THEATRE REVIEW: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Act II Theatre Company, South Holland Centre, Spalding
Act II Theatre Company's pair of brilliant minds, Charlotte and Karl Gernert, never play safe.
Anyone who has seen their productions of Bonnie and Clyde, Carrie: The Musical, Made in Dagenham and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, all within the last three years, will now that on the edge stage works are the youth theatre group's speciality.
Which brings us to US Tony Award-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, as close as Act II's Advanced Skills group have ever got to the same sort of adult humour that audiences can find at the annual, end-of-year Revue.
The musical centres around a strange mix of six complex characters all vying to win the spelling championship of a lifetime.
As the six contestants back stories, full of competitive parents, New Age converts and cruel-to-be-kind disciplinarians, a demanding set of well-known and suspiciously made-up words are set for them to spell.
To help them, contestants can ask for definitions, languages of origin, examples of its use and pronunciation, all the time fearing the sound of the bell which spells (pardon the pun) elimination from the competition.
What the unsuspecting audience who arrived at Spalding's South Holland Centre on Thursday night were unaware of was the chance of being called up as last minute contestants to take on the strange six, William Barfee (Alex Gilman), Leaf Coneybear (Ashleigh Mills), Olive Ostrovsky (Lia Feane), Marcy Park (Beth Robertson), Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Lili Bergin) and Chip Tolentino (Richard Simpson).
As each contestant gets a spelling wrong, the bell sounds and Mitchell M. Mahoney (Theo Duddridge) arrives with a "juice box" to be presented to the losing candidate who is sent to their seat with the song "The First Goodbye" ringing in their ears.
Presiding over this "coalition of chaos", as Prime Minister Theresa May would call it, is a panel fronted by Mahoney, question master Doug Panch (Rory Prestt) and Rona Peretti (Eloise Wooding), the equivalent of Countdown's Dictionary Corner resident, Susie Dent.
Among the songs that were performed with pure relish by the cast were Pandomonium, Prayer of the Comfort Counsellor, I Speak Six Languages, My Friend, the Dictionary and I'm Not That Smart.
What made this particular Act II production so memorable was the sheer unpredictability of who would win, when a contestant would be "belled out" and the extra element of the four contestants from the audience.
In Thursday night's production, Charlotte Gernert's mum, Gill Graper, was an innocent victim of this enjoyable madness, although she should feel hard done by at having to spell two words back-to- back in what looked like a deliberate coup to get her eliminated.
In the end, the unlikeable swat Barfee lightened up enough to take the Spelling Bee prize after a tense, final spell-off with the eastern mystic finalist Ostrovsky.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was a rip-roaring roller coaster ride of a riotous romp that only Act II Theatre Company could have pulled off.
However, anyone thinking of buying tickets for the theatre group's next production, Sweeney Todd: School Edition, might have to think carefully about the chances of ending up in the Demon Barber of Fleet Street's chair for a hair cut.
Review by Winston Brown