REVIEW: WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM? (The Space) ★
Tales of true crime are an obsession for the nation, and indeed, the world. From the latest Netflix documentary to the walking tours of Kray-land London and Ripper’s streets of Whitechapel, the macabre and often brutal side of life intrigues us all. And, it is certain this production, by Pregnant Fish Theatre, has delved deeper than most into an unsolved cold case.
However, the true story of the skeletal remains of an unknown woman, found inside a Wych Elm in 1943, has been poorly re-told in this outing from Leah Francis and Tom Drayton. Throughout the production there is clear evidence of research and an academic examination of what remains of the existing police files, but the re-telling leaves a lot to be desired and the audience trying desperately to keep up. A disclaimer at the beginning of the performance advises they are ‘…not telling a story but presenting the evidence’. A rather apt warning because the piece jumps wildly through the evidence, often out of chronological order, making the plot almost impenetrable except to the most determined audience.
Folklore, witchcraft, conspiracy theories, wartime-spy-adventures, and more rational explanations are all explored in this very short hour performance. Cramming all of the evidence into the available sixty minutes is no mean feat, especially so as at least ten minutes are dedicated to telling the story of Josef Jakobs, the last man executed – by firing squad – at the Tower of London. The link with the Wych Elm murder is so quickly explained that it is easily forgotten amid the pace and order of the evidence.
As you might expect, a production dealing with an unsolved murder case fails to finger the murderer but makes several ham-fisted attempts to do so. However, the most pertinent critique is two-fold; the repetitive movement direction, courtesy of Roman Berry (I’m not quite sure if the entire Macarena was actually performed but it certainly felt that way) and secondly, the persistent falling over of lines by the majority of the cast. The speech performance throughout was marred considerably; Patrick McHugh, quite possibly the only cast member not to stumble over his lines. But, joined the remaining cast, in their attempt at speech harmonisation, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. With a natural flaw in ability accounting for half of the problem here, a further fifty percent of responsibility can be attributed to the direction (movement and speech) this performance endured.
There is a story here, and it is as fascinating as it is mysterious, an ideal theme for a whodunit. Sadly, dramatic animation with broomsticks and dungarees might best sum-up this hour of what I can only describe as an after-school drama group gone terribly wrong.
Reviewed by Lee Knight