There are shows that joyfully tie up loose ends before the end and assure the audience of a heart-warming happy ending. There are other shows in which half the characters die, and the ones that are left mourn those slain. Still other shows serve their own purposes, but most have some sort of plot. And then there’s Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm?. Its starting point is thus: “We are not telling a story. We’re presenting the evidence.”
There’s quite a lot of it, packed into an Edinburgh Festival Fringe friendly hour (ahem), as the show looks in considerable detail at the mystery case of a corpse discovered in a tree in Hagley Wood, Worcestershire, on 18 April 1943 by four local boys, Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne. If there was the occasional struggle to place words in the right order, this hardly mattered in what was an incredible feat, both individually and collectively, on the show’s cast (Tori Brazier, Bibi Francis, Leah Francis, Patrick McHugh and Hannah Tate), recalling all manner of dates, names and descriptions of events, circumstances and police leads.
What is particularly impressive here is how different elements of the production come together. There are two, sometimes three, and occasionally all the cast saying the same thing with the same tone and emphasis. This happens in musicals very often, of course, but it’s not often witnessed (at least not in my experience) in spoken word. Some of the choreographed movements may be occasionally superfluous and repetitive. They are also incredibly unrealistic: what sort of police official indulges in armography when describing the physical characteristics of a suspect? But having seen shows largely devoid of movement, where one might as well have been in another room or in the car listening to the dialogue as a radio play, the hustle and bustle of this production is most welcome.
It’s easy to maintain attention in a show delivered as engagingly as this, though I’m still a little nonplussed by at least one, albeit brief, scene – different characters are talking over one another, in such a way that nobody can be distinctly heard. I can only reasonably assume such sections contain information that ultimately didn’t have much relevance to solving the murder mystery, but this does beg yet another question to add to the many the production asks of itself: why put negligible details in at all?
The investigations into the case get increasingly desperate – there’s an attempt, for instance, to uncover details via a medium speaking to possible witnesses from beyond the grave. Some attention is also given to another murder victim in the area, whose name and other details are known, and there’s a harrowing plea from Josef Jakobs to George VI: the King did not give clemency. Jakobs, sentenced to death for espionage, had relations with Clara Bauerle, who might have died in suspicious circumstances and could have been the ‘Bella’ in the wych elm. This has since been ruled out as Bauerle had died in hospital on 16 December 1942.
The show itself leaves no stone unturned: as late as February 2018, further information was still coming to light, and the ending is rather unexpected. A young and vibrant company brings a 75-year-
old unsolved case in a thoughtful and balanced manner, with some palpable commitment to doing everything possible to resolving this enigma. Do they succeed? Well, I couldn’t possibly say.
Review by Chris Omaweng
‘Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm’ is a gripping new production investigating the internationally notorious case of ‘Bella’ – a skeleton found by four young boys inside a hollow tree in Hagley Woods, Worcestershire, 1943.
Despite the original detectives’ best efforts, the skeleton could not be identified. Until the messages appeared. Scrawled across walls in the local area, the graffiti simply asked: ‘Who put Lubella in the wych elm?’. The case exposed a trail from Birmingham to Berlin, from Nazi spy-rings to Occultist rituals, with each new line of enquiry uncovering even stranger mysteries. Unsolved for 75 years this sinister real-world murder case is being brought to life on stage by Pregnant Fish Theatre at The Space.
With special access to real police files, documents and photographs from the case, Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? is the culmination of a year’s worth of detailed research supported by the Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service. A cross between a true crime documentary and performance, the piece blends new evidence, personal accounts and previously unseen material to tell this disturbing tale in an entirely new way.
Tori Brazier, Bibi Francis, Leah Francis, Patrick McHugh, Tate Inez
Presented by Pregnant Fish Theatre
Written by Leah Francis and Tom Drayton with thanks to archival sources
Director Tom Drayton
Composers The Dagen Smiths
Movement Director Roman Berry
13th + 15th – 17th March, 2018
The Space Arts Centre, 269 Westferry Road, London, E14 3RS