Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Drayton Arms Theatre

Fun fact: yesterday was the final of the US National Spelling Bee in Maryland. The 14-year-old winner, Karthik Nemmani, triumphed by correctly spelling “koinonia” – which means Christian fellowship or communion – after his opponent, aged 12, stumbled on her own word, “Bewusstseinslage” (a state of consciousness or a feeling devoid of sensory components). Afterwards, reports the Guardian, the generous champion took no pleasure in beating his rival, saying, “We weren’t against each other. We were against the dictionary.”

There’s little sign of such magnanimity at the start of MKEC Productions’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. We arrive to find the contestants and organisers milling about the theatre, chatting to the audience and bickering amongst themselves, before the show begins and battle commences. Somehow I’d never seen William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony award-winning musical before – which is ironic considering I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks a show about spelling actually does sound like fun – but I’m now officially a convert. What starts as a hilariously silly comedy about six misfits who love to spell unexpectedly turns into an emotional rollercoaster, as we get to know the contestants and understand the backstories that have brought them to the bee. Unlike most rollercoasters, however, this is one I’d happily get back on and do it all over again. And then again after that.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown at Savannah Photographic

This is partly because bits of the show have an improvised feel – specifically those involving members of the audience (nothing too scary and all voluntary, although I’m still glad it wasn’t me up there) and a few pointed one-liners referencing current events – and it would be fascinating to see what goes differently on a second viewing. But it’s mostly because the story, characters and music are all genuinely delightful, despite also being “the slightest bit bizarre” in their own special ways.

There’s last year’s winner Chip Tolentino (Aaron Jenson), who’s doing fine until he spots a pretty girl in the front row and all the blood rushes from his brain to – well, somewhere else. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Lottie Johnson) is desperate to make her two dads proud, while Marcy Park (Jeannie May) knows that whatever she achieves it’ll never be enough for her parents. William Barfee – excuse me, Barfée (TJ Lloyd) – has a magic foot that helps him spell (yes, really), and Leaf Coneybear (Danny Whelan) is beginning to realise that he might actually be quite smart after all, despite what his family keep telling him. And finally there’s Olive Ostrovsky (Thea Jo Wolfe), who before the show even started, slipped a piece of paper on to the empty seat beside me and whispered, “It’s for my dad.” The obvious and tragic fact that the seat was guaranteed to remain empty made Olive my immediate and enduring favourite.

Trying to keep some kind of order amidst all this pandemonium are former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Elizabeth Chadwick), vice principal Douglas Panch (Michael Watson-Gray), and bizarrely, Mitch Mahoney (Inti Conde), who’s doing his community service consoling defeated spellers. As you do.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown at Savannah Photographic

Because there can be only one winner at the spelling bee. As we get to know more about the contestants and what drives them, it becomes obvious this is much more than just a game to our six young spellers, and the final round is surprisingly tense as we wait to see who’ll crack first under the pressure. But although each elimination is a sad moment, the show ends on an upbeat note with the realisation that winning isn’t necessarily everything. Sure it’s a cliché, but when you’re having this much fun, who cares?

A seemingly casual joke about the show’s brief rehearsal time highlights what a polished production this is in spite of that. A brilliant cast excel both individually and as an ensemble, hitting all the right comic notes but also giving emotional depth to characters who at first glance appear to be no more than stereotypes. Director and choreographer Adam Haigh makes full and effective use of the intimate space, setting the tone of the production with the pre-show activities to ensure the audience – who are cast early on as proud parents watching the bee – always feel involved and connected to what’s going on.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is brilliantly bonkers, and proves what I knew all along – that spelling really is fun. But the show also champions those who dare to be different, and reminds us that sometimes it really is the taking part that counts. This little gem of a production is a feel-good treat and guaranteed to put a smile on your face; don’t miss it.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 16th June.


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Review: America’s Number One Detective Agency at the Drayton Arms

Written by Liv Hunterson and directed by Anna Marshall, Fatale Femme’s debut production America’s Number One Detective Agency is an enjoyably silly and suitably atmospheric – if a little more convoluted than feels strictly necessary – homage to the film noir genre.

Our heroine Vivian O’Connell (Fleur De Wit) is fighting to reclaim her crown as America’s top private detective, recently lost to her ex-boyfriend Bobby (Hamish Adams-Cairns) in a high profile case. But he gets all the best clients these days, so Vivian and her partner Joey (Siobhan Cha Cha) are reduced to helping out irritatingly perky aspiring actress Betty Channing (Alex Hinson), who seems to have acquired a stalker. Throw in a deranged gangster (Oliver David-Harrison), a dapper English gent (Iain Gibbons), and something about a gorilla(?), and the stage is set for a mystery caper that will take the gang all the way to Las Vegas. But will they all make it out alive…?

