Review by Oliver Wake
In 1943, the decomposed remains of a seemingly-murdered woman were discovered in a hollow in a tree trunk in Worcestershire. Neither the victim nor her murderer were ever identified, despite prolonged investigations. Outlandish theories suggested occult practices or Nazi spies had been involved, and, unsurprisingly, the case attracted hoaxers and fantasists. The victim came to be nicknamed Bella (or Lubella), after mysterious graffiti referred to her by this name.
Pregnant Fish Theatre’s Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? is a meticulously researched exploration of the case. Although it doesn’t advertise itself as such, it’s an example of ‘verbatim’ theatre – every word spoken is drawn from existing texts about the case, from police files to newspaper reports, books to personal letters. Bar a handful of brief exceptions, the cast of five do not take on characters but act simply as narrators. The trouble with this verbatim approach is obvious: these sentences weren’t written for reading aloud, let alone in a dramatic context, and are inherently wordy and undramatic.
Clearly alive to this danger, director Tom Drayton (who, with Leah Francis, wrote/adapted the play) and movement director Roman Berry attempt to inject visual interest by keeping their cast in motion. The performers flit rapidly from one brief tableau to another, taking on a variety of postures and wield wooden staves to represent tree branches or weapons. Largely this is helpful and effective, keeping the performance lively when it could so easily have become static, but one repeated bit of business involving raising and lowering a microphone by its cable serves only to create unwelcome longueurs. This, and the rather clunky use of a cassette player operated downstage, give the performance a slightly am-dram air at times.
When not in the hands of the cast, the staves (probably simply broom handles, in fact) provide one of the few components of set dressing. A handful of document archive boxes (rigged with lights at one point, to create an eerie underlighting to faces when the boxes are opened) and a blackboard complete the minimalist setting. Projection above the stage gives the origin of every sentence uttered, like footnotes in an essay. It’s a step too far, proving a little distracting and certainly unnecessary, with the list of sources printed in the programme already confirming the academic rigour applied in the play’s construction.
The delivery of the text (‘dialogue’ doesn’t really seem the right word) is kept varied, with rapidly alternating speakers and overlapping delivery. Frequently the cast gives the same line in unison but, on press night at least, this wasn’t always managed with the necessary precision, leaving some of these lines indistinct. There were also occasions where the cast stumbled with their lines or gave an approximation of what they should have been – which the audience could read for themselves when whole documents were projected overhead. Although disappointing, this can probably be attributed to the sheer amount of text the cast is called upon to deliver, and that this text was not written for vocal delivery.
Given the persistent mysteries of the ‘Bella’ case mean that there can be no great revelations at the play’s conclusion, it needs at least some grandiose theory or outlandish speculation to end on a note of excitement, but at best we get hints that there could be more evidence left to find. Indeed, the play presents plenty of information but, sadly, does little to interrogate it or put its own spin on the case. The whole thing is undramatic and, while never uninvolving, it sometimes feels more like a lecture than a piece of theatre. The programme explains that the project came about as a result of the company’s collective fascination with true crime podcasts and documentaries. It shows, and I can’t help thinking Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? would make a better podcast than it does a live performance. It’s not bad by any means, but it will suit audiences with an interest in true crime better than those looking for a more conventional dramatic fare.
Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? finished on 17 March but you can find upcoming projects on the production company’s website http://www.pregnantfish.co.uk/