“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.
“fresh, engaging and painfully relevant, and a startlingly accomplished debut”
Having already won the crowds at Edinburgh Fringe, The Canary and the Crow, directed by Paul Smith, comes to the Arcola to try the slightly more implacable audiences of London.
Writer Daniel Ward begins by addressing the audience directly, explaining the play’s genesis: A well-known black actor came to Ward’s drama school and asked all BAME students, “What is it like being black at drama school?” And by way of answering that question and its wider implication – what is it like being black in a society that is predominantly white – he has written The Canary and the Crow. Beginning his story as an eleven-year old accepting a scholarship to a fancy private school, Ward plays both his younger self (the Bird) and his narrating self, giving the story a necessary duality – the younger self experiencing this new and privileged world for the first time, and the present self placing this experience into a wider understanding of society.
Ward is aided in his story-telling by Nigel Taylor, Laurie Jamieson and Rachel Barnes. Taylor, initially the audience hype man and DJ, doubles up as Ward’s teenage friend from home, paralleling Ward’s experiences as someone who was not given the same opportunity. Jamieson and Barnes cover all manner of ‘rah’ characters from Ward’s private school, as well as providing cello, keyboard and vocals.
There’s pretty much no set to speak of. Instead, Ward moves about centre stage, encircled (or caged in) by Taylor, Jamieson and Barnes, who each take their turns to join him, thereafter returning to their onlooker’s spot.
There’s a bit of a disconnect between the production choices and the writing itself. The script is full of shade and nuance, dealing with difficult and complicated problems of belonging and identity, as well as economic and cultural advantage, making arguments such as, “ambition without opportunity is what kills people.”
But the production wants to simplify the story. Granted, Jamieson and Barnes provide plenty of comic relief in their depiction of toff pupils and uptight teachers. But in doing so, they mar these characters’ ominous implications. Similarly, the soundtrack (Prez 96 and James Frewer), a mash-up of grime and classical music, doesn’t quite reach the heights of dissonance and discord that it might. It’s as though Ward couldn’t decide who his audience should be. As gig theatre, this feels like something for teenagers, and in that capacity, it succeeds. But the story holds greater possibilities for a more sophisticated production, maybe something that gives room for those moments of suffocating tension or heart-breaking tenderness that are somewhat lost in this production.
Regardless, The Canary and The Crow is fresh, engaging and painfully relevant, and a startlingly accomplished debut. I look forward to seeing what Ward comes up with next.