Four women in the office share a secret. They are united by their love of true crime, an obsession that they had been too ashamed to share until discovering their fellow enthusiasts. ‘It feels like the sort of thing you should probably keep to yourself’, one of the characters explains, as another one talks excitedly about her love of ‘child murder’ – not adults murdering children, she clarifies, children murdering children. ‘There is a line’, she says defensively. Where exactly that line is located is explored in Caitlin McEwan’s new play, Bible John. When does harmless entertainment tip into morbid curiosity?
Bible John is the nickname given to a serial killer who murdered three women in 1969 he met at the Barrowlands dance-hall in Glasgow. He has still not been identified. In McEwan’s play, the office workers, played by Ella McLeod, Laurie Ogden, Lauren Santana and McEwan herself, voraciously consume a podcast that attempts to solve the case for once and for all. They get sucked further and further ‘down the rabbit hole’ of this quest until they end up in what even the characters deem ethically dubious territory. Lizzie Manwaring’s production becomes most compelling towards the end, when the modern characters insert themselves bodily into the case, dressing up as the murdered women and twirling hypnotically round the stage.
While the show includes some very funny send-ups of the true crime podcast genre, the podcast framing device distances the audience from the investigation, which makes the play lack suspense. The office workers are not given enough characterisation to differentiate them from each other. It’s as if the play has not decided on a genre – it is documentary-ish. The mode is declamatory; the performers spend a lot of time spelling things out, including how we should interpret the wider implications of the murders. They tell us, again and again, that what enabled the serial killer to keep on killing at the Barrowlands was the sexual repression and shame at the time. Women and men would go to the dance hall under pseudonyms to have extra-marital sex. ‘These women just wanted to dance’, the podcast host repeats.
The ethical ambivalence of enjoying true crime as a woman, when women are so often victims of violence in these narratives, is a fascinating starting concept for a play. The show begins with recordings of interviews with female true crime fans saying why they like it. A couple of them say that they listen to these podcasts as a kind of protection – learning what to look out for, the signs of a serial killer, how to be on your guard. I find it really depressing to hear women conceiving themselves as potential victims; morbid curiosity would be better. McEwan’s play captures a generalised, gendered anxiety – the ‘non-specific aura of fear’ in which many young women live. It expresses anger that women are living in fear of male violence, but never quite ascends from fear to empowerment. In delving into the gender politics of true crime, Bible John ends up contributing to the very thing it purports to criticise; it re-circulates a story of the victimisation of women for the entertainment of an audience. It is an equivocal play that is not completely in control of its own narratives.
Bible John is on at Pleasance Courtyard till 25th August. More info here.