“a sleek, high-value production that prods the audience to ask for their own response to institutionalised problems”
It’s 1974. The UK murder detection rate stands at over 90%; the equal pay act is shortly to come into force and Peter Sutcliffe is about to begin his reign of terror on West Yorkshire women. Olivia Hirst and David Byrne’s new play, The Incident Room, comes down from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to explore the true story of Britain’s largest ever manhunt and highlight the institutional sexism and incompetence that dogged the West Yorkshire force undertaking it.
The events unfold in Millgarth Incident Room in Leeds between 1977 and 1981. Running the room is Megan Winterburn (Charlotte Melia) – a smart, thirty-something sergeant who is continually overlooked for promotion in favour of the affable yet inept Andrew Laptew (Jamie Samuel). All the while the two men calling the shots – Dick Holland (Ben Eagle) and the increasingly frayed George Oldfield (Colin R Campbell) – resort to ever more audacious means to catch the killer.
Co-directors Beth Flintoff and David Byrne orchestrate the cast brilliantly with slick movement and moments of tense conflict while building the freneticism of the hunt. Campbell provides a particularly strong performance as the crumbling man at the helm. The floor to ceiling filing cabinets and faithful recreation of a 1970s office in Patrick Connellan’s set provide the claustrophobic atmosphere of those who toiled there whilst alluding to one of the key narratives that emerged from this case. Zakk Hein’s digital design is equally impressive – using sweeping shadows to show time’s passage; and archival footage of the real hunt to remind us that we are witnessing a re-enactment of real-life events.
The incompetence of the West Yorkshire police in failing to apprehend the Yorkshire Ripper (who was interviewed on nine separate occasions) is well documented. However, what Hirst and Byrne uncovered while exploring this story is the more pressing issue of institutional sexism. Their script subtly reveals how each character is complicit in its maintenance. From the old-boy’s-club thinking of George Oldfield – ‘when you’re doing my job, you’re always looking for men you can trust’, to the shrugging complacency of the men who do nothing and finally the strange mix of weariness and guilt of Megan Winterburn – who wonders whether it is her responsibility to fight for more.
The Incident Room is a lovingly researched play that uncovers the many real-life issues that arose while chasing the most infamous killer in British policing history. It’s verbatim theatre told in a sleek, high-value production that prods the audience to ask for their own response to institutionalised problems. Go and see it for an engrossing two hours.
“A couple of the numbers were so camp, it was like watching a medieval Village People”
Joan Of Leeds was an English nun, who bored of her monastic life, feigned mortal illness, constructed a dummy of herself which was buried in holy ground and hot-footed it off to Beverley to shack up with a man. This account only came to light this year, when a research project into the Registry of the Archbishops Of York for 1305-1405, uncovered historical notes documenting this story.
Breach Theatre Company have done what any self-respecting group would do and turned it into a bawdy, medieval musical. Presenting themselves as The Yorkshire Medieval Players, the opening scene cleverly sets the tone for the fun and frolics ahead.
The set with a starry back cloth and cardboard clouds and an apple tree, looks a little ‘primary school’ and yet works perfectly with the style of the piece.
Joan, in this production, during a severe famine, is tempted by the devil and ends up in a convent where she falls in love with fellow nun Agnes. Refusing to admit her true feelings, she runs away to Beverley to live with the man who is in love with her. Interesting to see the ‘queer’ angle explored, although the world has changed beyond recognition in five hundred years, maybe human desires and feelings have not.
This is brilliantly directed by Billy Barrett who co-wrote the play with Ellice Stevens. Cast appeared on gantries, up trap doors, through curtains, each time delivering real attack and comic timing to the character they were portraying. With all the outrageous costumes and Python like silliness, it was easy to overlook some of the brilliantly constructed rhyming text, much of it as ingenious and lyrical as the musical numbers themselves.
The five strong cast were all terrific, Bryony Davies showing us angst, anger, vulnerability and bewilderment as the tormented Joan, Rachel Barnes, Olivia Hirst, Laurie Jamieson and Alex Roberts all matched her with their highly skilled performances.
One particularly clever scene change took the whole audience by surprise, only when we stepped into this domestic set, did the pace drop a little. Although I understood the purpose of the scene, this show is at its strongest when the five actors are bouncing off each other. They are all so musically talented and versatile, we were treated to musical styles from Broadway to madrigal to a jaw dropping, thrash metal finale. A couple of the numbers were so camp, it was like watching a medieval Village People.
Not your most traditional of seasonal shows and all the more enjoyable for this very reason. This is an extraordinary story, maybe one of the earliest demonstrations of ‘Girl Power’ from a most unexpected source.
Although Breach Theatre Company have adapted this story with their own unique style, if history lessons had been like this at school, I would never have missed a class.