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Beyond Belief: Scenes from The Shipman Inquiry

Dennis Woolf
Library Theatre, Manchester
(2004)

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Dennis Woolf has used his extensive experience of creating reconstructions of trials and inquiries, mostly for television, to create Beyond Belief for the stage. This production joins a growing trend of plays created from verbatim transcripts, edited and arranged to condense the highlights of the original event into a single evening. In this case, the event is the inquiry led by Dame Janet Smith into doctor Harold Shipman's apparently motiveless murder of possibly hundreds of his former patients originally held in Manchester Town Hall, just a couple of minutes' walk from the theatre.

Chris Honer's production does everything possible to reproduce the feeling of being at an inquiry. The stage is set with wood-panelled walls and tables for the chairman, lawyers, witnesses and court officials - many of the latter are moving around the stage getting things ready from the moment the audience starts to enter. The house lights are left partly on throughout, and the interval and end of the show are announced by Dame Janet Smith (Romy Baskerville) as though they are a break in the proceedings and the conclusion of the public inquiry respectively. Two video screens at the back relay close-ups of whoever is speaking and slides of important documents which are referred to during the proceedings. At the end, no one returns for a bow.

The performances are all excellent, and although there are some emotional moments, nothing is overplayed. Most of the play is held together by the unrelenting interrogations by Caroline Swift QC (Cate Hamer) who has a tremendous amount to say. The only breaks with naturalism in the staging are the blackouts between sections or between witnesses - when the name of the next witness or the date of the next section is projected on one of the screens - and a sequence just after the interval when a voice over tells us about the arrest of Harold Shipman and the screens show photographs of him and the women he was convicted of murdering.

The question has to be asked, what is the point in recreating something like this word-for-word when the actual transcripts are in the public domain?

Firstly, transferring the events from the original room into a theatre and putting real people's words into the mouths of actors automatically puts a distance between the event and the performance that prompts analysis rather than mere observance of what unfolds.

Secondly, the process of editing months of transcripts into a couple of hours is bound to reflect the viewpoint of the editor, however objective that person tries to be. Although on the surface the play does not appear to follow any storytelling conventions, there are definite moments of rising tension and some of the more emotional and combative exchanges between lawyers and witnesses are in the second half.

Finally, the proximity of the performance to the place these events happened (both the inquiry and the murders) is bound to create a stronger impression. In the interval, groups of spectators could be seen in the bar and foyer reading carefully the extensive documentation in the programme and loudly discussing what they have just seen. It is rare that any current theatre in the UK produces this intensity of discussion. I was brought up two miles away from the surgery that Shipman worked in until his arrest and one of the victims mentioned in the play was my lollipop lady when I was at primary school whose son was a friend of mine for a short while, but even so this performance had an effect on me that I did not expect.

In the play, Shipman's practice nurse, Gillian Morgan (Alison Burrows), says of the Harold Shipman described in his trial and the inquiry, "It doesn't sound like the person I worked for or with." When the news first came out of Shipman's arrest, my father was talking to a woman when he was walking the dog who said she didn't believe it and was sure it would all blow over as he is her doctor and is a lovely man. The play, like the inquiry, tells us a great deal to help us to understand what happened, but 'why' will probably forever remain a mystery.

"Beyond Belief" runs until 20 November 2004

Reviewer: David Chadderton