True crime obsession has reached new heights in the past few years with a seemingly endless stream of documentaries, books and podcasts available to armchair sleuths everywhere. And now true crime has reached the theatre. The Incident Room tells the story of the five year manhunt for the Yorkshire Ripper from the perspective of the policemen – and women – tasked with finding him. Written by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne the play is meticulously researched, using books and news broadcasts as well as interviewing journalists, policewomen and relatives of the victims to accurately portray the atmosphere in the titular room during this turbulent time.
Leaves a lasting impression that will linger in the mind for a long time.
And it certainly feels authentic. The set is realistic, apart from the huge wall of filing cabinets that towers over the actors, symbolising the mounting pressure to find the killer, as well as the gigantic scope of the investigation that quickly overshadows everything else in the dedicated investigators’ lives. Clips from real news reports from the time helps keep the timeline of the case clear, leaving room onstage for the characters to be fleshed out. As we learn more about these people and their personal lives we become more invested in their fate. Not whether they’ll find the Ripper, since the answer to that is just a quick Google away, but whether their lives can ever be the same again after this.
The Incident Room is not just a play about the Yorkshire Ripper. It is also a play about gender politics. The late seventies were a time when things were changing more and more towards equality. Women were now a part of law enforcement, on equal footing with the men, although as The Incident Room reminds us, it’s easier to change the rules than change the minds of men. Too often the women on the team are overlooked, ignored and reduced to typists and secretaries. Running the room is the ambitious Meg, played by Charlotte Melia, who originally sees the investigation as a stepping stone in her career, but after getting to know one of the Ripper’s surviving victims, becomes increasingly horrified at his overt hatred of women, as well as her colleagues similar sentiments, barely disguised as “everyday sexism”. Melia’s performance is a mix of steel and vulnerability and she grounds the chaos around her with ease. The cast is uniformly great but the stand-out is clearly Katy Brittain in a double performance as the policewoman Sylvia and survivor Maureen. As Sylvia she’s all ditzy charm but as Maureen she swings effortlessly between the tough, streetwise good-time gal and the broken human being destroyed by the Ripper. Her speech about the effects of the attack is absolutely heartbreaking.
The true crime genre is often accused of glorifying killers, giving them an air of mystery and power that they don’t deserve. The Incident Room can’t help but participate in this a little bit, the Ripper looms large over every moment on stage like some mythical boogeyman, but it should be commended on its efforts to remember his victims as human beings. Throughout we are reminded that these women were somebody’s mother, daughter or sister and the final scene leaves a lasting impression that will linger in the mind for a long time.