A new free show about mental health in Gloucestershire




Tickets on sale now

Free admission

Over the last twelve months we have been working on a large scale project exploring the hidden history of mental health and lunatic asylums* in Gloucestershire as part of this year’s Gloucester History Festival in partnership with Strike A Light, GUST and Gloucestershire Archives. This year-long research project culminates in an incredible performance called NEVER BETTER at the historic Blackfriars Gloucester on the 7th and 8th September. The performances are free but you must reserve tickets

NEVER BETTER will be simple, beautiful, haunting, and ultimately hopeful. Stories from the archives will be told through theatre, music, art and song put together and performed by a nationally renowned team; the audience will walk through Blackfriars experiencing a different performance in each room.  In addition, we have been working with a community gatherer gently collecting stories of modern day mental health, and these stories will be interwoven with our archive research

Blackfriars, a 13th Century Dominican Priory provides an awe-inspiring venue in which to set the story of Gloucester’s Asylums.   The inside of the building will be transformed with sets and lighting to provide audiences with symbols and impressions of the different Asylum buildings, their rooms and outside gardens and will give a sense of what it might have been like to be a patient.  

Barnwood House Hospital

Barnwood House Hospital

The records were kept with great care in bound volumes with marbled covers and frontpieces – audiences will see and be able to read a contemporary copy of the First County Asylum Records Book.  The audience will move round the building to encounter performances, installations and experiences in different areas of the building. 

Just to give you a taste of what you will experience:

Registry -  this performance will address the registration and initiation of patients into the asylum.

Grounded Spire – space two will house an impression of the spire which dominated Coney Hill. It was destroyed by fire in 1999. This recreation is the work of architects Katherine Spence and Carlotta Novella and will be displayed with special lighting effects. 

Containment – within this space which deliberately will feel stuffy, there will be a recreation of a patient’s room.

Airing Court – audiences will be released into the open space which they will share with some livestock which were often part of an asylum – a precursor to today’s animal therapy. 

The superintendent has also endeavoured to furnish a source of amusement, to those patients whose walks are necessarily more circumscribed, by supplying each of the courts with a number of animals; such as rabbits, sea-gulls, hawks and poultry.

These creatures are generally very familiar with the patients; and it is believed they are not only the means of innocent pleasure; but that the intercourse with them, sometimes tends to awaken the social and benevolent feelings.
— A description of airing courts and grounds – excerpt from Therapeutic Landscapes by Clare Hickman

Exposure – the audience them moves through to another area of the building where a dancer will perform. 

Printing Press – you may have heard recently a programme on Radio 4 about a printer, Stan Lane, who still produces beautiful books with the monotype printing system which was invented more than 100 years ago.  He will be in Blackfriars with the“mobile” version of his press to print a poem written by the Never Better Director, FXXX BXXXXX, which will be given to each audience member.

The Never Better experience will end back in the Nave of the Priory where our community choir will honour all those who suffered in asylums by singing our specially-commissioned piece by composer, Kate Whitley, “Requiem for a Lunatic”.

Sarah Blowers, Co-Director of Strike a Light said,

“It has been an extraordinary project and we’d love to share it with you and your friends. It’s important work and we think that it’s going to be amazing. It has been such a joy to work with a creative team to tell stories from our archives. The stories are rich and vibrant and really show us what life was like in Gloucestershire’s Lunatic Asylums.*”

Donna Renney, Chair of GUST said “many of us know someone close who has been affected by poor mental health and there is still stigma attached to it today which prevents people opening up about it – we wanted to get our audiences thinking differently about the past and the present treatments”  

asylum and lunatic terminology taken from archive documents.

This is one of the most striking creative endeavours to be performed in the City of Gloucester – this project delves deep into the history of the city’s Lunatic Asylums and honours patients who spent time in them. It is overlaid with stories from people in the city coping with mental illness today and I am sure the performance will make a profound impact on audiences.
— David Elford, Chair of Gloucester Culture Trust