The Incident Room

New Diorama, London ****
Runs: 2hrs 25 mins with 20 min interval.
TICKETS : 0207 383 9034
Review of perf seen Feb 26, 2020:

© The Other Richard, Charlotte Melia, as Megan Winterburn, modest, hard-working, cigarette smoking police Sergeant, a witness to five harrowing years…

The Yorkshire Ripper. Leeds 1975. Anyone reading those words might be forgiven for feeling a shiver down the spine. Notoriety comes in multifarious ways. For some it comes through misdeeds. For Peter Sutcliffe it certainly brought a particular form of `celebrity’.We seem to be endlessly drawn for `entertainment’ to murder mysteries.

But for those caught up in the events that led to his arrest, that would have been the last thing on their minds. For them it was five harrowing years where police and the community living in the north of England found themselves `trapped’ in a deadly cat and mouse game of Sutcliffe’s murders and attacks on women – many prostitutes but not all.

What is surprising about Olivia Hirst and New Diorama AD, David Byrne, is firstly the reason they have decided to focus on this dark period in policing history and secondly the new angles they find in it.

Nine years ago, Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s London Road told the story of the Ipswich serial killer, Stephen Wright.

Their`verbatim musical’ also concentrated on the effect Wright’s murder of prostitutes had on that community.

© The Other Richard, Colin R Campbell as George Oldfield, in charge of tracking down `the Yorkshire Ripper’ (centre), and (right), Charlotte Melia (Megan Winterburn) dwarfed by Patrick Connellan’s vast bank of files…

But here, Hirst and Byrne’s emphasis heads straight to the story’s centrifugal heart, the police incident room where what starts out as something akin to what you might see any night of the week on the tele as a routine cop shop drama, ends up rather remarkably as an intense, intriguing social statement about police sexism and the toll dealing with such material, week in, week out, takes on individuals and the victims who survived Sutcliffe’s attacks.

Patrick Connellan’s vast backdrop wall of grey filing cabinets helps immediately to create a sense of workplace claustrophobia.

But Hirst and Byrne’s script also plays a clever trick by taking the one woman officer – Megan Winterburn, an efficient, hard-working Sergeant constantly characterised by George Oldfield, the detective in charge, as little more than a typist – back over events in a vain attempt for it to turn out differently.

For not only does she regret not speaking out more forcibly – the mid 1970s was indeed the time of women’s lib and the push towards more gender equality – but hindsight also produces the devastating revelation that Sutcliffe had been picked up as a possible suspect over two years before his arrest.

© The Other Richard, trapped in the incident room, Sgt Megan Winterburn…days, weeks, years went by closeted in that room…Patrick Connellan’s set of grey filing cabinets speaks its own story…

A young copper, Andy, actually met him, wrote a report, which, not fitting in with the profile being built up by other members of the team, was consigned to oblivion.

Respectful of what the story entails, co-directors Beth Flintoff and Byrne underline the sense of fear and foreboding with sudden phone calls in the night, rumbles of shaking furniture and Items of clothing appearing from unexpected places – a file, a vase – of a blood-soaked dress, a scarf and pairs of shoes as yet another murder is reported.

As desperation mounts and Oldfield pleads with the community `to help us find the Yorkshire Ripper’, as in London Road, suspicion starts to fall on everyone.

It could be `your father, your husband, your son’, pronounces Oldfield, now rattled with sleeplessness, whiskey and a taunting tape and letter appearing to come from the murderer himself. Women are encouraged not to go out alone, to carry knives.

The breakthrough eventually comes. But for all those caught up in Sutcliffe’s crimes, the stain of their involvement never leaves them.

In a haunting code, Megan and Maureen – one of his victims who lived to tell the tale – go through the pictures of the murdered women, recalling them as individuals with lives beyond being `a Sutcliffe victim’.

It is perhaps the most beautiful part of an evening notable for the strength of its ensemble.

© The Other Richard, Natasha Magigi as Tish Morgan, cub reporter on the Yorkshire Post determined to get her `scoop’… (centre), Charlotte Melia as Megan Winterburn and passing through, Ben Eagle’s Dick Holland, forever clutching files. Hard graft and hundreds of hours of sifting through and legwork did not reveal the leads they were hoping for…

Carrying the trappings of a conventional crime story, Hirst, Byrne and the cast who helped `devise’ the piece ensure it emerges as far more than that.

As Oldfield, Colin R Campbell is at once harassed, dogged and intransigent, Charlotte Melia’s Megan, a lovely portrait of talent going unnoticed, as is Jamie Samuel as Andy Laptew, the young officer who wrote the disgraced report on Sutcliffe.

Katy Brittain makes her mark as both an office helper and a loquacious northern sex worker who loves to dance whilst Ben Eagle as a fellow, sympathetic officer, Dick Holland, Peter Clements as a CID firecracker and Natasha Magigi as a cub reporter at the Yorkshire Post anxious to get the `inside story’, all provide colour to what is fully dimensional portrait of people working under extreme pressure.

The Incident Room is not in the normal run of David Byrne’s New Diorama programming which often includes excitingly young companies using radically different technologies and techniques. If this seems less so, it nonetheless produces a solid piece of theatre that sends you away leaving as many questions unanswered as it solves.

Definitely recommended.

The Incident Room
Written by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne

Devising Ensemble:
Sylvia Swanson/Maureen Long: Katy Brittain
George Oldfield: Colin R Campbell
Jim Hobson/Jack Ridgeway: Peter Clements
Dick Holland: Ben Eagle
Tish Morgan: Natasha Magigi
Megan Winterburn: Charlotte Melia
Andrew Laptew: Jamie Samuel

Voice Over:
Bobby Hirston, Peter Picton and Adam Cunis

Script: Olivia Hirst and David Byrne
Direction: Beth Flintoff and David Byrne
Devised with: The Company
Set: Patrick Connellan
Digital: Zakk Hein
Lighting: Greg Cebula
Composition & Sound: Yaiza Varona
Movement Associate: Kane Husbands
Costume: Ronnie Dorsey
Production Manager: Sean Ford
Stage Manager: Rachel Pryce
Costume Supervisor: Orla Convery

Producer: Caroline Simonsen
Executive Procuer: Sophie Wallis

A New Diorama co-production with The Pleasance and Greenwich Theatre with the support of the Arts Council.
World premiere of The Incident Room at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2019.
First perf at New Diorama, London, Feb 11, 2020. Runs to March 14, 2020.

Review published on this site, Feb 27, 2020