Courtyard Theatre, London – until 8 October 2022
Theatre doesn’t get much more personal than this. The Quality of Mercy is the story of serial killer Harold Shipman, written and performed by Edwin Flay – a patient of Shipman’s as a child, and the grandson of Renee Lacey, who died at the Hyde GP’s hands when she was just 63 years old. Set in his cell on the night Shipman will take his own life, the play sees him recording a final tape, looking back on his life and crimes, and attempting to justify his motivation for ending so many innocent lives.
As one might expect, the story is chilling – not least because Shipman himself is, for the most part, icily calm and entirely confident in his own righteousness. He sneers at comparisons with other serial killers, believing himself to be driven by a higher purpose than their “sweaty id and uncontrollable lust”.
And what’s terrifying is that to begin with, it almost makes sense; as we see Fred the helpless teenager watching his mother die slowly of cancer, and Shipman the charming young doctor treating a patient wracked with terrible pain, we can almost understand where that purpose might have come from. But as his crimes grow in number, it becomes apparent that he’s driven not by mercy but by ego, and the firm belief that only he should have the power to decide who lives and dies.
Despite Shipman’s obvious disdain for his victims – some of whom he openly admits he killed simply “to put them out of my misery” – the production treats them with infinite respect. As the play goes on, the names of his victims appear one by one on a large video screen at the back of the stage (credit to videographer Neil Monaghan), in a discreet but powerful tribute that also hammers home the shocking scale of Shipman’s crimes.
Through flashbacks, we get glimpses of the man’s compassionate bedside manner and affable interactions with colleagues, which go some way to explaining how he could have got away with it for so long – but even so, that wall of over 200 names, and the knowledge that he could have been stopped so much earlier, is quietly devastating.
Director Bernie C. Byrnes’ production is simply staged, with the bed in Shipman’s cell doubling as a sick bed where many of his victims meet their end, while subtle changes in lighting and sound (Adam Bottomley and Kirsty Gillmore respectively) differentiate between present day and flashbacks. But what lifts the production to another level is Edwin Flay’s performance, which manages to be both persuasive and repellent all at once. There’s no doubt Shipman claimed to be fulfilling some divine purpose, but Flay’s portrayal exposes his true motivation in the rare moments where he loses control of his own narrative. These are moments of the blackest humour, but very telling – each time Shipman is forced to stop, take a breath and literally edit the record – and for that reason, those few moments wield the most power.
Though hardly a cheerful watch (but let’s face it, it was never going to be), ultimately The Quality of Mercy is true crime done right. There’s no attempt to glamorise Shipman’s crimes, or even – perhaps despite first appearances – justify them. In the end the focus, rightly, is on his victims, and ultimately in the coming days, weeks and months, that wall of names is what I’ll remember.
The Quality of Mercy continues at the Courtyard Theatre until 8th October.
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