“We are not telling a story. We are presenting the evidence,” is one of the introductory statements of Pregnant Fish Theatre’s latest production Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? Taking lead from the renaissance of the true crime genre in recent years, as seen with the popularity of shows like Making a Murderer, the company takes to the stage at The Space on the Isle of Dogs this March to see how the genre can fair in the theatre.
Tori Brazier, Bibi Francis, Leah Francis, Patrick McHugh and Hannah Tate appear on stage together to present the case of a body found in a hollow tree in Worcestershire in 1943. Every word spoken during the play comes from genuine interviews, case files, documents and newspaper clippings surrounding the case, which have been provided to the group by the Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service.
It is unsurprising then that there is a lot of information to be shared in a sixty-minute play. It’s surprisingly hard work for the audience, who find themselves trying to listen to three conflicting voices talking over each other, while paying attention to what is being written and stuck on the chalkboard on stage and also trying to read the slideshow above. It is, at times, an information overload, but that is perhaps the point. In a case full of so many twists and turns, from witchcraft to Nazi spies, there is undoubtedly an inundation of contradictory information.
In one sense, the cast have no characters but in another they each have many. They switch between their various roles from witness to detective, stagehand to suspect, seamlessly. These transitions were made more compelling by the attempts at accents by McHugh. Meanwhile, Tate takes on perhaps the longest and most consistent character, historian Margaret Murray, and is entertaining and memorable in the role. Every member of the cast is evidently personally invested the case and it’s impossible not to catch their infectious enthusiasm.
The group quite literally performs the evidence with an interesting use of synchronised gestures and movements choreographed by Roman Berry, including one potentially messy stunt involving what I can only assume (or hope) is a hard-boiled egg. The addition of these movements livens up the basic staging of case files and wooden poles, all of which turn out to be essential props, whether as weapons, lights, chairs or otherwise. With the cast all donning similar navy overalls, the attention is not on any flamboyant showmanship but is instead on the evidence itself. It does seem a shame, however, that when it comes to the most recent developments in the case – a speculative and juicy part of the story dug up by writer and director Tom Drayton and co-writer Leah Francis – that the narrative is explained rather than performed. It risks feeling like a waste of all the effort they’ve gone to moments before.
For an hour of immersive entertainment that takes you through from the 1940s to 2018, Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? is a well-researched production performed by a passionate cast and will tell you many more stories than that of Bella alone.
Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? is playing The Space until 17th March 2018. For more information and tickets, go to space.org.uk.