The Incident Room

Olivia Hirst & David Byrne
New Diorama with Greenwich Theatre
New Diorama Theatre
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Forty years ago, Peter Sutcliffe, a serial killer who murdered 13 women and tried to kill seven more, became notorious as “The Yorkshire Ripper”. It took police five years to track him down. That is the background to this play, devised by the ensemble who perform it and directed by Beth Flintoff and David Byrne.

Set in the Millgarth Incident Room of the West Yorkshire Police, it isn’t about the murderer but the investigation (criticism of which led to a government review that brought to changes in police procedures) and especially about the interaction between the police team.

This isn’t straightforward documentary for it presents events filtered through memory, especially the memory of female detective Sergeant Megan Winterburn (Charlotte Melia). At one point, it is as much about how it should have gone as what actually happened.

These are memories that won't go away and the horror at the discovery of each new killing is graphically captured by Meg’s unearthing of a handbag, a shoe or a piece of clothing belonging to the victim.

Desperate for any clue, the case becomes a huge undertaking investigating owners of 30,000 cars that could match tyre tracks and tracing the passage of many thousands of newly issued £5 notes. This is before computers and mobile phones: Patrick Connellan’s set is a wall of filing cabinets, the detectives are continually ferretting through card files, humping around boxes of documents, there’s piles of paper.

Five years of frustration and mounting exhaustion take their toll on health and tempers and when vital evidence is overlooked or rejected, the play’s retrospective framing makes it more poignant.

Memory can underline characteristic behaviour; we remember extremes and this is reflected in performance. Peter Clement as Jack Ridgeway, a detective from Manchester CID involved after the killer strikes there, is all jumped up, a condescending intruder. Colin R Campbell’s George Oldfield, heading the investigation, is stubborn and chauvinistic; when taxi driver Jim Hobson (Clement) is brought in for questioning, he breaks the rules, though he does have a more human side. Meg’s colleagues aren’t caricatured though Ben Eagle’s Jim Hobson (Oldfield’s deputy), who looks back with her, and Jamie Samuel’s Andrew Laptew, the younger officer who gets prompted when she is overlooked, share the idea that you get the women to do the typing.

The sexism of the set-up comes across strongly as does prevalent prejudice. The investigation gets approached differently after a woman who is not a sex worker gets murdered. Katy Brittain as office admin Sylvia Swanson spends much of the time literally in the shadows. Doubling as Maureen Long, the victim who escaped, her uselessness as a witness comes foremost, though Megan treats her as a person and in her we see the shattering effect the experience has had.

Over time, there is change though: Natasha Magigi’s would-be journalist Tish Morgan, a black woman who sneaks into the office in the hope of getting information that could get her in print, ends up with The Sunday Times and the Meg who looks back has become West Yorkshire’s first woman Detective Inspector.

The production has pace and some much-needed humour. For most of the audience, there may be no surprises as the story unravels, this is such a well-known, high profile case, but the conflicting personalities create the drama. An inherent theatricality is aided by clever use of newsreel clips and video that look down on documents laid out on the table, with a sound score and lighting plot that underline certain moments and subtly mark the play’s now from its past. Charlotte Melia’s Megan is central but this is a company that all play with conviction.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton