By Charlie Thurston | 7th August 2023 | The Space @ Surgeon's Hall, Edinburgh Fringe Festival | 🍺🍺🍺🍺🍻

Opening and closing with audio snippets from historical interviews, written and performed by a former patient and relative of a victim, the Quality of Mercy offers a portrayal of a prolific serial killer that any true crime aficionado would enjoy. It’s more than that, though; behind the historical retelling is a thoughtful exploration of the criminal psyche and a delectably evil performance that makes Quality not merely a true crime retelling, but a deeply interesting play in its own right.

Shipman is brought eerily to life by Fray’s measured performance and carefully researched script. Outbursts of seething rage tear through on occasion, but the play is at its strongest in its quieter moments. Shipman is scariest when he is most unassuming; the justificatory motifs that litter his amicable prose become ever darker as the narrative reaches its conclusion.

The set and technical aspects of the show are simple and effective. The tape recorder atop Shipman’s desk lends a tactile punctuation to his ramblings, with his repeated stoppages and re-taping serving both to mediate the brewing tension onstage and inject it with dashes of black humour. The subtle soundscape makes itself known only occasionally through the rustling of keys or the nearby creak of a cell door, affirming the bleak prison scene without ever distracting from Fray’s monologue. Across the back wall, hundreds of names fade one by one into view as Shipman recounts his victims, a constant reminder of the horror unfolding behind the doctor’s quiet and amicable demeanour.

Most striking, of course, is the makeshift noose that Shipman nonchalantly assembles throughout the second half of the play. Sat quietly on his stool, methodically plaiting his own demise, Shipman’s defiant framing of his own suicide as the ultimate expression of his “work” is a darkly thematic conclusion to his narcissistic perceived mastery of life and death.

Not every moment in Quality is a winner. The occasional flashbacks are for the most part the weakest sections of the show, with the scenes of Shipman’s childhood particularly jarring. It is hard not to think that the same sections might be told more effectively from within the confines of Shipman’s cell. However, these small grievances are happily forgotten in the thrall of a show that is at once captivating and terrifying; for true crime fans and theatregoers alike, Quality of Mercy is a must-see.
The Quality of Mercy runs from 7-12th and 14-26th, 17:35. The Space @ Surgeon's Hall.