Theatre

Harold Shipman murdered my grandmother. Now I’m playing him onstage

Actor and writer Edwin Flay’s grandmother was one of the 250 people killed by GP Harold Shipman. Here, Flay explains why he's bringing this deeply personal story to the stage.

"If anyone had a right to write a play about his crimes, it was me," Flay as Shipman. Image: supplied

Harold Shipman was one of the most prolific serial killers in modern history, with an estimated 250 victims. Actor and writer Edwin Flay’s grandmother was one of the people Shipman killed. It wasn’t until Flay started researching the case that he fully realised Shipman was not helping the elderly and terminally ill to let go. He was actually “a narcissistic psychopath addicted to murder”. Flay explains why he decided to bring this deeply personal story to the stage at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. 

After his arrest, my initial reaction to the news was, “Bloody hell – he was my GP”. 

When I was a small child, I never minded going to the doctor. I dimly recall a kindly man with a big bushy beard, who had a gentle touch and a bowl of midget gems on his desk for a good child who didn’t make a fuss. My mum was pleased I’d got onto his list, as he had a reputation for being the best doctor in Hyde. 

He was also doctor to my grandmother, who I last saw in May 1996. I travelled up from university with my mother, and we spent five days visiting her. Just three years after retiring, dementia had reduced this fierce, proud, loving woman to a frightened shadow of her former self. I distinctly recall her panicking twice on the first night, because two strange men – my uncle and I – were in the house, and she didn’t recognise us. 

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Between that and the cancer, it was a shock, but not a huge surprise to us to learn a few weeks later that nan had passed away. It was terribly sad, but having had an opportunity to say goodbye, we were able to grieve about as easily as anyone can. 

Four years later, my family were called upon to give evidence to the Shipman Inquiry, which concluded that he had killed my nan. I believe Shipman killed 29 other people in 1996. He was only convicted for one of those deaths. 

Twenty years later, when I first had the idea of writing the play, it was initially from the naive view of painting a more nuanced picture than the tabloids had: my mistaken assumption was that he had simply helped the elderly and suffering to let go, as I thought had been the case with my grandmother. 
 
I knew he’d been convicted of 15 murders, but I’d forgotten just how many victims the Shipman Inquiry had found. As soon as I did the most basic research, however, I realised that he was completely irredeemable: a narcissistic psychopath addicted to murder, who used everyone around him to bolster his own self-esteem. His narcissism was fed both by curing people and by killing them. I binned my notes and abandoned the project. 

Flay playing Shipman in The Quality of Mercy. Image: supplied

The thing that drew me back was discussing the idea with other people, only to find they had the same faulty recollection as myself: people, it seemed, had forgotten the scale of his crimes, and were starting to assume a pragmatic motive, if not a benign one. I mentioned my idea of writing a play about Shipman to an acquaintance, and she said, “Oh yes, he helped a few old dears over the threshold.” And I had to tell her: “No, he killed 215 people, many of them perfectly healthy.” So I wanted to give the audience a similar shock to the one that I had experienced, and I felt that if anyone had a right to write a play about his crimes, it was me. 

Importantly, the play is not just about Shipman. It examines a variety of themes and poses the intractable problem for the justice system in dealing with unrepentant murderers: how there is no place in a just society for the death penalty, and yet in giving murderers a whole life tariff, we incentivise them to commit suicide. 

It’s not an easy play to perform: a solo show is always daunting, because there’s no safety net – no other actors to help you out of a jam, or to draw focus. I have a great technical team building the world of the play though, from Adam Bottomley’s understated lighting and Kirsty Gillmore’s evocative sound design to Neil Monaghan’s simple but devastating videography.  

Emotionally, it’s a hard ride as well: as my director Bernie C Byrnes highlighted in rehearsal, he’s a character with a very limited emotional palette, with sympathy only for himself, mostly swinging between complacency and pride, rage and contempt.  

There is one murder re-enacted on stage – that of Renee, my grandmother. Of all his crimes, it was the only one I felt I had a moral right to perform. It was by far the hardest scene to memorise, not because the lines are any harder than any others, but because I think I felt a subconscious reluctance to commit it to memory.  

The title The Quality of Mercy is not merely a nod to Shakespeare: thematically, the play is about death, and end-of-life care, and compassion for the dying, and euthanasia. It’s also about how deference to authority can make space for evil to thrive: in my mother’s witness statement to the inquiry, she observed that for as long as society fears discussing death, people like Shipman will have room to operate. 

Happily, the reaction from other Shipman survivors has been very positive. From the few that made the journey to see the original run, the consensus was that it was a story long overdue in the telling, and helped to satisfy a curiosity that had been gnawing at them for years. 

The Quality of Mercy previews from 26-28 July at The Assembly Rooms Theatre, Durham Fringe Festival before playing at the Edinburgh Fringe at The Space at Surgeons Hall, Grand Theatre from 4-26 (not 13) August. Find more information here

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