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Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

By doubling their number of annual productions, the University of Manchester’s musical theatre society present The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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This academic year has seen some exciting changes taking place in the University of Manchester’s Musical Theatre Society (UMMTS), the most significant of these being the decision to double their number of annual productions. Two smaller-scale performances were scheduled to bridge the gap between the winter and summer musicals: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Songs For A New World.

Maths student Joe Dickens, who is the current Chair of the society, has explained that the decision to put on the additional productions was centred around the intention to create artistic opportunities: “We wanted a way to give more opportunities than the requisite two for people to be involved creatively, and hopefully to offer another set of shows where new people could be welcomed into the society.”

Funded independently by each show’s respective creative team, the cast and production value of Spelling Bee and Songs For A New World were significantly smaller than those of the typical performances put on by the society. Sitting between the two large-scale UMMTS productions of the year, Betty Blue Eyes and Grand Hotel, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee served as an impressive demonstration of the quality of performance that may be achieved on a comparatively small budget.

Shaped around the individual thoughts and feelings of young children participating in a spelling competition, Spelling Bee is a sensitive and comic portrayal of the complexities of childhood. The simplicity of director Sarah Teale’s interpretation of the musical worked wonderfully alongside the simplicity of the plot. Each child has their say about spelling, parenting, and friendship whilst taking their turn in the competition, through songs ranging from the laugh-out-loud, ‘My Unfortunate Erection’, to the truly heart-wrenching, ‘The I Love You Song’. Attentively, Sarah did not obscure the individual experiences of the children with over-production in terms of set and choreography (a surprising bonus of having a limited budget, I suppose).

Most notably, the ability and group chemistry of the ensemble cast is what melded together the various theatrical aspects of this energetic performance. It was blatant that every single cast member felt a sense of joyousness in the presentation of their role, encouraging the audience to share in their collective fun. This feeling of collaboration between performer and audience was only exacerbated by the clever and comic use of audience participation. The actors proved that they did not need to rely on scripted lines to effectively create comedy; Lucy Scott and Jack Harrison impressively displayed a penchant for improvisation, coming up with clever quips in response to audience-nominated spelling bee contestants spontaneously.

While each member of the cast portrayed their character with both light-heartedness and integrity, one performer stood out from the crowd, both as a vocalist and actor. Eiméar Crealey gave a stunning performance as Olive Ostrovsky, a shy young girl who is desperate for her parents to come and see her spell. Eiméar’s vocal ability was astonishing in the best kind of way. Her impeccable tone and quality of voice rang out above the wonderfully directed live band, lead by Aine Mallon. Paired with a truly honest portrayal of a girl much younger than herself, Eiméar had the audience crying tears of joy and sadness respectively.

With a little more rehearsal time and a larger budget, kinks in the performance might have been ironed out, however an audience member would have to be rather pernickety to identify any real flaws in the performance. The dances were a little rough around the edges, and it was a shame that not all actors were able to sport their own personal microphone, however these are the sorts of issues that come hand-in-hand with creating a piece of theatre in an independently-funded student production.

The versatility and intelligence of UMMTS’ performers, and the expansion of their annual repertoire, is reassuring when considering the prospects of student-run theatre, and the future of this particular society. While the skill of musical theatre practitioners, and the emotional, and often social, power of musical theatre works often go unrecognised, the University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society are forcing theatregoers to sit up and take notice.