This production of The Bells is a revival of a 2004 adaptation of a Victorian psychological drama; described as ‘a great mid-winter chiller’ by the Unity, the sell-out run proved to be just that.
With what was in the 1880s a lengthy, three act melodrama now condensed into 75 minutes, The Bells tells the tale of wealthy and well-loved innkeeper Mathias, whose past comes back to haunt him when a severe storm recalls to mind the circumstances of a criminal act many years before. Set in Alsace, the story begins when the mountainside village is isolated in snowy weather. As the regulars recall the mystery of decades ago, despite all best efforts Mathias’s conscience comes to call…
A new work by the freshly revived Hazard Theatre, The Bells is directed by JMU tutor Mike McCormack (and company), who also stars as Matthias. The company also performs a live original score (courtesy of Sarah Llewellyn), and members of the cast can be found behind an instrument as likely as front of stage.
The bar is set high from the off; Graham Egerton’s set design is inventive and impressive, turning the Unity’s black box space from an inviting community pub to the Mathias family home. The band – visible on stage throughout – adds a real sense of atmosphere to proceedings, whether it’s through folk song or old fashioned sound effects; and the company excel themselves, as the play transforms from a simple-seeming tale of village life to a vivid, fantastical dreamscape.
The members of the company work well to create a connection an audience can really buy in to; Mathias’s daughter Annette (Roisin Fletcher) is betrothed to policeman Christian (Jake Norton) who may just unravel the whole mystery, and the drama of the piece is balanced out by kindly, comedy priest Father Walter (Liam Murphy), simple countryman Hans (Chris Tomlinson) and the apple of his eye, put-upon barmaid Sozel (Isobel Balchin).
But when Mathias’s fate is sealed, things escalate into a nightmare of a final act; the cuddly characters of the village become a grotesque chorus, and the pressure builds until there is nowhere left to hide.
A rich, vivid and gripping production, the drive and imagination of Hazard Theatre easily puts it on a par with the more established touring companies to be found on the Unity’s stage. As a Points of View correspondent would put it, “more please”.
Photograph by Fiona Filby