The Incident Room

Olivia Hirst and David Byrne
New Diorama Theatre
Pleasance Courtyard

Charlotte Melia as Megan Winterburn Credit: Richard Davenport

True crime dramas are currently enjoying a surge in popularity, tabloid sensationalism disguised in a documentary format, the gory details just as weirdly fascinating as they’ve always been.

The Incident Room is based on the true story of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who evaded the West Yorkshire police for years, steadily upping his body count as their paper trail increased. For the play isn’t really about him, it’s an examination of the people working to catch him, overburdened by filing, hierarchy and the need to succeed.

Patrick Connellan’s imposing set dominates the stage, grey filing cabinets stretching as far as the eye can see, towering over the rest of the incident room. Initially providing structure and order, they quickly begin to hem the characters in, suffocating in a paperwork web of their own making. Grey is in fact the visual tone of the show, representing the drudgery and contrasting with the vivid descriptions of the attacks which rapidly grown in number and detail. The pervading sense of tension and despair is also complemented by Zakk Hein’s projected videos of news reports and overhead shots of the action.

This isn’t just a play about this particular police investigation, however, it’s also a snapshot in time. The blatant sexism contained within the script drew audible gasps from the audience and, for anyone who takes digital technology for granted, watching the investigation progress thanks to files, reports and endless amounts of paper is almost painful. It’s a reminder of how far society has come in only a few decades and yet some of the comments still ring true, particularly regarding public attitudes towards the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ types of female victims—greater sympathy and interest for the ‘respectable’.

The finely tuned script follows the highs and lows of the investigation team over the course of several years from clues and promotions to divorces and demoralisation. Time moves on, as evidenced by reporter Tish Morgan’s climb to success, but the core focus of those characters remains the same, trapped in their own sleuthing bubble.

This is an exceptionally strong cast, keeping the pace taut and urgent, with relationships clearly defined and emotions often running high. Katy Brittain’s performance as Maureen Long, the victim who survived, is particularly poignant, the exaggerated comedy masking fear and loneliness.

An engrossing piece of theatre, The Incident Room could pass for a thriller if the ending was not so well-known. It shines a partial light on the treatment of women within the police force but centre-stage are the team members, each defined by the investigation personally as well as professionally. There is horror, however, each time Meg (a passionate but embittered Charlotte Melia) discovers another piece of clothing representing a victim, a visual prompt for characters and audience to remember the human cost of the failing investigation room.

Reviewer: Amy Yorston

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