Review: Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?
Image: The Space
Cast and creatives
Hagley Woods, Worcestershire, 1943: four boys find a human skull hidden in a tree.
Police then discover the partial skeleton of a female.
Despite countless enquiries, the woman cannot be identified.
Then the messages appear.
Tracing a case that has baffled investigators for 70 years, Pregnant Fish have been given access to police documents in order to try to solve this murder on stage.
A mystery that stretches from Birmingham to Berlin, from Nazi spy rings to witchcraft, this is the perfect show for anyone with an interest in true crime.
We all love a mystery, don't we?
Well, the TV schedules are often awash with the likes of 'true crime' documentaries and reconstructions, so at least some of us must be attracted to them.
Murder mysteries seem to top the ratings in terms of popularity, even though the death of a person is both immensely sad and rather chilling.
That doesn't stop us wanting to hear about unsolved murders or to rake over evidence to try to discover who did the killing and why.
Pregnant Fish Theatre have latched-on to a particularly strange murder mystery and turned to evidential sources to cast more light on an unsolved case.
Image: Pregnant Fish Theatre
Back in 1943 - at the height of the Second World War - boys scavenging for rabbits to augment meagre family war-time rations decided to look for some birds' eggs and came across a human skull lying inside a tree.
When police investigated, they found a human body had been placed inside the arboreal cavity.
Extensive pathological examination determined that the body had been placed there before rigor mortis had set in, suggesting this was a deliberate act of murder.
Later, chalked messages started appearing round the area where the body had been found, enquiring "Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?".
There's no doubt that writers Leah Francis and Tom Drayton have done a thorough and exhaustive examination of the archival sources, sifting all the evidence and following connections, for this is not merely one single case.
But as new leads and other incidents emerge, the plot begins to get overly complex with twists and turns that seem to stray away from the central murder, and that doesn't make this an easy story to follow on a first hearing.
The spoken word here is all real - the dialogue is drawn from witness statements, reports and the like.
Some of it is 'noise' rather than pertinent evidence, which seems to be symbolised when all the cast speak together.
That can be a little distracting and jarring at times, even though salient matters do still surface.
In their trademark style, Pregnant Fish Theatre rely on an almost non-existent production budget to bring this mystery to the stage.
Simple sticks are used not only as pointers but also collectively become the tree where the body was found, and when they stand in blocks they also become an effective wood.
Tom Drayton's pacy direction also relies fairly heavily on projected facts and images, and with the use of recorded tapes, and microphones to change the timbre of speech, there's a commendably strong multimedia feel to proceedings.
The central case is fascinating and more than worthy of dramatising - it certainly seemed to keep the audience 'hooked' throughout.
But the story as it stands is a complex, interwoven collection of events and evidence that feels overwhelming, suggesting it might benefit from judicial pruning to help us see the real wood from the trees.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for The Space
Our show listing for Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?
Read our reviews' policy