Peter William Sutcliffe. The Yorkshire Ripper. The man who murdered 13 women in Yorkshire and Greater Manchester in the late 1970s. The man it took the West Yorkshire Police more than five years to apprehend, despite interviewing him face-to-face nine times.
That widely criticised investigation – the problems, the paperwork and the profound effect it had upon British law enforcement – is at the heart of The Incident Room, the new devised docu-drama from London’s laudable New Diorama Theatre. It’s the company’s first show since 2017’s superb Secret Life Of Humans.
Created by David Byrne, Olivia Hirst and Beth Flintoff, it’s set in the Millgarth Incident Room, the epicentre of the manhunt – a messy office piled high with filing cabinets and folders in Patrick Connellan’s likeably lived-in design. Over 90 minutes, through a series of short scenes spread across five years, Byrne, Hirst and Flintoff unfold the investigation, blunders, blind alleys and all.
It’s completely compelling to watch, swiftly but smartly following the taskforce as they scramble about for leads. They try tracing tyre tracks. They try following a fiver found in a victim’s handbag. They try talking to anyone regularly seen in red light districts. They fall hook, line and sinker for the famous fake messages left by a Geordie hoax.
Meanwhile, fresh evidence keeps appearing, news clips about new murders are periodically projected on to the back wall, and a camera dangling above the stage provides an eagle-eye view of their fruitless search.
Accusations of misogyny are often aired when it comes to stories like this, understandably. But what sets this show apart is that it aims to put women – the victims, the investigators and the jobbing journalists – centre stage. It’s not really about the gory details, it’s about the systemic sexism of an outdated and inefficient police force, and of a wider society that gleefully gobbled up the grisliness of the crimes.
That’s why it has Charlotte Melia right in the middle. She plays Sergeant Megan Winterburn, a crucial but often overlooked cog in the crime squad, investing her with an endearing world-weariness at the naked chauvinism of her superiors. Also foregrounded are Tanya Vital’s Tish Morgan, a bright, budding reporter with the Yorkshire Post, and Katy Brittain’s Maureen Long, a survivor who brings both comic relief and cruel tragedy in the knowledge that she will always be known as the one that got away.
True crime was meant to be one of the themes of this year’s festival, but many of the shows have failed to fire. Here’s one that hasn’t. The Incident Room, like a lot of the work made by and supported by the New Diorama Theatre, is intelligent, imaginative and, most of all, damn interesting.