The Incident Room at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: decent, but forgettable
The first thing that I think upon entering Pleasance 2 is ‘this show looks expensive’. In the tall, spacious venue, stacks of filing cabinets stretch some five or six meters into the air whilst a realistically set-up office environment sits in front of us. Patrick Connellan has worked wonders with this space – transforming it into an oppressive bureaucratic nightmare.
It’s into this very environment that the cast walk – following the fifth murder by a serial killer who will shortly become known as the Yorkshire Ripper, the police have decided to set up the Millgarth Incident Room. They’ve only done so because the fifth victim is an ‘innocent’ schoolgirl – the rest were prostitutes, who society has little care or respect for.
Charlotte Melia’s Sergeant Megan Winterburn is the heart and soul of the play – an intelligent, empathetic and skilled officer who’s frustrated at every turn by her male superiors, who promote the men in the room on the basis of her work whilst she takes the blame for their pitfalls. When one of the victims – Katy Brittain’s Maureen Long – manages to survive her attack, however, Winterburn is tasked with befriending and accompanying her in order to spot the Ripper. Unlike the men in the room, who aren’t able to find the correct wavelength on which to treat Long, Winterburn almost instantly uses her empathy and charm to bond with her charge, and it’s genuinely moving to see these two characters facing-off the patriarchal world together.
The investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper took years and became notorious for being completely incompetent – a national disgrace. Olivia Hirst and David Byrne’s play goes to truly impressive lengths to dramatize the complete chaos of the investigation – with bosses fading in and out and a complete collapse of meaningful hierarchy or direction in order to get anything done. The paperwork builds and builds and builds, the set creaks and tips, sending sheets of paper scattering all over the set at periodic intervals. Projections onto the files show news footage of the progressing situation, and sometimes give us a birds-eye view of the room in real time, to show the cast examining maps or collating evidence. Throughout, the team are never any closer to solving the mystery.
The problem with this true-life conceit in a theatrical context is that the play quickly feels repetitive and pointless – a group of people shouting at each other and coming up with broken strategies that they’re never able to follow-through on. At an hour and a half, The Incident Room easily feels three-hours long. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when the minute-to-minute storyline is kind of pointless (most of the show’s themes and ideas have ran out within the first 30 minutes), you do begin to wonder what you’re doing here watching this play when you could be out there seeing something more interesting, thought-provoking, or memorable. The whole thing is a bit ‘and this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened’ – there’s not a trace of artistry or depth in what essentially becomes a dull, second-rate Netflix documentary.
Confusingly, too, the energy this show does have comes from it’s more thriller-like moments: the knowledge that women are being killed with alarming frequency, and that the countdown is perpetually on to find the killer before he kills again. But, simultaneously, the script of The Incident Room makes its disapproval of sensationalism clear and features a memorable speech railing against reducing women to victims. You can’t make a show which draws its energy – it’s vast crowds, too, I may add – from a morbid fascination with true crime, profit from that energy narratively and financially, then claim that you’re morally superior to that fascination. You’re not.
Ultimately, as well, the piece’s thematic slate is – like most large-scale theatrical work I’ve seen at this year’s festival – basic, underdeveloped, and aimed at the lowest common denominator. Aside from its hypocritical stance on victimisation, the play lays out blatant sexism in front of our eyes. So, naturally, we condemn it – ‘this is wrong’, we think. But it’s so uncontroversial, so safe, so much what we already know about the workplace (especially in the 70’s) and gender politics that it becomes yet another circlejerk at a liberal arts festival. What’s the point of this play? There’s no personal development, we don’t learn anything as a result of it (aside from the particulars of the criminal case), and it leaves little to no impact.
Visually, then, The Incident Room is incredibly impressive: those filing cabinets, the constant movement and disarray, the projections and eeriness. The cast is absolutely fantastic – as top-tier you’re likely to see in any theatrical Fringe production this year. The play, too, has its moments – moments of sadness, dramatic irony, tension and creepiness. But altogether, I just can’t help but be underwhelmed by the entire experience. It becomes dull, shallow, and hypocritical – worst of all, forgettable.