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Edinburgh Fringe 2023

The Quality of Mercy: Concerning the Life and Crimes of Dr Harold Frederick Shipman

Nailed Productions

Genre: Biographical Drama, Drama, Historical, New Writing, Solo Play

Venue: The Spaces Surgeon's Hall


Low Down

From his cell in the early hours of the morning, Dr Harold Shipman records a confessional tape as he prepares to end his life. Patiently fashioning a crude noose, he reflects on the choices, compulsions and fascinations that cemented his place as the most prolific serial killer in British history.


Harold Shipman was a GP, who had trained in Leeds and began his medical career in 1970.  Between then and his arrest in 1998, he killed at least 215 and possibly as many as 260 of his patients, injecting them with lethal doses of painkillers. He committed suicide on the eve of his 58th birthday. One school of thought is that this was a deliberate choice to allow his wife, Primrose, to benefit from his pension. Although Shipman had been struck off and denied his NHS pension, Primrose was still entitled in it, if he died before he was 60.

No one can ever know exactly what went through Shipman’s mind before he committed suicide on January 13th 2004 but Edwin Flay, grandson of one his victims, Renee Lacey, provides a meticulously researched and plausible version.

As Shipman passes further into history this is an intense, dramatic and essential piece of theatre. It is easy to see a piece such as this as mere sensationalism, perhaps even that allowing a voice to such an ‘evil’ person (a tabloid device that neatly distances us from our own potential to do ill to our fellow man) is wrong. However, unless we explore the inner world of the Harold Shipman’s of this world, we have no hope of spotting a newer version or being aware that we need to bring up our children to understand and avoid these things.

We enter to a very simple set – a utilitarian bed. A table and chair and a cassette recorder. Shipman is sitting on the bed. He begins by inserting a cassette into the recorder and announcing that everyone else has told his story, it is time he told it.

Flay moves smoothly between scenes of Shipman’s childhood home, his training as a doctor, his work in hospital and then general practice. Background sounds are subtle but support the scene – prison, hospital, I was only really aware when they stopped and we had silence for the scenes in his childhood or a patient’s home.

It is no easy task to explore Shipman and his career of murder, especially from the starting point of a personal link to the events but Flay has created a believable Shipman, a man who sees himself as the hero of his own story.

Flay’s Shipman both draws us in and repels us at the same time, his clinical approach sounds initially so rational even though we know that what he is doing is murder, however he phrases it as helping because his victims had no say, it was not their choice, they had no agency. A very different thing to choosing to die.

A screen gradually reveals the names of the over 200 people Shipman is thought to have murdered. In many ways it is chilling and powerful; however, it also distracts a little from the story by drawing our focus away from the intense monologue being delivered below.

Flay’s portrayal allows the satisfaction that he gained from the killings to surface every so often as righteous anger – with his iron sense of control coming into play as he looks at the recorder, replays a phrase and then records over it in a calmer, controlled way. It would be interesting to see these moments explored through intensifying the control rather than losing it. It could be even more chilling than it is.

On the surface the piece could be said to raise questions about how we treat those with life limiting conditions, the debate about assisted suicide. I think the questions it raises are around the power we have traditionally accorded doctors: the inquiry identified numerous occasions when concerns were raised but no action taken, his record wasn’t spotless – he was disciplined for theft and opiate use. Even 20 years on we still see stories of the hostility and lack of action that whistle blowers in any field of care face.

Overall, this a powerful piece of theatre exploring what Shipman did, posing a rationale for why he did it  and, for me, raises the question about how he managed to avoid scrutiny, the lack of joined up thinking that might have brought justice sooner.