jakub | August 13, 2023

Playbill Pick: The Quality of Mercy: Concerning the Life and Crimes of Dr Harold Frederick Shipman at the Edinburgh Fringe

Playbill Goes Fringe

Playbill Pick: The Quality of Mercy: Concerning the Life and Crimes of Dr Harold Frederick Shipman at the Edinburgh Fringe

Edwin Flay gives a remarkable performance as a serial killer, in this must-see for true crime devotees.

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

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with nearly 3,500 shows. This year, Playbill is in Edinburgh for the entire month in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!

As part of our Edinburgh Fringe coverage, Playbill is seeing a whole lotta shows—and we're sharing which ones you absolutely must see if you're only at the Fringe for a short amount of time. Consider these Playbill Picks a friendly, opinionated guide as you try to choose a show at the festival.

When Edwin Flay was a child, his primary care physician was Dr. Harold Shipman. That British doctor treated him and his grandmother, Renee Lacey. And that doctor also murdered Flay's grandmother, and around 250 other people. And now, Flay is playing Shipman on stage, in a one-person show at the Edinburgh Fringe: The Quality of Mercy: Concerning the Life and Crimes of Dr Harold Frederick Shipman. In it, Flay so convincingly channels the motivations and neurosis of a serial killer, it's scary. Consequently, the show goes beyond a compelling true crime narrative to be almost a ritual exorcism. 

The Quality of Mercy is deceptively simple on the outset. The set is just a bed, a table, and a boombox. Thanks to some clever sound design, Flay is able to easily transport the audience through almost 40 years of Shipman's biography—from his early days watching his mother die from lung cancer and how it inspired him to become a doctor as a way of easing people's pain, to the hospital where he began illegally euthanizing patients, to the private practice that he founded where he escalated that behavior, and finally the jail cell—which is where he is recording his story onto a cassette. Indeed, in real life, there was a taped interview with Shipman where he calmy talked about how he committed his murders. I recommend a read of the transcript if you want to not sleep tonight.

Flay has an everyman quality to his acting. Dressed in slacks, button down, and cardigan—he delivers information in such an even-handed, gentle tone that you want to believe him. Even if the way he flexes his hands or the way his eyes darken at certain moments make you realize there's something more sinister here.

Flay also wrote the script for Quality of Mercy, and the genius of his portrayal of Shipman is the character has absolute conviction in his actions. After all, most villains don't think that they're villains. They justify themselves in a compelling manner. Flay successfully pulls the viewer in. At the beginning, you understand his reasoning—such as when he says of terminally ill patients who are suffering, “Inflicting pain, that's the greatest cruelty I can imagine. Taking it away, I can't think of nothing nobler.” 

As the play progresses, as Shipman becomes addicted to killing people, his methodical nature never falters. In Flay's portrayal, the doctor can seem megalomaniacal when he talks about gaining “the power over life and death.” But when he is making a house call to a patient, he is tender and gentle—before killing them. The contrast is chilling. Even moreso because there is only one scene in the play where the audience witnesses Shipman murdering someone—and the person lying on the bed in that scene is Flay's grandmother. 

Quality of Mercy smartly never lets you sympathize with Shipman completely; on the screen behind Flay is a projected display of the names of people Shipman killed—and the names increase as the play progresses.

Shipman is a popular figure at this year's Fringe (he has another show where he is a major character, which Playbill previously covered). No wonder U.K.-ers are so fascinated—it's a wild true story. In an essay Flay penned about why he wrote the play, he said that he wanted to ask questions about what failures of society enabled Shipman's crimes. Quality of Mercy more than succeeds in that aim, compellingly telling a story that will shock and disturb you, leave you on the edge of your seat the whole time, and haunt you long after you leave. For me, I left hoping that, through Flay's remarkable work, that some ghosts will finally be able to rest.

The Quality of Mercy: Concerning the Life and Crimes of Dr Harold Frederick Shipman is running at theSpace @ Surgeon's Hall until August 26. Learn about the other shows that Playbill recommended in this space here.

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