A couple of fellow passengers on the Tube home were passing the time by playing a game of word association. If I were playing the game and someone had said to me, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, I would have replied, “Wigs”. Both the child characters and their adult counterparts sport brightly coloured clothing and hairstyles, and I had a little fun working out who was whom from the headshots in the programme whilst I was sat waiting for the show to begin – the performers are already on stage as the audience files in.
I have no idea which Putnam County the musical is set in – a quick online search reveals there are nine: all that can be ascertained is that this is the Putnam Valley Middle School, and the audience is assumed to be parents and guardians of the pupil participants (that is, simply, that one should imagine actually booking for and attending a spelling bee). I would be lying if I said there was no audience participation – let’s just say you need not do anything if you do not wish to. Rather than use a stage revolve, there are fairly rapid movements of furniture and props.
For the completely uninitiated, then, a spelling bee is an inter-school competition that involves school-age pupils publicly spelling words out loud. The pupils are called ‘spellers’, and each is given a number to wear around their neck during the contest. They stand to spell words given to them by the bee judge and may request the judge to say the word again, define it, state its language(s) of origin and alternative pronunciation(s), and/or use it in a sentence. They must say the word, spell it, then say it again. So, for example, ‘Bee. B-e-e. Bee.”
The ‘Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee Rules and Procedures’ covers all sorts of eventualities – judges are not, interestingly, allowed to disqualify a speller “for failing to pronounce the word either before or after spelling it”. As far as this musical goes, whether schoolchildren are able to spell the likes of ‘apparatchik’ and ‘Beelzebub’ correctly isn’t, thankfully, the whole story. The background stories to the spellers, told through musical numbers that drive forward the narrative, reminded me of The X-Factor, where the participants’ often unfortunate personal circumstances are discussed. It does provide, admittedly, some character development. While at face value a lot of what is said and sung is hilarious, on deeper reflection this show is up there, or perhaps ‘down there’, with the darkest of comedies.
A lot of ground is covered in a relatively short running time (it could be performed without an interval, though this production chooses to have one). There’s even a subliminal commentary on – wait for it – the use of mobile telephones during live performances. Mental health issues come to the fore when a speller deliberately misspells a commonplace word in order not to have to endure any more of the pressure that comes with participating in spelling bees, and again when Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Michael Watson-Gray) momentarily loses his sense of perspective. The speller had at least a modicum of sympathy from much of the audience – but not from me. Bad sportsmanship is bad sportsmanship.
And yet, it is, overall, a remarkably hilarious show, and the melodies in the musical numbers can soar, even amongst the ‘pandemonium’, the musical’s own choice of word to describe what threatens to spill over into anarchy. While demonstrating, frankly, how vacuous the brainboxes of school classrooms can be, the performances are generally hammed up, maximising the comic effect. Some of the punchlines are close to the bone – for instance, a request to use ‘windrush’ in a sentence resulted in, “When no-one was looking, Theresa deported the Windrush generation”. At least this production managed to avoid name-dropping the 45th President of the United States and/or the 2016 UK referendum regarding you-know-what.
Elsewhere, Jesus Christ appears in a vision to one of the spellers. “This isn’t the kind of thing I care about,” He concludes, a statement which those who found themselves unable to appreciate the style of humour this musical goes for might well identify with. The choreography (Adam Haigh, who also directs) is energetic and effective, if a tad exhausting to watch. Stand-out performances come from Aaron Jenson’s Chip Tolentino, who seemingly effortlessly glides through some very high notes, and continues to entertain even after his character has been eliminated from the competition; and Lottie Johnson’s Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, portraying a rather sweet schoolgirl with a noticeable lisp.
Who knew so much fun could be had at a spelling competition? This production had me rolling in the aisles. An energetic and delightful show.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a delightfully quirky, touching, laugh-out-loud musical that celebrates the American tradition of competitive spelling championships.
An eclectic group of pre-teen children compete for the spelling championship of a lifetime, while also dealing with loneliness, pushy parents and pandemonium. The students (and some plucky volunteers from our audience!) spell their way through a series of words. Each hopes never to hear the soul-crushing, pout-inducing, life ending “ding” of the bell that signals a mistake. Six spellers enter but only one speller can win!
Show Title: The 25 th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music & Lyrics: William Finn
Book: Rachel Sheinkin
Conceived by: Rebecca Feldman
Tuesday 29 th May – Saturday 16 th June
Tuesday – Saturday 7.30pm
Drayton Arms Theatre, 153 Old Brompton Road, London, SW5 0LJ