The Incident Room by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne – New Diorama Theatre, London
The grinding, five-year Yorkshire Ripper investigation was an essentially a filing problem. At the very end of the pre-computer age, even the largest inquiry team ever assembled could not find the answer, hidden all along in the mountains of data. Instead, West Yorkshire Police went through a collective breakdown that laid the bare the failings of the 1970s social order, particularly the treatment of women, as brilliantly documented in Gordon Burn’s book ‘Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son’. The Incident Room, acclaimed at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, takes us into the claustrophobic Millgarth Incident Room at the heart of the case, where the horrifying, and bizarre real life drama played out.
The play, devised by the whole cast, focuses on Megan Winterburn, an investigating officers and one of the first women on the West Yorkshire force. Hers is a story based on real life, just like the rest of the drama, and we eventually discover she went on to hold senior rank. In 1975, though, she is an overlooked for promotion in favour of inferior male colleagues, her contributions are overlooked and she is asked to do the typing. Her position in the force reflects the situation outside, where the police only start to take Peter Sutcliffe’s brutal murders seriously when he beings attacking ‘innocent women’ rather than prostitutes. As the killings continue and public panic grows, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield loses his perspective and makes disastrous decisions, driven by personal obsession. Women take the brunt and are subjected to a police curfew to keep them safe rather than, as is pointed out, the men who might attack them. The exponential growth of information that packs out the set, made principally of a floor-to-ceiling filing stack, represents the staggering proportion of men in the north using prostitutes.
Simply recounting the events of the time is fascinating. It is a time that seems stranger and further away by the moment. However, in Beth Flintoff and David Byrne’s production, The Incident Room does much more than that. A strong ensemble cast drives the show forward. Charlotte Melia, as Meg Winterburn, is on stage throughout – a strong, sympathetic pivot for the evening. Colin R. Campbell is excellent as the beleaguered Oldfield whose arrogant tips him over the edge. Kay Brittan puts in a pair of show stealing performances as an investigator and a victim – Maureen Long, the only person to survive an attack – who is tiny, fierce and heartbreakingly lost. The writing is sophisticated, explicitly avoiding simplistic judgements and leaving the audience space to see the layers. Meg is dogged by a female journalist – played by Natasha Magigi – who constantly questions her decision to work within a failing, male-led system. The play frames events as a retelling, many years later, allowing Meg to ask why she didn’t question the way she was treated at the time, as the Hollywood version would have it.
The Incident Room is not only dramatic and engrossing – recreating the fevered claustrophobia of the time – but also multi-layered and satisfying drama, a proper assessment of a story that gripped, terrified and obsessed the nation. This excellent production confronts our dark past head on.