By Charlie Knights
On first seeing the adverts for the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, I did actually think it was a spelling bee, and was not sure what exactly Act One were trying to pull off. Then finding out that it was a musical about a bunch of kids with a range of issues, involving audience participation… Well I wasn’t really sure what I was going to be watching.
But lo and behold, what came about was one of the funniest, original, and engaging musicals or productions I have seen in quite a while. I went to review it on the Thursday night before the Easter break, and with Thursday nights being renowned for the ‘Thursday Night Curse’ where things go wrong, I was expecting the cast to make mistakes and trip up on lines. Instead I was treated to a smooth performance, with a great musical score that had me in stitches for most of the show, tearing up at others, and having a great time.
It took the form of a spelling bee, ran by Rona Lisa Peretti (Claire Totten) and Douglas Panch (Rhys Johns), an ambitious ex-spelling bee champion and an angry vice-principal, hinging on the verge of madness and a stalkerish crush on Rona. Backed up by a cast of six “spellers”, such as Leaf Coneybear (Matthew Hutchinson) the unsure, not very smart, hilarious innocent character, and William Barfee (Andy Morgan) the very smart but unsure in himself speller with a magic foot, both of whom also portray the young Logan Schwartzandgrubenniere’s (Olivia Annan) gay fathers at points during flashbacks.
With other hilarities ensuing from the ‘last years winner’ Chip Tolenntino (Ashley Rodgers) losing, and then opening the second act to a song about his erection, to an audience participant misspelling cow on stage, and the audience watching in disbelief before seamlessly covering it. There was even an appearance by female welsh Jesus, portrayed by Mared Jones who also played the comfort councillor Michelle Mahoney, who turned up to give comfort to the otherwise stoic Marcy Parks (Rachel Allen).
The final Speller was Olive Ostrovsky (Esther Morris), a timid and sad character that did bring tears to my eyes during a haunting song in the second act. For a production which was mostly first years to have the scope and depth speaks great things about what is to come in the next few years they are with us. The band was fantastic, and all wonderfully co-ordinated by Margaret Graham and Emily Cully, who put on a surprising and utterly gripping musical. I found myself searching for something wrong with it, some misstep or issue, and found absolutely none. Bravo to them, to the whole cast, and to Act One for this production.
Seeming to have dedicated myself to Act One at the moment, I continued in a double bill, and went on to see Chronolust the following week. I had heard great critical reception for the production written and directed by Act One’s own Sam Walker, as it had been put on in a fifteen minute rendition last spring, as part of Act One’s ‘Staging A Coup’.
“Welcome to the Chronolust Foundation,” the Facebook event informed me, “Choices can be made, but the path of our lives is already set in stone. Our team of well-trained professionals will observe the successes of your life so far, and then guide you into the unknown; we offer a glimpse at what is yet to come. Your future is in our hands. Tomorrow’s Memories Today.” The play took the concept that a procedure had been discovered, one where you could review and explore the pivotal moments in your life, both past and future. Lead by Dr Lynch, portrayed by Lucy Howlett, the audience was led through several characters’ lives, all overlaid with a wonderful sombre and dystopian. However this did not detract from scenes of humour throughout, especially shown by the interplay between Dr Lynch’s co-workers: the no-holds-barred crisp loving Tom Mclean, or Liz Clements brilliant cringe inducing “go-get-‘em” phrases.
I’ll admit, I had higher than usual expectations going into this play, having heard the rave reviews from last years snapshot version, as well as the incredible performances put on in the two plays I had seen in the previous weeks, but I have to say Sam created an incredibly elegant yet complex narrative, where the interplay not just between characters, but between different characters at different points in their live. Showing vulnerability and uncertainty, such as in the case of James Cole-Ezen’s character, or through pride, such as with Sarah Bulmer’s character, it all worked together to create a unique experience. I hope we haven’t seen the last of Mr Walker’s works, and look forward to seeing where he takes this approach from here.