It’s 1975. In Leeds, the Millgarth Incident Room is the epicentre of the biggest manhunt in British police history.
David Byrne, Artistic Director of New Diorama, has collaborated with Olivia Hirst on writing and Beth Flintoff on direction to present a female led view of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation. Sergeant Megan Winterburn (Charlotte Melia), one of the few women in Yorkshire’s police force, finds herself part of a long investigation into these heinous crimes. Winterburn is looking back on her career wondering what more she could have done with her colleagues, including her superior and voice of her conscious Dick Holland (Ben Eagle) to bring Peter Sutcliffe to justice sooner. The set is dominated by filing cabinets, a reminder of the limits of the pre-digital age, and archive footage from the time.
The Incident Room is a tense and emotional look at woking under pressure as the police face judgement, press intrusion and misleading information. It also looks at the role of women in society from Winterburn’s role as tea maker and typist as she is passed over for promotion time and time again over her male and less talented colleagues. As Winterburn Melia presents a tired woman, putting her mental health and marriage at risk over her career and this case. The relationship she builds with Maureen (Katy Brittain), a woman who survives an attack by Sutcliffe, shows a human side to Meghan, whose built up a wall to show her male colleagues she is as tough as them. In a male dominated incident room the victims are constantly blamed; for being prostitutes, for not being prostitutes but being out at night culminating in a suggested curfew for all women. As Meghan screams that is the men that need locking up, not the women.
As with any drama set in 1970s there is struggle to show women as equal members of society. The casting of Melia, Brittain and Natasha Magigi as a local journalist is welcome but the male characters seem better developed; particularly Colin R Campbell as George Oldfield a desperate man longing to solve this case that he is naive towards any positive steps, his misjudgement causes him to follow a hoax and miss countless opportunities to catch Sutcliffe, nonetheless his downfall seems unfair when he is clearly in need of support. Peter Clements as Jack Ridgeway, brought in from Manchester when Sutcliffe expands across the North West brings some much needed comic relief, along with Brittain’s dual role as Maureen and police colleague Sylvia Swanson.
As with any story about murder the victims get forgotten, the team try to keep their memory alive; victims are named in full for example but they are destined to be known as such. Could an incident like this happen on such a scale now? I am not sure, advances in technology have created a degree of security but there is still an understaffed police force and an unhealthy misogynism in society.
The Incident Room is a fascinating look at policing under pressure and the role of women in society but ultimately it is still another work about a man murdering women. It is, however, a great production with well rounded performances and character development across the large cast and a refreshing take on the story behind catching one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers.
The Incident Room is on until 14 March https://www.newdiorama.com/whats-on/the-incident-room
As part of Brits Off Broadway from 23 April -24 May https://www.newdiorama.com/news/ndt-co-curate-brits-off-broadway-2020