A dynamic and engaging fresh insight behind the scenes at the Millgarth incident room during Britain’s largest and most expensive manhunt. A catalogue of failures, did nothing but promote the macabre mystic of its elusive killer, the Yorkshire Ripper. Sadly, its lasting legacy is the many women it let down.
Old Fruit Jar Productions return with The Incident Room following its sell out run at The Black – E. Written by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne, it depicts the gripping search for the notorious serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe, commonly known as the Yorkshire Ripper. The play is set between 1975 and 1980, when Sutcliffe murdered 13 women and is known to have attacked another 8. The multiple failures and missed opportunities to catch Sutcliffe by West Yorkshire Police is well documented.
What makes this different from other Ripper case re-enactments, is the tilt towards the women and the examining of its failures through the female gaze. Not just in the context of the murder investigation and its victims, but the wider societal and cultural treatment of women, which is central to this piece.
Police Officer, Megan Winterburn is our primary focus, narratively and physically positioned central stage for most of the play; her frustration, exasperation, and isolation is wonderfully embodied by Florence King. King’s characterisation is successful in how Winterburn’s full scale of ability and competency is kept simmering just below the surface but clear for the audience to see; repeatedly bearing the brunt of direct, and indirect sexism and misogyny, overlooked for promotion in favour of less experienced, male colleagues. Eventually losing her voice by holding her tongue. There are moments when we look back through way of Winterburn’s recollections, where she carries a huge regret, whereby if she had been given the space to speak up and be listened to in regard to her own theories, she could have perhaps helped to save more victims; yet it seems impossible, as a victim herself, existing within the constraints of a patriarchal society.
The cultural gender-based attitudes of the time is reflected in the portrayal of the other women in this story. The subservient, jolly nature of officer Sylvia Swanson (Ciara O’Neill) is balanced by the optimism of determined and ambitious journalist Tish Morgan (Christina Rose), who delivers one of the most powerful lines, “Women like me are just getting started”. Maureen Long (Rachel McGrath) represents the ripple effects from the unfavourable treatment and attitude towards some of the victims and survivors, all of whom, regardless as to whether they were sex workers, are normal, everyday women. Tired of constantly having to relive the events through the cycle of books, TV shows, films, (and theatre).
Hirst and Byrne’s writing maintains the dignity and respect to the women who lost their lives during these heinous crimes. The moments when we hear of another murder, is dealt with sensitively and poignantly, emphasised by director Alex Carr; with thoughtful symbolic tableaus, allowing stillness for respectful reflective. A final pause for thought between Long and Winterburn develops into an impromptu vigil where each woman is named, is especially touching.
The strong company of nine successfully drive this story throughout. Before house lights down, they’re on stage, capturing and holding the attention of the audience as they make their way to their seats. A brilliant artistic decision, which immediately portrays the relentlessness of the task ahead, as we discover, they’re already on day 607 since the first murder. Through the passing of time, each character’s arc is delivered to full effect with rollercoasters of emotions played out as the pressure, and paperwork, starts mounting.
The set design is a brilliant replication of an incident room, the nerve centre of the investigation. With rising mounds of paper, boxes piling up, the persistent ringing of the telephones, papers pertaining to the growing number of false leads and evidence strewn across the walls, it stretches throughout the auditorium, becoming a monster in its own right. The action unfolds under the watching eyes of Sutcliffe’s victims, their photos on the wall, as time runs out and the days clock up.
The attention to detail and quality of the costumes and props is impressive and authentic. Under Carr’s direction the piece incorporates creative use of lighting for the use of transitions, amplifying key moments within the narrative, and creating a scene within a scene, aiding the flow of the action. The narrative is broken up with several interesting slowed down montages, interspersed to inject some stillness within the constant, frantic grasping for answers. Soundscapes are utilised well and compliment the emotions and actions on stage, including the steady stream of news footage and that infamous tape recording.
An all-round brilliant and thoughtful piece of storytelling.
The Incident Room runs until 21st October 2023, to purchase tickets please visit https://liverpoolsroyalcourt.com/whats-on/the-incident-room/
Reviewer: Gill Lewis
Reviewed: 11th October 2023
North West End UK Rating: