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Review – The Incident Room – Royal Court Studio, Liverpool

OLIVIA Hirst and David Byrne’s play The Incident Room was originally written for New Diorama Theatre for performances in Edinburgh and London in 2019-20. Following the investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper serial killings, it casts a critical eye on the culture of misogyny in the police force and the wider community, as well as the sheer incompetence that hampered progress. It also highlights the strangely symbiotic love-hate relationship that exists between the law and the press.

Director Alex Carr and Old Fruit Jar Productions brought the play to Liverpool’s Black-E in June, and by popular demand it has returned for a longer run at the Royal Court’s basement studio.

While New Diorama’s presentation of the work attracted some criticism for cashing in on the very same morbid fascination that the public have for a murder investigation which it criticises itself,  Carr’s production succeeds in finding a comfortable balance between the play’s conflicting demands and messages.

Tempers are fraying in the Millgarth Incident Room, where a task force has been assembled of officers from various local constabularies. The stubbornness and rivalries between them cause currents of resentment, mistrust and lack of cooperation, whilst the testosterone laden atmosphere fuels an attitude that scorns the few female officers present almost as much as it does the victims of the killer.

Sgt. Megan Winterburn finds herself forming an unexpected alliance with journalist Tish Morgan. Both are trying to assert their worth in the male dominated worlds of the police and the media, and both are finding it an uphill struggle. Meanwhile the various senior officers present are too focused on their continual game of one-upmanship to take notice of the genuine progress being made by either Megan or the younger detective Andrew Laptew.

In an impressively decorated set which fills the wide stage of the Studio (and spills out into the room) the nine strong ensemble cast fill the space with noise and energy. Florence King rightly takes centre desk and centre stage as Megan Winterburn, splendidly balancing the conflicts of determination and frustration in her character. Her unlikely ally Tish Morgan is played by Christina Rose, who almost single handedly signposts the passage of time through the development of her character from an ambitious rookie to a successful investigative reporter.

Other notably strong performances come from Luke Seddon as George Oldfield and Josh Ennis as Dick Holland, as well as Jordan Barkley as the young Andrew Laptew. Meanwhile Jamie Peacock delivers a stunning turn as the wrongly accused taxi driver Terence Hawkshaw, who suffers under some unconventional but all too common questioning techniques.

Anthony Roberts has a job on his hands playing the frankly vile senior detective Jim Hobson, probably the most unsympathetic character in the piece, a task he undertakes with some relish. Roberts however also has another part to play, as detective Jack Ridgeway, who fights to bring some strategy to a haphazard investigation. The cast is completed by Ciara O’Neill who brings us some light relief as the optimistic officer Sylvia Swanson, and Rachel McGrath who brings us Maureen long – one victim of Sutcliffe who survived to tell the tale, and who gamely takes part in the force’s covert operations.

The Incident Room is a powerful and fascinating study and, as this production shows, it is not so much capitalising on the audience’s relish for a murder hunt as revealing how institutional attitudes and incompetency can allow a perpetrator to keep on killing.

Star rating: 4½ stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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