Olivia Hirst and David Byrne’s The Incident Room (Pleasance, and London’s New Diorama early next year) is the first of two productions this year about the cultural impacts and legacies of the case of Peter Sutcliffe who, between 1975 and 1981, murdered 13 women. Another play about the murders, Charley Miles’ There are No Beginnings, based on interviews with women living in Yorkshire during that period, opens at Leeds Playhouse in the Autumn.
The Incident Room focusses on the failed police operation to capture the man who was called The Yorkshire Ripper and tries to unpick some of the mythologies surrounding the case which was often cast as a battle between two men: the killer, and George Oldfield (Colin R Campbell), the detective leading the investigation.
The Incident Room. Photos by Dee McCourt.
The Incident Room suggests another narrative, one in which misogyny and sexism blinded the men in charge of the operation, sending them up blind alleys: unable to see the evidence in front of their eyes. Or rather, as Patrick Connellan’s superb towering design suggests, the evidence stuffed in the filing cabinets that dominate room. As Julia Croft’s superb Working on My Night Moves demonstrates, sometimes it is the room itself that is the problem and it has to be dismantled if structural change is ever going to happen.
But in this Leeds incident room the female police are kept in their place, just as the women of Yorkshire were when it was suggested that the best way for them to keep safe was to remain in their homes and not go out. Nobody ever suggested that it should be men who were subject to an after-dark curfew. Megan Winterburn (Charlotte Melia) is sharp and bright but she is repeatedly passed over for promotion and belittled.
The police procedural stuff can be a bit plodding and this surprisingly old-fashioned play’s best moments come in the exchanges between Winterburn and Maureen Long (Katy Brittain) who survived one of Sutcliffe’s attacks and who the police tried to use as bait. Maureen fights against being cast as a victim. The piece is very good at capturing the grey, baggy jumper washed out greyness of 1970s Britain and the way feminism had yet to make any impact on the workings of the police, rendering them ineffectual and in the end making them laughing stocks.
This is nearly very good, but still feels as if it needs layering so that it is less The Bill and something more contemporary and edgy. Elements such as Zakk Hein’s digital projections, and moments when items of women’s clothing suddenly appear out of coffee mugs and filing drawers, are promising in the way they make us look at what is unfolding on stage a little differently. It’s an intriguing 90 minutes but by the time it arrives in London next year it should be a far sharper, deeper and more complex show.