Britain in the 20th century was no stranger to serial killers. During the 1940s and ’50s in west London, John Christie killed at least nine people over a 10-year period. The following decade, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley became synonymous with the Moors murders near Manchester. It was, however, during 1975-1980 that Peter William Sutcliffe made his name, christened by the press “The Yorkshire Ripper”. Due to the protracted nature of his spree, it left an indelible mark on the national psyche and the perennial coverage by media at the time compounded the pressure on the police. Knowing all of this, how does one even think of broaching this subject for the stage? To be historically accurate, yet to have a play with its own ‘voice’ and distinctive take on events?
Scripted by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne, and directed by Beth Flintoff and David Byrne, The Incident Room focuses on what was happening behind the scenes with regards to the police investigation. As the ‘incidents’ are spread out across the north of England, jurisidictional red tape is removed by having the eponymous ‘incident room’ – the repository for findings across Yorkshire, from Leeds and Bradford to Manchester. Led by Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield (Colin R Campbell), the heart and soul of the taskforce is Sergeant Megan Winterburn (Charlotte Melia). She coordinates everything and does the majority of the legwork. However, this being the 1970s, she doesn’t always gets the recognition she should receive from Oldfield or her peers. There is one person, however, who is ‘in her corner’ – Detective SuperIntendent Dick Holland (Ben Eagle), though his influence is limited.
While the likes of junior police officer Andrew Laptew (Jamie Samuel) are pleasant enough, he’s promoted to ‘detective’ ahead of Winterburn – the justification being Winterburn is too good at her job to be replaced after promotion. Then there are the likes of Jack Ridgeway (wittily played by Peter Clements) from Manchester CID whose cocksure demeanour rubs Oldfield up the wrong way. As the only other woman in the office, Sylvia Swanson (Katie Brittain) doesn’t have as much direct pressure regarding the case, but she does get on well with Winterburn and Holland.
Watching this ‘slice of recent history’ unfold, it does remind one of TV’s Life On Mars or Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect 1973 – a familiar world in one sense, but in other ways completely alien. Set at a time long before the use of computers and DNA profiling, we see how the staff at the centre of the investigation were hampered by a number of factors. With a deluge of paperwork that threatens to fall through to the room below, there’s no way of cross-checking all the information accumulated or any way of sifting the pertinent facts from ‘the noise’. Checking for tyre prints here is a nascent procedure, one that takes thousands of manhours to conduct. It’s also a time-intensive activity that the people at the top don’t have faith in or consider too slow to be of benefit. Also, as previously mentioned, the dismissive way women are treated in the workplace is much more blatant than nowadays.
As Winterburn, Melia convincingly conveys her weariness – as much from the politics in the workplace as her ‘powerlessness’ to save another woman. While Brittain plays Swanson, it is as Maureen Long – one of the ‘the Ripper’s’ few victims to survive an attack – that she shines as a character that influences the chain of events. Possessing an outgoing personality, her circumstances calls into question the suggested curfew for women after dark, for their own safety. Should one man’s actions dictate how all women behave? But what other recourse of action can be carried out to guarantee safety?
This leads us to the wider debate in the play about the perception and treatment of women. Sutcliffe’s initial victims are sex workers, so there’s a general societal ‘acceptance’ these women ‘kind of’ got what they deserved. But as Sutcliffe turns his attentions to ‘ordinary’ women – mothers, women with conventional jobs, students – there’s a general realisation that there isn’t a ‘moral’ reason for the Ripper’s choice of victims, that all women are on the same footing…
Meanwhile, the character of Tish Morgan (Natasha Magigi), the newsreporter isn’t a sympathetic presence within the play. However, in the long run, we see the value of her persistence and findings. At an unconscious level, she also represents all the women past and present that Winterburn feels answerable to. Why after a manhunt lasting several years has ‘the Ripper’ not been caught? And what is Winterburn personally doing to safeguard women?
In terms of the set design by Patrick Connellan, the towering filing cabinets convey the enormity of all the documents collated from across the north of England. Because some of the drawers jut out, the lighting on the creates distinguishable shadows that convey the passing of time.
Watching the events of The Incident Room, one realises that the lack of resources, the absence of modern policing procedures and proconceived notions in lieu of hard evidence all created a ‘perfect storm’ where ‘progress’ was impossible. The upside of these events is that lessons that were learnt that would benefit cases in the future… but at what a cost.
As a play, The Incident Room gets under the skin of all the characters who although all wanting the same thing, disagreed on the means to secure the desired results. Much like the events in James Graham’s Ink, every choice and action in The Incident Room has long-reaching consequences – the domino effect apparent only at the play’s conclusion. At junctures, there are also overtones to Ian McEwan’s Atonement where there is the ‘temptation’ to soften the less painful aspects of ‘the truth’. But on this occasion there is no solace in overlooking the facts, no absolution that would be granted by the blood of Sutcliffe’s victims…
© Michael Davis 2020
The Incident Room runs at New Diorama Theatre until 14th March.