Review: The Incident Room (Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh)
The New Diorama presents a new take on the Yorkshire Ripper case
There aren't many old-fashioned well-made plays to be found on the Fringe and for that reason alone The Incident Room feels like a throwback to a different age. Its subject matter too – the failure of the police investigation into Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, the man who murdered 13 women and attempted to kill seven more, between 1969 and 1981 – takes us back to another time when women were frightened to walk the streets of many Northern cities and the West Yorkshire force seemed powerless to stop him.
Devised by the New Dioroma Theatre, with a script by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne and direction by Byrne and Beth Flintoff, it begins after five murders, when the infamous police control centre was set up under the watch of assistant chief constable George Oldfield in an attempt to catch the man responsible.
Although set in the mid 1970s, it looks like ancient history as Patrick Connellan's impressive set of towering, stuffed gray filing cabinets reminds us. Without computers, the police were simply overwhelmed by the evidence that they had collected – letting Sutcliffe slip through their hands over and over again, through a combination of bad luck and bad judgement.
The play is clearly well-researched and recounts all of this faithfully, but it also suggests that the misogyny and attitudes to women that account for the treatment of the female police officer Megan Winterburn (played with real feeling and finesse by Charlotte Melia), who is constantly overlooked in favour of her less talented male colleagues, afflicted the investigation itself.
In redressing that balance the play turns the focus onto the women, even in a cast that is mainly male. It is full of sharp observations; the ambitious local newspaper reporter sent to interview Megan for her curiosity value remarks that she has to comment on her hair and make-up in the small space allotted for her but "luckily for you it's hardly going to swallow up my word count." More serious – and touching – is the plea of Maureen Long, a survivor of a Sutcliffe attack, to be remembered as something more than another of his victims.
Powerfully acted, and compellingly argued, The Incident Room is a really impressive piece of work, ambitious in scope and effect. Its documentary form means it might work better on TV, though the dramatic touches where Megan records the increasing deaths by pulling items of clothing out of pieces of furniture has the theatrical impact of a nightmare. And it is great that this young company wants to tell stories with such scope, meaning and import.