Review: The Quality of Mercy at The Courtyard Theatre, London

Wednesday 28th September 2022 at The Courtyard Theatre, London


Reviewer: Maygan Forbes

With the popularity of the controversial Dahmer Netflix series having social media in a chokehold, it’s fair to say serial killers are popular right now. Or, the media version of serial killers anyway. But these versions are never written by the victims. The Quality of Mercy is a piece of investigative theatre, exploring with unflinching candour the motives of Britain’s most prolific serial killer, and interrogating society’s attitudes towards death, justice and compassion.

The Quality of Mercy however is different. The play begins in darkness with a low vibrational hum rippling through the audience, for those unfamiliar with the crimes of Harold Shipman, the sinister scene has been secured. Regardless of your prior knowledge, the audience are locked into the stage and for the next hour, and it’s a living, breathing nightmare. Harold Shipman (played by Edwin Flay) was a GP who used his advantage with access to medical resources as a method to murder his victims; the patients at his surgery and beyond.

The Play, also written by Flay, is told from a particular unique perspective as Flay himself was a former patient of Shipman’s from childhood. His family lived in Hyde throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s and his grandmother, Renee Lacey, was one of Shipman’s victims, aged just 63. In an effort to understand this senseless crime, Flay conducted extensive research into Shipman’s career, including a thorough examination of the Smith Report into Shipman’s history and motivations. Among the records he found the details of his own family’s evidence to the inquiry when Dame Smith reviewed Ms Lacey’s death, all of which directly informed the crafting of the play.

A confessional one man show told from Shipman’s jail cell shortly before he hangs himself, Shipman is revisiting history from his awkwardly disturbed relationship with his mother, to the inception of the murders and the perverted sense of justice he felt whilst committing the crimes. It’s creepy and sadistic and so so so good. There is no redemption arc or good traits that serve to humanise or add a sense of empathy to Shipman’s character. Flay presents him as he is, cruel and callous. What adds to the cruelty is Shipman’s sense of entitlement over human life and his position as some kind of medical God. Flay hypes up Shipman’s over-inflated ego and his quality as a doctor is confirmed by his repeated fact that he was able to pass his medical exams (the bar is low).

Directed by Bernie C Byrnes, to add to the sinister aspect on stage, a projection of a black screen with the names of all of Shipman’s documented victims are reflected back to us. These names appear one by one at first, with Flay justifying each initial victim the names pop up on screen. However towards the end, the names almost seem to multiply and then triple and quadruple and before you know it, you can’t keep up with the speed the names are appearing on screen.

It’s an incredibly subtle yet haunting display of the killings. This inclusion along with the low hum sound, it feels violent. It feels as though something violent is happening to us as the audience but I can’t quite put my finger what exactly. If you’re sensitive to violence or themes that hint to it, this is not the play for you. Whilst the violence is never depicted physically on stage, Flay is such a brilliant story teller that the implication is strong enough to feel real.

As a self-proclaimed hypochondriac, this play was my worst nightmare. And as Flay writes: the hypochondriacs were the easiest kill for Shipman because they anticipate it before anything else. But also, this play is such a compelling example of the universal belief that “doctor knows best” even to society’s detriment. The play is so well-researched and the execution unnerved me to my core.

The Quality of Mercy plays The Courtyard Theatre until October 8th 2022 – you can find more information and tickets here.

Images: Anne Koerber

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