‘The only reason I’m in here is because I decided it’. Pulsing at the heart of this deeply personal one-man show is a God Complex of breath-taking audacity and callousness, set out from the confines of a solitary jail cell in Wakefield prison. Dr Harold Shipman (Edwin Flay) sits beside a tape recorder ready to, ‘set the record straight’ on his crimes, asking questions that may be too uncomfortable for the audience to face.
Building through Shipman’s early years and his relationship with his cancer-stricken mother, we learn how psychopathic arrogance helped him become the UK’s most prolific serial killer. But who gets to decide on when and how a person should die?
Flay’s central performance is a genuine slow burner – the first half seeks to construct a timeline for Shipman’s offending, interspersed with flashbacks to childhood, and though compelling enough, the second half is where the production’s best moments are allowed to seep into malignancy.
A clever use of props immediately shifts tone into something that feels increasingly desperate and uneasy, as Shipman records his unhinged revisionism and testimony. How can keeping evil people alive to exact justice be better than a ‘compassionate family doctor’ taking pain and suffering away from gravely ill patients?
Flay shoulders his grisly manifestation stoically, albeit with flashes of nuance, especially in a truly chilling scene recounting the death of Renee Lacey, made incredibly poignant by the fact she was his own Grandmother. However, the full gamut of Shipman’s delusional reasons for his crimes are explored far more fully than the intended sentiment of the piece – a desire to highlight the victims of these events. It is worth mentioning that, due to technical problems, the names of all 250 of those victims were unable to be projected as part of the staging for this performance, which may well have redressed the balance in some part.
The Quality of Mercy gives voice to a psychopath, albeit too successfully, but does raise interesting questions on the ability of society to play God when it comes to the true definition of justice.
The Quality of Mercy runs until Sat 26 Aug 2023 at theSpace @Surgeons Hall – Grand Theatre at 17:35