Park Theatre (Park 90)
Presented as a partner to The Knight from Nowhere, a dramatic biography of Sir Henry Irving played as the first part of this double bill, The Bells was the play that made the actor’s name and his most popular success.
Set in a remote village in Alsace, it is the seasonal story of Burgomaster Mathias, haunted by the murder of a Polish Jew, a travelling trader whom he had killed on Christmas Eve fifteen years before, right to the day.
Christian, the local gendarme who is about to marry Annette, Mathias’s daughter, has dugout details of the unsolved killing. The body was never discovered; he thinks it may have been burned in one of the local lime kilns. Now Mathias, but no one else (except the audience), keeps hearing the sound of the Jew’s sleigh bells. Will the killer be uncovered?
This isn’t the sort of melodrama you can send up. It has to be taken seriously, as Lucy Foster’s production does, but as part of this Irving commemoration it echoes a nineteenth century style of playing.
It is good to hear modern actors with the rich delivery of Will Seaward as Father Walther, but not all can handle it so deftly and in such close proximity, enclosed on three sides by its studio audience. To be over-conscious of performance makes it harder to get caught up in the story.
Perhaps entirely naturalistic playing might be more effective, as in the less obviously modulated playing of the young bridal couple by Garry Summers and Alexandra Parry, more matched to this space.
That doesn’t stop a dream sequence with John-Paul Conway’s hypnotic (in both senses) murmuring Mesmerist extracting Matthias's confession from being effective. It give the actor playing Matthias an opportunity for bravura playing which he must then top on his next entrance.
Andrew Shepherd’s guilt-stricken Matthias is very dramatic but it doesn’t make the blood run cold. Perhaps it needs more chiaroscuro to help create a truly chilling curtain.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton