first night

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Carrie Gaunt gets a taste of an all American Spelling Bee


I normally come away from reviewing a performance with several pages of more-or-less coherent notes. On this particular occasion, I came away with no notes at all. I stopped writing after approximately two minutes of DULOG's performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, because to turn away from the stage would be to miss a moment of brilliance. I'm not one for hyperbole, so please believe me when I say that this is not only one of the strongest performances I have seen this year, but one of the strongest performances I have ever seen in Durham in five years.

For those unfamiliar with this musical (and it's relatively new on the scene), the story is pretty straight-forward - several American elementary school students attempting to spell the longest and most complicated word at the regional final of their spelling bee. And herein lies the first challenge: it is very difficult, as a university student, to portray a child on stage effectively - it requires a self-abandonment, which many actors can't quite reach. Even if nothing else had been remarkable, then (and by the finale the stand-out moments were too numerous to mention), this production is notable for the fact that actors manage to capture effortlessly the awkwardness inherent in being a pre-teen: the constant segue between innocence and the hints of more adult concerns to come. Put simply, the actors make it very easy for the audience to love them - their earnestness is endearing rather than grating.

Russell Lamb in particular gives an adorable performance as Leaf Coneybear, fantastically un- self-conscious, effervescent and goofy. Max Spence gives arguably the greatest performance of his Durham acting career as William Barfée, a performance punctuated by a frankly astonishing commitment to a very difficult accent (think retainer plus blocked nose and you're halfway there) and an uncanny ability to perform intricate maneuvers on one foot. And Isabelle Horler is really the antithesis to all the madness which surrounds her: a sweet and innocent anchoring presence with an angelic voice, she perfectly embodies the vulnerability of adolescence. I wish I had the space to mention all performers by name, because all have their stand-out moments, but suffice it to say that this is a cast with no weak link in its chain.

Rebecca Meltzer's energetic, taut and slick choreography has harnessed the cast's palpable enthusiasm, and most impressively is executed with scant concern for the fact that the stage is a) tiny and b) packed full of set pieces. The cast never seems constrained by the lack of space around them and the ensemble numbers are no exception to the pervasive sense of bounciness, which really characterises this show.

There is no phrase like 'audience participation' to make this reviewer's blood run cold but I found that this side of the performance was not only executed very well but actually enhanced the quality of what I was watching. This has a lot to do with the fact that this production does immersion very, very well - all the more praise-worthy considering that this is an unconventional show in a very conventional space. Director Simon Lynch has done an excellent job of transforming the Assembly Rooms to suit his purpose - big, bright posters of all-American slogans adorn the walls, school-teachers wander freely among the audience with clipboards and Spelling Bee backpacks, and there's even an American flag and an accompanying pledge of allegiance (led rather aggressively by Alex Prescot's fantastically sullen Mitch Mahoney). The Assembly Rooms, by virtue of its classic interior, does tend to negate the possibility of breaking the fourth wall, so the fact that the production both acheived this and made it seem utterly seemless is exceptionally laudable.

Of course, inevitably, there were moments where things didn't quite run as smoothly as they could have done and this production was no exception to the perennial first night curse, which seems to blight sound levels. Microphones were sometimes slightly erratic, the band occasionally drowned out the singers on stage... And yet, to be honest, I barely noticed these minor shortcomings. They certainly wouldn't prevent me from saying that this production is as near flawless as any I've seen in Durham previously.

Spelling Bee is vintage DULOG - beautifully sung, well acted, enthusiastically danced and with Nick Fleet's wonderful band underlying the whole. Whatever's ailing you in this season of deadlines and dissertations, I recommend a trip to the theatre this week - Spelling Bee will make you smile, make you laugh, make you want to get up and dance and warm your heart. 

13 March 2014

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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