Arriving at the theatre is like stepping into an early 20th century jazz club, with a live band and singer playing in the corner while the actors lurk in the shadows, smoking and looking moody. The musical accompaniment works particularly well in maintaining the film noir atmosphere throughout the play, with singer Isabella Bassett taking on a very different role on occasion as Betty’s thuggish ex-husband, Freddie.

Under the direction of Anna Marshall, the cast of six give good individual performances but also work very well as an ensemble, keeping the action moving at a rapid pace throughout. (If anything it’s all a bit too fast – in such a complex plot where every detail counts, it’s easy to blink and miss something important.) Even when not directly involved in a scene the actors all remain on stage, either as secondary characters or as part of the set; the moment in the car is particularly well executed. I’m still not 100% sure if the problem with the door was part of the script or a set malfunction, but if it was the latter, then the cast are also to be congratulated on smoothly working around a frustrating technical glitch and turning it into a running gag.

With an even male/female split in the cast, it’s refreshing to see the women taking charge and driving the story forward, while the men are busy pining for lost lovers, cowering under tables and getting punched in the face. Fleur De Wit’s Vivian is a feisty heroine, keeping her cool despite the chaos unfolding around her, with strong support from Siobhan Cha Cha as Vivian’s trusty associate Joey, and Alex Hinson as Betty, the Hollywood starlet with hidden depths. Meanwhile the three men provide some of the best comedy moments, particularly Iain Gibbons as Teddy, who just can’t help putting himself in harm’s way whenever he feels a lady’s honour needs defending – even though the ladies are more than capable of taking care of themselves.

America’s Number One Detective Agency is good fun, particularly for fans of the film noir genre; it certainly looks and sounds the part. The plot could benefit from being a little less complex, or the pace of the production taken down just a touch so the audience can keep up with the various twists and turns (and jokes). That said, this is still a very entertaining show, and a promising debut from Fatale Femme.


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Review: The Memory Show at Drayton Arms Theatre

The Memory Show began life in 2008 as a thesis project for Sara Cooper and Zach Redler, both of whom had their own memories of seeing a loved one go through Alzheimer’s. And that may well be why watching this heartbreaking musical feels uncomfortably like intruding on a very private and intimate moment, between a mother diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and her daughter who reluctantly returns home to care for her. As their already tense relationship is put under ever greater strain, we’re presented with an unflinchingly honest view of the emotional and practical repercussions of caring for someone with this devastating condition, along with an exploration of the unpredictable nature of memory itself.

The Memory Show
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard (www.scarabpictures.co.uk)
And so there’s a song about cleaning the toilet, and another listing all the things that need to be done before the mother passes away. The daughter, forced to be endlessly patient with a parent who’s more like a child, doesn’t hold back about her complicated mix of emotions; she loves her mother, and despises her at the same time for all she’s had to give up. She wants it all to be over, but wishes that it could be possible afterwards to call her mother for a chat. Often speaking directly out to the audience as her only other human contact in an increasingly claustrophobic situation, she explains about difficulties with doctors, and confesses her fears about whether she’s doing the right thing.

But as hard as this blunt honesty is to watch, there are also some lovely, tender moments – as they sit together on the sofa looking at potential matches on a dating website, they could be any mother and daughter, rather than a patient and her carer. And the final scene is bittersweet, because we know that whether or not the two can mend their relationship, it’s still going to be too late.

The Memory Show
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard (www.scarabpictures.co.uk)
The relationship between Ruth Redman and Carolyn Maitland as the nameless mother and daughter is utterly convincing – the ups and downs, the bickering, the reminiscing – and both show flashes of the same feistiness. As they reflect on their difficult history together, one topic keeps recurring: Ira, late husband and father, who seems to be remembered very differently by the two women. One of them is remembering him wrong… but not necessarily the one we might expect – and the continued references to a ‘secret’ hold us in suspense until the truth is finally revealed.

The simply staged production, directed by Alex Howarth, finds the characters and audience confined within the pair’s living room, with a string of lights above their heads that illuminate during the mother’s brief, and increasingly rare, moments of clarity. Behind them, meanwhile, a white sheet provides a backdrop for flickering images from home movies, a haunting reminder of the life and happiness that’s slowly fading away.

The Memory Show paints a brutal picture of the horror that is Alzheimer’s, but it also leaves a powerful impression for those without direct experience of the disease. It’s a story of two people who learn how to love each other only when it’s too late, and encourages us to reflect on our own relationships, and the power of memory to make or break them. A heartbreaking show to watch, true, but still one that should be seen.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