The Promise

Cordelia Mayfield, Rick Perrins, Vicky Lee, Sieska Cowdry, Linda Long

One evening in the early 1980s Anita Harding took her own life at the Oldfield Estate in Primrose Hill.

Sitting with her throughout was her friend Charlotte Hough, whom she had met through a Camden volunteer service. Anita had confided in Charlotte that when the pain and misery of living with crippling arthritis and blindness became too much, she would take her own life; and Charlotte had reluctantly offered to be by her side if required.

When the day came, Charlotte sat next to Anita as she took a lethal overdose and lapsed into unconsciousness. Unfortunately Charlotte found herself taking a more active part in Anita’s death than she had planned. Afterwards, Charlotte was reported to have been wandering around in a daze. She felt the need to unburden herself, and the person she chose was a colleague at a branch of the Samaritans where she also worked.

Her story was passed on to her director, and then to the police. Charlotte was consequently arrested and went on trial at the Old Bailey. She was convicted and sent to Holloway and then Sutton Park. As an upper-middle-class woman, she suffered terrible bullying in prison.

“It’s not about innocence or guilt, but could I do this to help someone I care for deeply?”

Charlotte had been a children’s book illustrator and writer. Ironically in 1980 she had published an adult detective novel called The Bassington Murder. After her time in prison she was too traumatised ever to write again. Charlotte served six months and then returned to this area until her death on Ne Year’s Eve 2008.

Lord Longford campaigned on her behalf, and a campaign was started to legalise euthanasia. The law remains unchanged, but Sir Terry Pratchett opened the debate again when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Recently another case made the news when a pharmacist gave his elderly, depressed father a fruit smoothie laced with morphine. It is a common thread of debate among the elderly who do not wish to become a burden on their families and friends once they are no longer capable of caring for themselves any more.

The theatre company Spare Tyre is an arts charity which works with ‘voiceless communities and individuals that inspire and challenge us’. They work creatively with adults with learning disabilities, people aged 60+, people with dementia, women who’ve experienced violence and economically disadvantaged communities.

They are currently planning a programme for their 40th year from a range of overlooked female artists and communities: they wish to celebrate the company’s roots in the feminist movement of the 1970s, and reveal the hidden stories of women.

I spoke to Sieska Cowdrey who’s involved with the over 60s branch of the company, SilverSage. She told me that they wanted to do something they all cared deeply about for the company’s 40th anniversary. After throwing around a few ideas, they landed on the story of Charlotte Hough and the theme of assisted dying. Our objective is to challenge the audience to choose how they would act when faced with this type of situation. It’s not about innocence or guilt, but could I do this to help someone I care for deeply?

Charlotte Hough’s daughter is the writer Deborah Moggach, who has copies of the police transcripts. Deborah has been incredibly supportive of the project and has given them access to the documents. The five-strong cast are using the transcripts to devise the play, along with director Isaac Ngugi. As Charlotte gave a solemn promise to Anita that she would help her, and make sure she was dead before she was discovered, the play will be entitled The Promise.

Local MP Kier Starmer wishes to remain impartial in the debate on assisted dying, but has said of The Promise: “This play, based on real events in Camden in the 1980s, is an important contribution to a debate that needs to be had.”

The Promise runs during 21-24 February
as part of Invisible Women: A Mini Festival at the New Diorama Theatre, 15-16 Triton Street, NW1 3BF.

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