Womersley, who was originally due to take the part of Ann Warburton, says she’s found it rewarding “seeing Eric’s work come to life. When we all read the play through we all knew it was a really powerful piece and because mental health is in the public eye so much at the moment, due to things that have been happening in the NHS and homes like Southern Cross, it’s very relevant to the way society deals with mental health. Hopefully that’s come over in the finished piece.

“We’ve got some non-actors in the cast and they’ve really pushed themselves and really risen to the challenge because it’s a difficult piece: a Brechtian play with songs and movement. It’s going to be interesting to see what Manchester thinks of it!”

Womersley ends on an optimistic note: “It’s nice to hear theatre starting to have a voice again. There’s lots of new writing around, there’s lots of exciting stuff coming up and with the present climate, politically, being the way it is things are likely to get worse. We’ve got a voice, so let’s use it.”

Telling Lives, Sachas  Hotel, Tib Street
Monday July 25 7.30pm, Wednesday July 27 9.00pm, Thursday July 28 12.30pm, Friday July 29 6.00pm

Tickets available from or on the door if available

For more information about Telling Lives, check out


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