Writer: Caitlin McEwan
Director: Lizzie Manwaring
In the late 1960s, three women were murdered in Glasgow by a man the media dubbed Bible John because one witness had heard him say ‘I don’t drink, I pray.’ He has never been caught and the murders remain unsolved. Theatre company THESE GIRLS haven’t quite reopened the case, but they have questions to ask about these murders and the murder of women in general.
Playing at the VAULT Festival in the same week that figures were released showing that the number of female homicide victims in the UK is at its highest since 2006, Bible John is a timely examination of the systemic violence against women.
The play begins with four ordinary women working in an office in England; each is quite different but they share an interest in true-crime podcasts. They empathise with the victims of serial killers, but do they, when they listen to the gruesome details about the murders, internalise the view that they, too, could be potential victims?
At first the tone of the show is wrong and seriously at odds with its ending. The audience is expected to laugh at the cast’s – or at least the characters’ – suggestions that Bible John, a tall man with red hair, could be Ed Sheeran or Prince William. At the end of the play, the actors tearfully stress that Bible John’s victims were real women, seemingly forgetting that they – or again, the characters that they play – trivialised the murders in the first place.
Fortunately, this is the only misstep in the play’s 60 minutes, and the comedy fades to be replaced with a more thoughtful analysis of violence, and our fascination with it. Using just four chairs, a box of props and a screen, THESE GIRLS conjure up contemporary office spaces and, finally, Barrowland, the famous Glasgow club where the victims met their killer.
The women went to the club because they loved to dance, and to reflect this Bible John is full of dance and movement, all slickly performed. Under movement director, Laurie Ogden, the dance relies on 60s’ moves and steps, all to the glorious sounds of 60s’ girl groups. But there is also anger in this dancing; the anger that comes with the fear of not being able to go out dancing and get home safely.
All four actors are at the top of their game; Louise Waller becomes so obsessed with the case that she starts dressing like one of the victims; Renee Bailey takes on the role as the first victim and chillingly her dancing turns to running; Carla Garratt becomes scarily fixated on the podcasts; while writer Caitlin McEwan seems the more grounded here, setting the scenes.
Should true stories about serial killers and their victims be offered for entertainment? It’s a credit to McEwan that this question is asked in the show and impressively it’s not really answered suggesting that there is some unease in producing a play like this. And this unease is also felt by the audience who have paid to be entertained with stories of shocking true crimes.
But it is money well spent: It’s a difficult topic to get right, and THESE GIRLS have almost nailed it.
Runs until 16 February 2020