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The Incident Room

by on 20 April 2022

Ripper Gripper

The Incident Room

by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne

OHADS at Hampton Hill Theatre until 23rd April

Review by Andrew Lawston

Hampton Hill’s studio theatre has been taken back to the late 1970s.  Desks are covered with typewriters, wireless radios, and rotary dial telephones.  Female police officers are a novelty.  And there are cardboard boxes everywhere.  As Life on Mars famously asked: are we mad, in a coma, or back in time?

This new production of The Incident Room by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne recreates the increasingly desperate attempts by West Yorkshire Police to track down the so-called Yorkshire Ripper.  We are first presented with the conclusion of the case.  An arrest has been made, and Megan Winterburn and Dick Holland pack up the eponymous incident room that has dedicated years to processing the vast quantities of reports, statements, and leads connected to the case.  Despite Holland’s advice to put the case behind her, Winterburn reflects on the past few years and we flashback to 1976, with a new team assembled.

Although Winterburn and Dick Holland feel like the lead characters throughout, as they occasionally pause the action to comment on what might have been, or to correct each other’s recollections, this is very much an ensemble piece.  Rachel Burnham gives a compelling performance that depicts Winterburn as a strong and capable investigator frustrated at the glass ceiling against which she keeps banging her head.  That ceiling is embodied by old lag George Oldfield, who leads the team in a wonderfully splenetic performance from Steve Taylor.  Holland is Oldfield’s deputy, and Andy Smith excels as a man torn between his professionalism and his loyalty to his dangerously obsessed and sometimes misguided boss.

Also on the team, Zoë Arden vamps around the office as twice-divorced Sylvia Swanson, with her sights set on Holland.  And the career-focused young Andrew Laptew is given great depth in a sensitive performance by Jack Lumb.

While Swanson and Laptew seek adventure and promotion, Jim Hobson works doggedly on tracing the tyre tracks the Ripper left at the scenes of his crimes – the only solid evidence the team has at the beginning of the play.  Tim Shaw gives a wonderfully impassioned performance as Hobson is sidelined, ignored, and eventually removed from the investigation.  His indignation and fury at his hard work being dismissed is thoroughly relatable, and in a play where most of the characters are seeking some sort of career advancement from the Ripper case, Hobson stands out as being the one who is just working incredibly hard on it.

Most obviously and successfully seeking advancement in their career is Tish Morgan, the young journalist covering the investigation who starts off on a local paper, and ends up at the Sunday Times, via the Mirror.  Sarah Perkins brings several dimensions to the character, who appears to be genuinely sympathetic to Winterburn to begin with, before growing increasingly ruthless as the play progresses.

Early glimpses of Morgan’s ruthlessness can be seen when she hounds a survivor of an attack by the Yorkshire Ripper for interviews and statements.  Helen Geldert plays Maureen Long with great gusto as a feisty but damaged woman, desperate not to be remembered as just another statistic in the Yorkshire Ripper’s career.

The main cast is completed by John Wilkinson as Jack Ridgway, the Manchester detective who bursts in at the start of the second act to bring fresh energy to both the investigation and the play.  Wilkinson’s boisterous performance draws the audience’s focus in every scene in which he appears, with more than a hint of the scene-stealing General Zhukov as played by Jason Isaacs in The Death of Stalin (2017).

Despite the high stakes of the serial killer stalking Yorkshire (and later Manchester), this is very much a character piece, directed with intensity by Harry Medawar.  When it comes to the extensive television news items, as well as short scenes from other locations, these are pre-filmed and projected on the back wall of the set.  This sensible step keeps up the show’s pace by avoiding awkward transitions, and makes the play feel thoroughly immersive.  Marc Pearce is credited as cinematographer for these segments, and they are produced with great attention to detail, even down to the faded colour grading of late 1970s television.

The interaction between pre-filmed inserts and live theatre is a challenge for Bob Gingell, manning the lighting, sound and audio-visual desk, with the television feed occasionally subtly paused to leave room for the live actors to deliver their lines, but the illusion works well.

As well as creating a compelling drama around the Yorkshire Ripper investigation, The Incident Room also has a lot to say about workplace misogyny, both within the police force and more generally.  As the tension grows and the team become more despondent with its lack of results, the violently angry outbursts from male police officers are shockingly effective in their performance, but they also showcase truly toxic masculine behaviour.  As Megan starts to reflect, the Yorkshire Ripper isn’t truly a monster, he’s a journalistic creation.  The man they are chasing is an ordinary man in many respects, and that is the most terrifying thing about him.

Of course, every time the Yorkshire Ripper’s real name comes up, most of the audience recognise it at once.  The play exploits the murderer’s notoriety as a rich source of irony right up to the reveal, and a hugely emotional pay-off for Jack Lumb’s Andy Laptew, as the cocky and ambitious young officer is confronted with the knowledge that he had met the murderer, and that his suspicions were dismissed by superiors.

The Incident Room is a lengthy play, but although its subject matter is harrowing, it is a constantly compelling and thoroughly entertaining drama.

Andrew Lawston, April 2022

Photography courtesy of OHADS

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