The five-year manhunt for the serial killer dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper is meaty fodder for deliberation, having already inspired a host of documentaries and books on different aspects of the sprawling investigation.
One of those books, Michael Bilton’s Wicked Beyond Belief, is the primary source for this slick procedural production by London’s New Diorama Theatre. It pitches us straight into the incident room at Millgarth Police Station in Leeds, with its overwhelming blizzard of data catalogued in filing cabinets that form the claustrophobic backdrop to the 90-minute action.
And it is all action, even from this static location. Apart from one scene where Sergeant Megan Winterburn goes clubbing with surviving victim Maureen Long in the hopes of finding a face that matches her shifting description of her attacker – one of several bizarre strategies adopted during the investigation – the focus remains on the incident room where the toll on the team as the victims pile up is clear.
The decision to adopt the “West Yorkshire method” of meticulous paperwork was eventually to prove far too unwieldy to remain effective – sheaves of paper are thumbed or thrown, an overhead camera zeroes in on filing cards and dizzying statistics of the scale of the investigation are spat out by the officers as they become more harassed and desperate. Never more so than Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, played to heightened duress by Colin R Campbell, whose utter conviction that the Wearside Jack tape was a genuine recording of the Ripper’s voice moved the focus of the investigation away from Yorkshire to the cost of his health – and further victims.
Although the police in all their endemic misogyny are the dramatic focus of the play, the women remain in the picture throughout and their names and a sense of their lives is left to linger once the killer is caught and the incident room disbanded.