The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Wed 12th – Sat 15th March 2014


Emma Dooley

at 11:40 on 14th Mar 2014



As an established fan of the rather obscure musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was going to be a production in Durham. Arriving early to the theatre my emotions swung between excitement and apprehension, knowing the show’s brilliance combined with how difficult it can be to pull off successfully.

I needn’t have worried.

What a fantastic production, from start to finish. The small cast were all incredibly strong in their roles, bouncing off one another perfectly and creating an ease on stage rarely seen, in student theatre or otherwise. The characters, all competing for the top spot in the titular Bee, are truly larger than life - a fact which can sometimes be lost or ridiculously overacted with less talented casts. However everybody lived up to what I must admit were my impossibly high standards, from Maxwell Spence as the nasally challenged William Barfée to Sophie Mcquillan as the straight-laced Marcy Park, I can’t imagine a group of people more enthusiastic or committed – and it showed in their sheer, infectious delight.

Something that really worked for the production was the involvement of the audience, as it doesn’t always. As someone with an irrational hatred for audience participation in general, even in other productions of The Bee, it is a testament to the wonderful direction by Simon Lynch (including his enthusiastic pre-show recruitment process) and the energies of the cast that this worked well enough to fully convert me. This will also keep the show fresh for each performance, and although I’m not sure exactly how much improvisation was involved, topical jokes about Durham and gentle jibes at the audience kept everybody engaged and giggling.

Musically the performances were excellent, and a nice full sound was created with the seamless addition of a smooth live band, led by musical director Nick Fleet. Although this sometimes overpowered the more nuanced harmonies in busy songs, great choreography from Rebecca Meltzer meant a visual as well as vocal treat, with some surprises that I won’t spoil here. A particular standout came with the soaring vocals of Clare French and Isabelle Horler in The I Love You Song, demonstrating that the second act revealed some hidden depths to contrast with a more frivolous first act.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is without a doubt one of the strongest performances I’ve seen in Durham to date, and I can’t recommend it enough. Full of physical comedy and clever quips as well as some tender moments, this talented cast and production team will have you more invested in a spelling bee than you could ever think possible!


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