Ipswich theatre company helps drug users to break the cycle of addiction in town recovering from 'Suffolk strangler' murders


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The Independent Culture

In 2008, Steve Wright, a forklift truck driver dubbed the “Suffolk strangler”, was jailed for life for murdering five women who worked as prostitutes in Ipswich.

After the killings, Red Rose Chain, a professional theatre company in the town, set up a smaller troupe to give a voice to those – especially women – who were left behind.

The Community Theatre Company has gone from strength to strength and has helped bring “positive benefits” for more than 50 drug addicts who have become involved.

One of the most extraordinary stories associated with the community theatre is that of Rachel Clarke, a close friend of three of the victims and who had been in the grip of drug addiction at the time of the murders in 2006.

Ms Clarke’s life was turned around by Red Rose Chain, which had been set up in the early 1990s by Joanna Carrick. The company now puts on three professional productions, three community works and two school tours a year.

She is now a full-time employee of the company and is currently working on the production of a new play the company is staging at the Tower of London called Fallen in Love.  It is a world away from 2006.

Ms Clarke had known all the victims. Unlike them, she never worked as a prostitute but moved in similar circles after she became addicted to heroin and crack cocaine at the age of 18. She had been addicted to cannabis from 13.

“The girls were all different. They were all human beings and really nice,” she said. “They were lovely but caught up in a life that had dragged them down this route of horror.” Ms Clarke had been with Annette Nicholls just two days before she was reported missing.

Yet she was so heavily addicted that throughout the period that the women disappeared she would still score drugs at night. “It didn’t make me stop even though there was a murderer on the loose. That’s what the drugs did to me. It was scary but that’s how overpowered I was.”

She met Ms Carrick and Red Rose producer David Newborn at the Iceni Project drug rehabilitation centre in Ipswich. Ms Clarke said: “The way people dismissed the girls was horrible. That was why it was so important that Jo and David accepted us. It stuck with me and made me the person I am today.”

The first group of 12 heroin addicts brought into the theatre devised a play called I Love KitKats. Ms Clarke said: “We did the story ourselves. It didn’t involve the murders, which was still very raw, but it was based around prostitutions and drug addicts and dealers and the way they live their lives. What they have to do to survive and get the next fix.”

After that initial project, Ms Carrick said: “We had to continue. It was a bit of a lifeline for the group.” The theatre has no core funding, but does it on a project basis. The Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund have both supported work at the theatre.

Now 29, Ms Clarke has been clean for three years. She has acted in a number of productions including the professional ones, most notably Sammy’s Room, based on some of her experiences. She is also company manager, which involves working in everything from administration to drama workshops.

She said: “I knew I wasn’t a bad person really but it was something I had just got involved with and couldn’t escape from. I suffered a lot from depression which didn’t help, and the drugs masked that. Red Rose definitely gave me hope that I could turn things around. The theatre gave me confidence and allowed me to forget about my life. I’m learning every day, and I’m always recovering.”

She is now a role model to other addicts in the community theatre of how they can turn their lives around. “It’s great for me as I get to see people and how they progress. It gives me goosebumps sometimes.”

Recovering addicts are involved in everything from selling ice cream to working on the sets and acting in the community productions. “Nine times out of 10 they don’t let us down,” Ms Carrick said.

Some, like Ms Clarke, have graduated from the community theatre to professional work. “They need to be recovered, off methadone and living a clean lifestyle at that stage,” Ms Carrick said. “It’s not a hokey, community drama thing. It has that aspirational, professional core.”