THE INCIDENT ROOM at London's New Diorama Theatre
Jamie Samuel and Megan Winterburn in The Incident Room: photo Guy Sanders

It is the stuff of horror movies - unknown killer who mutilates his victims. Except this is no work of fiction but historical fact. It is the case of The Yorkshire Ripper, Peter William Slutcliffe, who took on a legendary and undeserved persona, much like his predecessor Jack The Ripper, as the press and public strove desperately to expose his identity over his five year reign of terror. There had been numerous theories, accounts and accusations until his long awaited arrest where all could breathe more easily, knowing at last he had been incarcerated despite being interviewed on nine previous occasions and released each time.

Co-directed by Beth Flintoff and David Byrne, The Incident Room written by Olivia Hirst with David Byrne approaches this moment in history from the angle of the West Yorkshire Police team who were criticised for their failure to catch Sutcliffe over a bungled and inefficient investigation. Was this prolific serial killer caught by the perseverance and tenacity of the force led by Inspector George Oldfield and its sergeant Megan Winterburn and Detective Sergeant Dick Holland? It would seem only partly so. Found guilty in May 1981 of the 13 violent murders, Sutcliffe had been able to continue on his rampage because of the inefficiencies of the team and his capture was possibly a lucky break. His arrest can be attributed to two bobbies on the beat who were carrying out their routine rounds when they saw this suspicious individual and apprehended him, ultimately leading to his conviction.

As researched by the Creative Team, despite his incarceration, there would be no peace for his victims. Not for those who worked the case and who would forever be haunted by self-recrimination, regret and guilt; not for the one survivor Maureen Long who craved anonymity and normality but would never achieve it and not for the journalists, friends and family who were caught in this web of horror.

Most poignantly in the final moments of this devised drama was the scene with Megan and Maureen as they rued the lost lives of these 13 women: of the dances they would never enjoy, of the shopping they would never do, of the waiting for buses that would never be or the fun times with friends that they would not share. And all because of the bungling investigation, missed clues and blind sightedness of those responsible for the chase.This was a powerful epitaph written touchingly by Hirst and Byrne, capturing the raw emotion of this heartbreaking story of lost lives and freeing it from the filing cabinets of the incident room. Maureen would always be a victim, despite her surviving the attack; Megan too would be a victim to the guilt and oppression experienced as a woman in a male dominated force and the deaths of the 13 women would be an eternal stain on the police force.

In Patrick Connellan's set full of filing cabinets, creaking at the seams with unfathomable quantities of paperwork that would need to be sifted through in their quest to capture the murderer, the strain and frustration of the hunt was etched clearly on the faces and in the movements of the cast. The New Diorama Theatre affords a proximity in its studio layout and is an ideal setting for this production, allowing the audience to share those moments and to engage with the actors.
In tune with the 70s, the production has captured the male toxic machismo of the day and the misogyny that prevailed in so many formal institutions, in particular the police force. Unlike so many productions that we see in theatre and on television, where women take lead roles and supervise their male teams, this was not the case back in the day. Women were fighting for equality and inclusion and this strand forms a central theme here. Megan was a victim of male prejudice and the murdered women were likewise.

Such was the arrogance and bias of the force at the time, who laid blame on the sex workers as 'asking for it' because of their life style and so denied the investigation the gravitas it needed, missing so many initial clues. It was not until the murder of 16 year old Jayne MacDonald that they stepped it up a notch, shown clearly in Inspector Oldfield's comment that it was time to take things more seriously 'now that an innocent woman is dead'. Such blind judgement was unforgivable and contributed to what might have been avoided.

Thoroughly researched, effectively staged and played with conviction by the devising cast of 7, this 2 hour plus production was a powerful homage to the memories of those women and to what might, no should, have been. The Incident Room is a powerful drama that deserves a place in our theatre as an acknowledgment to those victims who were so betrayed.


New Diorama Theatre, 
15-16 Triton St, London NW1 3BF - close to Warren Street/Euston Square stations.
Playing until 14 March 2020
Tue - Sat 19:30 hrs Sat afternoon 15:00 hrs
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (including an interval) 
Ticket price £16
Tel: 0207 303 9034