johannes hjorth

I’ve been a long term fan of Spelling Bee. The original cast soundtrack has been burnt into my brain at this point, as has the spellings of a large range of obscure words. If I ever get asked to spell hausenpfeffer on stage, I will be successful. But such heavy expectations could perhaps be unfair to force on this student production, particularly a late show in the first week of term. John King’s direction, however, strikes that tricky balance between living up to the original show and giving it an unique identity. 

Yasmin Freeman as Marcy ParkJohannes Hjorth

The show concerns the fateful, titular spelling bee, creating a series of offbeat coming-of-age tales for the precocious spellers. In not many other shows will narratives be based around awkward erections and divine intervention, but the script never loses the touch of the awkward nerdiness that makes the characters so endearing. The cast, as a whole, was strong, bringing their own comedic spins to the characters. Yasmin Freeman’s emotionally dead Marcy Park was a joy, whilst Sarah Mercer displayed the comedic timing and emotional sensitivity needed to keep the bee whirring along efficiently. At times, it was difficult to hear the soft-spoken Katie Heath-Whyte, but this was an issue with the microphone, which I'm certain shall be fixed. Nevertheless her physical characterisation made up for a few words of missed dialogue.

The cast had clearly prepared their characterisation, and they were ready to improv and make clear the bee should not to be taken too seriously. This was certainly ideal for the lively, if slightly intoxicated, crowd in front of them, and allowed the audience volunteer spellers a chance to let loose on stage. At times some of the script additions, such as a rant about last year’s CUSU elections, feel a little too pandering to the audience, but for the most part I was drawn into the world of the quirky, high-strung overachievers with severe emotional problems. Perhaps the Cambridge references weren’t too far off the mark.

The production and music were sometimes hampered by the manic nature of the play. The band struggled to keep up with the singers at points, and some voices were drowned out in all the action. However, when the play took its time to slow down and let the kids speak for themselves, the energy on stage was tangible. Particular highlights were songs with amazing titles like ‘My Unfortunate Erection’ and ‘Magic Foot’, carried by the dynamic performers. ‘The I Love You Song’ is always a highlight, and the ending never fails to give me goosebumps. 

Will Popplewell as the endearing Leaf ConeybearJohannes Hjorth

If you can see no reason why any of those above song titles would be in a show about spelling, I would recommend you come along for yourself and find out. The fun, anarchic spirit sometimes spills over into messiness, but unlike a spelling bee, you don’t always need everything exactly in order to enjoy yourself. I was I-M-P-R-E-S-S-E-D. Impressed.

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