Sunday afternoons are for catching up with chums, so it was a real pleasure to drop in on rehearsals with the team at Old Fruit Jar Productions to learn more about their upcoming production of The Incident Room, with Olivia Hirst and David Byrne’s beautifully crafted script most definitely in safe hands judging by the treatment of the opening act that I was fortunate to observe.
Now there’s a misguided, in my opinion, line of thought at present that says following the pandemic and other recent hardships, theatre should focus on making everybody smile and avoid anything dark and contentious. OFJP are of view that the purpose of theatre remains to inform as well as entertain, especially at a time when we seem to flip from one outrage to another, none more so than those arising from the Met Police.
Set in Leeds 1975, the focus of the play is centred in and around the Millgarth Incident Room as the biggest manhunt in British police history unfolds: the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. Whilst based on this gripping true story, the focus of the play is on the police officers at the forefront of what became a five-year investigation and their often desperate and ill-thought through attempts to end this reign of terror.
Although set over forty years ago, the parallels to the Met Police are unavoidable and make this not only a must-see production but one that hopefully an audience will react and respond to for good reason, otherwise, as director Alex Carr notes, history will continue to repeat itself and more miscarriages of justice and abuse will be lurking around the corner. Whilst this is a play about the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, it highlights the organisational chaos that saw repeated opportunities to arrest the culprit to be missed, as the Assistant Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, George Oldfield (Luke Seddon), blunders from one mistake to another, with the assistance of Deputy Senior Investigating Officer Dick Holland (Josh Ennis). Throw in a little cross-Pennine rivalry with Jack Ridgway (Anthony Roberts) of Manchester CID and it’s a case with disaster written all over it.
Drawing upon real transcripts, we also gain valuable insight into the misogyny at the heart of British policing, then and now, which Detective Sergeant Megan Winterburn (Florence King) and WPO Sylvia Swanson (Ciara O’Neill) have to battle against, including being overlooked for promotion in favour of one of the lads, PO Andy Laptew (Jordan Barkley). This is further evidenced by the treatment of one of the victims, Maureen Long (Rachel McGrath), and highlighted as a wider societal problem with the continued presence of journalist Tish Morgan (Christina Rose).
It’s an eye-opening spectacle with implications that the cast have had to come to terms with outside of the rehearsal space too, none more so than the continued poor treatment of women to this day by not only men but also, far too often, other women. If we want to change things for the better we have to face up to these realities rather than hide behind painted smiling faces, and with this production, and its most obvious and immediate relevance, I can’t think of a better place to start. As Seddon most eloquently put it to me: shying away from the dark doesn’t make it light.
The Incident Room performs at The Black-E (1 Upper George Street, Liverpool L1 5EW) from 1st – 3rd June at 7.30pm with a further matinee performance on Saturday 3rd at 2.30pm. Tickets are priced at £12 (£9 concessions) and available via https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/ofjproductions