Student Review: Hell’s Bells by Joshua Shane Watts

An immersive and endlessly entertaining 1920’s murder mystery, doused in layers of subtle social commentary.

Thu 21 Mar, Northcott Theatre
by Joshua Shane Watts

Hell’s Bells production photo. A small hexagonal room in a lighthouse, with shelves, thermometers, naval charts and revolvers displayed on the cream walls. Two people sit at a table: a man in a colourfully striped blazer reading a book with a furrowed brow and pillowy neck; a woman in a grey skirt suit looking through a polished wooden box.

Miracle Theatre’s iconic pink van cruised into Exeter this March to deliver a highly anticipated performance Hell’s Bells – having started their tour down in Cornwall in early February. Living up to raving reviews from Cornish crowds, Miracle made the absolute most of their two short nights at the Northcott on the evenings of the 21st and 22nd.

Written by Bill Scott and performed by trio Anna Munden, Ben Kernow and Ben Dyson, every aspect of the performance does an incredible job of immersing the crowd into the minds of an early 20th-century audience. Acting style, set design, scoring, and even the intricacies of the audience interaction all make entering the venue akin to stepping through a portal to the past.

In the year 1924 – which is to say, “the present” – the audience follow eccentric self-described “Detective Inspector” Ferelith and her endearingly incompetent father Grubb. Their beachside holiday is terribly derailed as the mysterious drowning of a local lighthouse keeper thrusts the two on an adventure, packed with mystery and comedy aplenty.  

Hell’s Bells does not shy away from addressing the social ideology of its time, particularly regarding the treatment of women, as Ferelith battles frequent misogyny to get her way. The script is a perfect blend of social commentary and entertainment, delivering in equal parts a stupefying mystery and a thoughtful investigation into human nature itself. 

Sitting in the front row on Thursday gave me a fantastic view of the stage, the actors, and in turn, “the wonder that is cinema”! It was a fantastic surprise to see such a creative and impressively convincing silent film segments in the second act – it’s a nifty trick, allowing for effects which would be difficult to reproduce onstage without sacrificing period authenticity.  

Hell’s Bells production photo. A man wearing a woolly hat stands on a rocky landscape and looks at his own hands with wonder. He is seen through a circle of greenish light. Everything else is black.

Final Thoughts

Suffice it to say, Hell’s Bells tells a tremendously entertaining story performed by a uniquely talented cast. Wonderfully executed multi-rolling immerses one fully in the mysterious seaside town, teeming with spirited characters. It’s a thrilling experience from beginning to end. 

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