Beyond Belief, Library Theatre, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

If anyone knows how to compress a two-year inquiry into a two-and-a-half-hour documentary-drama, it is Dennis Woolf, whose previous work includes reconstructions of the Birmingham Six appeal, the Australian Spycatcher trial, and the epic McLibel case.

If anyone knows how to compress a two-year inquiry into a two-and-a-half-hour documentary-drama, it is Dennis Woolf, whose previous work includes reconstructions of the Birmingham Six appeal, the Australian Spycatcher trial, and the epic McLibel case. Having failed in his efforts to have the public inquiry into the murderous actions of Dr Harold Shipman broadcast, he has since sifted through pages of transcripts to create Beyond Belief: Scenes from the Shipman Inquiry.

Both Woolf and the director Chris Honer have done excellent work in presenting this résumé of volumes of words, fragmentary pieces of evidence and countless emotions. The subject matter is completely unsensationalised. In fact, the most dramatic event in the evening is the opening of a window, and even that takes place offstage. As we take our seats, the officials on the replicated council chamber set are quietly preparing for the morning ahead, for the years even. The house lights are not fully dimmed, and when the hearing adjourns for a break (the interval), no one claps. At the end, the applause is muted, although the performances and production have been enthralling, and the actors deny themselves any curtain call.

In Honer's simple production, the face of each actor is projected on to a screen as he or she speaks, while examples of written evidence are called up on another screen. Not having attended the inquiry, I relied on others to assure me that Romy Baskerville captures the fierce intelligence and authoritative presence of Dame Janet Smith, who chaired the proceedings. Of the half- dozen lawyers featured here, Cate Hamer gives a sympathetic yet penetrating performance as Caroline Swift, QC, handling the bulk of the questioning in this reconstruction. Each member of the ensemble is convincing as one or other of the many witnesses called - from a nervous, mousy Primrose Shipman (Joan Kempson), incapable of remembering very much (and still, at the time of the inquiry, trying for an appeal on her husband's behalf), to a prickly Robert Gray (Simon Molloy), blustering on behalf of the General Medical Council.

The most touching comments, inevitably, come from the ordinary, innocent people drawn into Shipman's web, especially those who had lost not one but several loved ones, making all of us with elderly relatives want to hug them closer.

Some of the witnesses still seemed slightly bemused that such an apparently caring GP could have behaved in so evil a way; others, including his practice manager (assuredly played by Kate Layden), convey only burning anger at his betrayal. Here was a case of such bizarre circumstances and such unimaginable proportions that, early on, no one knew what to think or how to approach it. And the police don't come out of it with much credit, either: the presentation of a note to take a "look-see" into the sorry business raises a wry chuckle, in an otherwise subdued, if fascinating, evening of non-theatre.

To 20 November (0161-236 7110)

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