by Laura Kressly
Over the second half of the 1970s, a serial killer murdered at least 13 women in the North of England. He attacked many others. Determined to stop him, the West Yorkshire police assign a small team of staff to the case, using a paper system to pursue and track numerous leads. Hardened force veteran George Oldfield helms the investigation, and he is determined that they leave no stone unturned. Shut away in a dedicated room at Millgarth Police Station in Leeds, they comb through evidence, argue over approaches and race to catch the Yorkshire Ripper before another woman’s body is found. Yet, they have another enemy – the systemic misogyny and pride that cause chasmic blindspots in their investigation.
Olivia Hirst and David Byrne’s script spans years, yet in its focus on this single room and the activities within it, it’s suitably claustrophobic. They effectively endow the story with tension through the regular discovery of new victims, the immense pressure on the officers and their inability to make any progress. From the first scene, a sense of urgency propels the story forward. It doesn’t at all feel like its two-and-a-half hour running time.
Their narrative centres on Megan Winterburn (Charlotte Melia), a sharp and clever Sargent who is repeatedly passed over for promotion. Instead she is assigned the more menial tasks, such as typing reports and making tea, instead of being listened to. As the men around her bungle the investigation, she is consumed by the what-ifs and regret that will haunt her in later life. It deeply speaks to women, who recognise her plight now, decades later.
It’s infuriating to watch her be treated so badly, and this is amplified by an increasing body count and the investigators’ apparent haplessness. Yet Megan isn’t alone – her colleague Sylvia (Katy Brittain) seems totally unaffected by the rampant sexism, and reporter Tish Morgan (Nathasha Magigi), who visits her regularly, continually calls out the incompetence in the room. These women are invigorating despite the more powerful men around them dictating the course of action. We also see the mental health of many of the team members steadily deteriorating, adding another layer to the disintegrating yet relentless hamster wheel of the entire pursuit.
Designer Patrick Connellan has stacked grey filing cabinets from the floor to the ceiling, and heaped boxes of documents around the room. They add to those closeness of the atmosphere and indicate the heavy slowness of the whole affair. These design features also permit clever reveals whenever another victim is found dead, that only give a hint to the woman who’s life was so brutally taken. This suits the culminating message of the play – that in times of crisis, progress that has been made to achieve gender equality is wound back, and women are reduced to the stereotyped profile of ‘dead woman’. In times of crisis, our leaders’ true colours not only show, but cause real and lasting damage. This message hangs heavily in the air by the end, along with the ghosts of the women who the West Yorkshire police let down.
The Incident Room runs through 14 March.
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