The spelling bee is something reasonably alien to a British audience but something that all North Americans will be familiar with - the gladiatorial sport of a spelling competition. For children. With music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettoland, Falsettos, Elegies: A Song Cycle amongst others) and book by Rachel Sheinkin, this quirky musical follows the contestants through their trials, tribulations and sometimes tantrums of the spelling bee.
Set in a school gymnasium, designer Victoria Francis has chosen to take us to a world akin to the Early Learning Centre, with large letters of the alphabet and primary coloured furniture. It works a treat. Coupled with the child-like costumes for the cast - all perfect for their characters - we are instantly transported back to school. And perhaps some of the fear that that holds. The fear is enhanced as some poor, unfortunate members of the audience are asked to join the spellers on stage at the start of the contest. How long you last depends on how cruel the company is feeling!
Adam Haigh, Director and Choreographer, has squeezed every last bit of humour out of this production. It can be quite a serious piece as children struggle desperately to spell words that most of us have never heard of, so I was intrigued to see how the director's choice would play out. For the most part, it works. Just occasionally the conflict that is required for any drama is lost at the expense of the concept.
William Finn has written a musical that gives each member of the cast a chance to shine and in this production, they all certainly take their moment. Without exception the cast is excellent but I must single out TJ Lloyd as William Barfee (that's BARFAY) and Michael Watson-Gray as Douglas Panch for their exquisite performances.
I would urge you to go and see this lovely show before it closes. It's a triumph. Definition? Great success. Can I use it a sentence? MKEC Production's version of the show at the ever-versatile Drayton Arms is a triumph. T-R-I-U-M-P-H. Triumph.