Writers: Olivia Hirst and David Byrne
Directors: Beth Flintoff and David Byrne
The hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper was one of Britain’s longest, and most ineffective, police manhunts. In Olivia Hirst and David Byrne’s play set within the West Yorkshire Police investigation, machismo and toxic masculinity are behind both the murderer’s motives and the police failures to catch him.
Patrick Connellan’s impressive set features filing cabinets up to roof level, hemming in the police with the overwhelming amount of paperwork that prevented joins from being joined up. Inside this arena, Charlotte Melia’s Meg Winterburn, who was a sergeant in the case, recalls the years the investigation took, hoping that her memory will play tricks, the murderer will be found earlier, and fewer women will die.
The use of Meg’s memory as an unreliable narrator device reframes the storytelling as more than a police procedural. Guilt rips through the heart of this story, as the investigation’s lack of progress causes more women to be found. Each successive murder is revealed in intriguing ways by articles of women’s clothing appearing inside the incident room – a shoe here, a handbag there, a whole coat emerging from inside a coffee mug. It’s often a more effective means of progressing time than the more traditional, but sometimes necessary, projections of news reports of the time.
As a thriller that happens to be retelling true events, it’s an effective and compelling drama. But that is the lesser part of The Incident Room’s appeal. Just as such crime dramas of the era tend to prioritise the male detectives at the expense of the female victims, there is a sexism inherent in this true life tale. The initial victims ascribed to the “Ripper” were sex workers, women who for various reasons had turned to prostitution. Their deaths went under-investigated, until the murder of 16-year-old Jayne Macdonald prompted the police to start a joint investigation. Colin R Campbell’s Inspector Oldfield, in charge of the incident room, declares that the killer has made a mistake: now, “an innocent woman is dead”.
That unintentionally dismissive attitude to previous murders – the implication that killing them was no mistake, that the four earlier victims were less “innocent” because of their lifestyle – is far from the last sign of overt sexism in action. Meg’s frustration at her own contribution being belittled, often overlooked in favour of more junior men (none of whom are expected to do the typing for their colleagues) is but the least of those.
As the investigation continues, and Oldfield becomes obsessed with letters and an audio cassette claiming to be from the killer, it feels as if preserving the reputation of the senior officers starts to take priority over the investigation, masculine pride being more important than the continuing deaths. As an investigator from a neighbouring force (Peter Clements in a delightfully scenery-chewing performance that equals Philip Glenister’s Gene Hunt from Life on Mars) attempts to steer investigation down another, possibly lucrative, path, the respective male officers feel more like stags locking antlers than detectives on the hunt for a serial killer.
Amongst all this testosterone, though, there is brightness. Katy Brittain’s Maureen Long, a victim of the Ripper who survived the attack and with whom Meg forms an unlikely friendship, provides an opportunity to exhale with moments of levity. Here too, though, there is sadness: Maureen may not have been murdered, but her victimhood continued for the rest of her life, every facet of her personality overlooked in favour of a single event.
As Meg attempts to imagine that the investigation is a success, that the years’ worth of paperwork allowed them to spot that the killer crossed their paths multiple times, Ben Eagle’s Dick Holland forces her to remember events as they really were; that Peter Sutcliffe was caught almost by accident, and that much of the blame laid at the hands of the police was deserved.
By far the most effective scene, in a play in which nothing is ineffective, is the epilogue; another imagined recollection, as Meg and Maureen reconnect after the killer has been found and convicted. Rather than remembering the women whose lives were ended as defined by the moment, and the man, at their end, they try to imagine them alive, doing the mundane things that we all do every day: waiting for a bus, going clothes shopping with friends, going to the cinema.
It may not be justice for those who are dead, for the women like Maureen who were attacked and survived, or for the families who were left. But what The Incident Room does is acknowledge that they were failed. And in its utterly compelling, imaginative portrayal of failure and guilt, Hirst and Byrne’s play does it best to afford them the respect denied them at the time.
And that is the genius of the piece, a play which takes the expectations of the police drama and our prurient expectations of the true crime genre, and reveals far deeper, more uncomfortable truths within. The Incident Room forces us to own up to the mistakes made by the police because of their attitude to women, and to take some of that guilt upon our shoulders. For that reason, it is not only one of the most watchable plays so far this year, but also one of the most important.
Continues until 14 March 2020.