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> > > Vital Xposure presents The Knitting Circle

Currently on national tour Julie McNamara's latest production 'The Knitting Circle' is billed as a gripping celebration of the forgotten lives of women who survived long term institutional incarceration. Review by Joe McConnell

photo of two women dressed in knitted cardigans, holding each other Vital Xposure 2013

Nan Sweeney (Penelope Freeman) and Priti (Deni Francis)

Image: Vital Xposure 2013

“Their voices are still with us. They are inside the walls of the fancy flats we are sitting in ...”

Julie McNamara has gathered stories and testimonies from women who survived decades shut away in ‘long stay hospitals’. In developing The Knitting Circle, Julie’s production company, Vital Xposure, paired the performers, director and designer with survivors and former staff members and distilled a potent brew of personal and collective history.

The intertwined tales are all about the survival against all possible odds. The eight actors on stage (two of them alternating as staff members and patients) represent the countless people who found themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea of history.

Many women had been sent to asylums just for having stepped outside the pale of social acceptability: including unmarried mothers, anyone with anti-social behaviour or deemed ‘undesirable’ by those in power.

We meet them in the late eighties as they are about to be ejected from decades of incarceration to be cast out onto 'care in the community' – a community under overwhelming assault from Britain's ruling class with MargaretThatcher at the helm.

Mercifully this isn't ‘Prisoner Cell Block H’ or suchlike with dramatic escapes and soap-opera scenarios. It is clear that McNamara has stayed close to the women’s stories of drudgery, medication, tea, knitting, meaningless rituals – the stark minutiae of institutional imprisonment. But there are true voices singing here. The author has a fine tuned ear for the rhythms of everyday speech. And the beleaguered women share some wonderful moments of rhyming games and vibrant exchanges. In stark contrast with the back story that lurks as putrid toxic waste behind the scenes – the visceral evocation of the horrific punishments inflicted upon asylum dwellers.

There are gut-wrenching levels of violence in The Knitting Circle. But, just like in classical Greek theatre, this is always glimpsed through the script and never enacted on stage. And all the more powerful for that.

But there is also the tenderness and gentility of the women. Although their forced intimacy sparks rows and bitchy stand-offs, the prevailing memory of the play is of their gentility, tenderness and solidarity. The actors are consistently brilliant in bringing out the tribulations as well as the essential mischief  – which clearly helps the characters survive – in a way which never lampoons or belittles them. These performances are underpinned by full-bodied writing and direction.

The often hilarious sparring partners Nan Sweeney (Penelope Freeman) and Celia Small (Fiona Whitelaw) are unforgettable as they glide between acrid banter and totally convincing us of the brutality of forced medication. Caroline Parker's Maroula relives the horror of separation from her child with a passionate physicality made all the stronger by its contrast with her playfullness. But the way the women work together in and out of the knitting circle is the strongest element.

Knitting both real and metaphorical is brilliantly used to weave a vibrant celebration of lost lives. It is also a huge kick up the backside for our ‘New Elizabethan Age’ where in a self-contented modern democracy, we allowed people to be dispossessed and abused beyond belief.

This is a brilliant production. And you still have a chance to catch it on its national tour. It’s a refreshing antidote to all the high kicking glitz of last year’s Olympics, in that it sheds light on the continued marginalisation shared by the vast majority of disabled people living in this country today.

For more information about the tour please go to

Remaining tour dates:
Bluecoat, Liverpool L1 3BX May 8th and 9th at 7:30pm
Arena, Wolverhampton WV1 1SE May 11th at 7:30pm
The Albany, Deptford SE8 4AG May 15th and 16th at 7:30pm
Brewery at Tobacco Factory, Bristol BS3 1TF May 20th at 8:15pm