Filing cabinets. Lots and lots of filing cabinets. Wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets, in fact. By my reckoning 230ish of the grey, metallic, functional-but-boring instruments of administrative torture that form the backdrop to this play about the Yorkshire Ripper. It’s an inspired design by Patrick Connellan because it informs us, from the start, that the piece is about the minutiae of detection, the importance of data collection and the tragedy that unfurls when you can’t see the wood for the trees. Or the clues for the filing cabinets. And as the script develops the cabinets seem to come alive and to gradually close in on the increasingly desperate holders of the incident room fort, stifling them, threatening them and smothering them in desperate self-recrimination as they flay about in a sea of unfiltered information. And sitting in the audience we sense this too.
There is meticulous research, here, by writers Olivia Hirst and David Byrne and their eye for the minutest detail lifts the play from a run-of-the-mill we-know-who-dunnit-but-how-we-gonna-catch-him? police procedural yarn to a level of intensity that explores character, motives, doggedness, egos and ultimate success tinged with heroic failure.
Back in the ’seventies, when the play is set – which is why we’ve got filing cabinets rather than algorithms – Tammy Wynette sang the immortal words: “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman”. For sergeant Megan Winterburn, the words ring true every working day of her life as controller of the incident room in a masculine-dominated world with men who are over-promoted and promoted over, and where women find it best to bite their lip and hold their
tongue, tidy the office and do the typing. “Meg” is played with calm authority and spiky respectfulness by Charlotte Melia and while she tries to keep the investigation on track the men buzz around her like increasingly demented wasps dipped in brandy. It’s a lovely, subtle and knowing performance by Melia and she’s the key cog in what is a strangely balletic machine that operates around her. That’s down to the staging of the show and the immaculately intelligent direction of Beth Flintoff and Byrne.
The boss, George Oldfield – the Senior Investigating Officer – is played like a man trying to run through quicksand by Colin R. Campbell. Campbell has that rabbit-in-the-headlights look about him as he makes desperate irascible attempts to find an answer. His deputy, Dick Holland, (Ben Eagle) is the typical BINGO-seat police officer (Books In Never Goes Out). He is ostensibly supportive of Meg but Eagle cleverly gets across the impression that he’s all for the quiet life. Natasha Magigi does a nice turn as ultra-pushy local reporter destined for big things in Fleet Street. Peter Clements blasts into what has become the cosy safety of the incident room as Jack Ridgeway, Head of Manchester CID, the aggressive and uncompromising “fiver” man. And Jamie Samuel gives a touching and moving performance as the over-promoted and eventual fall guy, Andy. And in case you’re thinking that this heavily-laden data collection show might be a little dry then Katy Brittain regularly pops up – either as civilian police employee Sylvia Swanson or victim/survivor Maureen Long – to add some excellent humorous touches. She’s a laugh-a-minute is our Katy.
In The Incident Room, a line is drawn through the connecting dots which start with the overt misogyny of a rampant and predatory serial killer through to the covert misogyny of a dinosaur police force that needed to change – and the Yorkshire Ripper case helped to ensure that it did. Meg’s in control but not in command and she’s not going to get the accolades though she will get the blame. When the TV show “Life On Mars” came out people didn’t believe that it was really “like that” in the ’seventies – i.e. the police were a bunch of smoking, swearing, misogynistic, egotistical boors. But it was like that – and this remarkable show bears testament to it. The Incident Room is not just a play: it’s a valuable historical document.
Review by Peter Yates
Set in Leeds in 1975, The Incident Room is a forensic examination of the five-year police hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. With public pressure mounting, the investigators resorted to increasingly audacious attempts to catch one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers.
We follow Megan Winterburn, the Sergeant running the new incident room at Millgarth Police Station, the epicentre of the case that nearly broke the British police force.
As well as working with Michael Bilton, the Sunday Times investigative journalist who covered the case and wrote the best-selling book Wicked Beyond Belief, the team consulted with the real policewomen who worked on the investigation in the incident room.
After a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe The Incident Room will transfer to Greenwich Theatre.
CAST AND CREATIVE TEAM
Writers – Olivia Hirst & David Byrne
Directors – Beth Flintoff & David Byrne
Set Design – Patrick Connellan
Digital Design – Zakk Hein
Lighting Design – Greg Cebula
Composer & Sound Design – Yaiza Varona
Movement Associate – Kane Husbands
Costume Design – Ronnie Dorsey
Production Manager – Sean Ford
Company Stage Manager – Rachel Pryce
Costume Supervisor – Orla Convery
Colin R Campbell
THE INCIDENT ROOM
11 February – 14 March, 2020