‘Sharp, funny, slick and humane, if only all days in class could be this life-enhancing.’
Watching high school kids spelling words out loud may sound like watching paint dry but THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE proves there’s joy in the most unlikely of settings. A Broadway hit in the 2000s, it’s a musical about 10 geeky kids competing for the prize in the title, with three pretty equally geeky adults supervising.
One of the twists is that four of the kids are randomly pulled from the audience, and it’s no spoiler to say that none of those will be making the final three. It’s sweet, it’s funny and, for all its sly references to the shady pasts of the teachers and imperfect homelives of its often hot-housed children, it’s thoroughly warm-hearted, too, as the competing kids find enough in common to make them friends of an awkward sort.
MKEC’s production hits loads of high notes with some superb comic timing from its ensemble cast and a few topical gags thrown in (one kid is asked to spell Windrush, and the definition is worth waiting for). It’s quick, inventive, and a brilliant use of the small but versatile space the Drayton Arms has to offer.
And the songs are fun, too (any musical that can rhyme Nietsche with Cristina Ricci is doing something right). On press night at least, the piano, though well played, was too loud for all the cast to be heard above it, but there isn’t a weak performance on the stage even if the singing honours go to Rona Lisa Perretti as the head-mistressy compere and the acting ones to Lottie Johnson as a relentlessly cheerful and energetic Logan and TJ Lloyd as the slobby genius Barfee.
The music, in truth, isn’t that great or distinctive, but the lyrics and book are terrifically funny, and it’s impossible to get through the first 10 minutes without laughing out loud. Sharp, funny, slick and humane, if only all days in class could be this life-enhancing.
Photo credit : ALEX HARVEY-BROWN at SAVANNAH PHOTOGRAPHIC
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Music and lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin - Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Director/choreographer Adam Haigh
Presented by MKEC Productions
Drayton Arms Theatre 29 May - 16 June 2018
Reviewer David Weir’s plays include: Lions of England (Powys Theatre, Newtown, 2018), Confessional (Oran Mor, Glasgow, 2017), Better Together (Brockley Jack, London, 2016), No Occasion To (Hayman’s Theatre, Perth, Australia, 2015), Music from a Distant Shore (Apollo Theatre, Newport, Isle of Wight, 2014), Bitter Looks (Brockley Jack, 2012) and Murdering the Truth (Greenwich Theatre, London, 2009).