Old Fruit Jar Productions’ performance of The Incident Room, directed by Alex Carr, is an intense and thought-provoking look into the police investigation into the crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper. The tragic events surrounding these violent offences and their massive impact on the people of Yorkshire are distilled into one tiny room in Millgarth Police Station, where the action takes place.
As a venue, the Black-E is perfect. Venues usually only stand out when they have a negative impact on a play, and when the venue is suitable, it fades into the background. In this case however, before the audience even see the stage, the stone spiral staircase leading to the performance space, which happens to be identical to staircases seen in many of Yorkshire’s courthouses, creates a sense of immersion. The walls outside of the performance space display evidence in the case creating a sense of the intensity felt in the county over the years that the Ripper was active. The actors are in place on entering the theatre, creating a sense of a busy police investigation before beginning the play, which maintains high energy throughout.
The action is focused through Megan Winterburn (Florence King), an overworked and under pressure sergeant, whose position as a woman in a misogynistic and overstretched police force pushes her towards breaking point. George Oldfield (Luke Seddon), as the officer in charge of several amalgamated police forces, struggles to align methods, manage conflicting and anxious personalities, and get anywhere closer to solving the case through mounting piles of evidence.
Overall, the cast do a good job with the various Yorkshire accents of the different forces working together, but Seddon’s performance is particularly good. His presence is also excellent, and he creates a sense of terror as the police’s hold on the case and their mental states unravel.
King’s performance is far closer to the edge of sanity than the rest of the cast, as she obsesses over details and missed opportunities in what was a controversial investigation with sloppy errors happening during what was a dark era for the police forces of Yorkshire, peppered with several shoddy investigations and cover ups. Regular freezing of the action under harsh red lighting which contrasts well with the cold wash used most of the time, highlight King’s increasing anxiety. Her tensions with Maureen Long (Rachel McGrath), who survived an attack, during awkward undercover work in the nightclubs of Bradford and Dick Holland (Josh Ennis), a senior officer whose complicated marital relationship spills into the office, add levels of complexity to the relationships explored and provide opportunities for resolution of unsettled conflicts.
Costumes and set have been perfectly put together to create a sense of the time period, and the make-up, by Hayley McKenzie, is worthy of special mention. The sense of stress and tiredness created through simple, subtle use of contouring and shadow techniques is excellent and a skill which is particularly easy to overdo in an obvious and distracting way.
TV coverage in the background and the ever-present journalist Tish Morgan (Christina Rose) in the corner of the stage create a sense of the aggressively persistent media and the pressure they create, in a time before social media and smartphones provided constant information. Rose’s role as a female journalist adds a nice level of conflict with King’s character and references to the female Prime Minister, who would have her own catastrophic impact on Yorkshire via its mining economy, highlight the undercurrents of sexism explored in the piece. The indication that the best way to solve the case is to control women and their movements is an attitude which persists to some extent today and overlooks the root cause of violence against women.
Continuous ringing phones and a whiteboard counting the days since the first known murder, create a sense of tension and time passing at a frightening pace. Use of Christmas music to further highlight the elapse of time is sinister and establishes a real sense of unease.
Although the content of the play is intense and deals with horrific events, there are some lighter moments which take advantage of dry Yorkshire wit and stoicism. Jordan Barkley, playing Andrew Laptew, and Ciara O’Neill, playing Sylvia Swanson, do a particularly good job of handling these lighter elements which builds on the sense of realism in an extreme and volatile situation. The animosity between the different police forces and the banter between them is realistic and works particularly well when Jack Ridgway (Anthony Roberts) from Manchester CID appears and puts everyone’s backs up as the investigation continues to stall.
There is a palpable high level of respect for the events being investigated from the entire cast and it is evident that a dedicated research and character development has been undertaken and contributed to making this production the powerful piece of drama it is. References to real life events, such as working women being escorted home by colleagues, add a sense of poignancy to incidents which are still very much within living memory for the county.
The Incident Room is a formidable and claustrophobic play which drags nerves to their limit. Delving into the tendency of the media to glamourise and romanticise violent crime feels particularly relevant in a world where streaming services rely on true crime stories as bingeable content. The performance walks close to the edge of infamy and voyeurism but manages not to tip over the edge with its competent handling by a passionate cast and crew who see the people affected by these horrific crimes as individual women, rather than anonymous historical footnotes. By focusing on one room, the play radiates with the pain of a county echoing within its oppressive walls, creating an immersive and gripping performance.
The Incident Room is being performed at the Black-E until 3rd June 2023. Tickets are available here https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/whats-on/liverpool/the-black-e/the-incident-room/e-xalmdy
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 1st June 2023
North West End UK Rating: