The off-Broadway musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (which won a Tony award for book writer Rachel Sheinkin when it moved onto Broadway) has always featured three or four pre-selected audience members in the spelling competition: they join in, sit and dance with the cast, step up to the microphone, and are then eliminated with an impossible poser, although the attractive blonde girl who slipped up on "Sapphic" was faily unconvincing in making her botched job of it.
Hitchings was floored by a word which sounded as though it may not even exist, but that could have been the only sure way to get rid of him: the man's a really cunning linguist with prize-winning publications on the secret life of words, Dr Johnson and, most recently, a history of proper English, to his name.
So he was a witty choice of participant, though Hitch himself had to steady his nerves by chewing gum non-stop. As he rose from his chair, Steve Pemberton as the Vice-Principal remarked that the shaven-haired scribe had just recovered from "a hideous bout of head lice."
Hitch took this on the chin and carried on. His word to spell was "telepathy." He asked for a definition and then, as of right, a sentence in which the word is used: Pemberton gave him a steady stare back.
On his second visit to the mike, he was introduced as having come second in the Junior Critics' qualifying round; none of the others had made it through because none of them could spell "eggsellent."
But Henry wasn't the only audience rep we recognised. One of the foursome was Daniel Kaluuya, the fine young actor nominated in the Whatsonstage.com awards as the Dewynters London newcomer of the year in Roy Williams's boxing play Sucker Punch at the Royal Court.
Pemberton picked up on his sporting prowess by saying that his hero was Pele, whose prowess he emulated but not his erectile dysfunction (Pele proselytizes on the medical condition in adverts); he then had to spell "cow."
Kaluuya was eventually undone with another unlikely word, though he fluked a correct spelling of "caterjunes," an obscure Scottish whaling term. The boy scout in the cast proper comes a cropper on "tittup" while trying to hide a huge adolescent boner brought on by a girl in the audience.
When Rowan Atkinson first appeared on Broadway, he was excoriated by the New York critics for his infantile, lavatorial sense of humour. I find it refreshing that New York has repaid him in kind in this delightfully potty-mouthed, wittily insouciant and very cleverly contrived and constructed ensemble mini-musical.
That's enough critical opinion from me. What really matters is how Henry Hitchings reviews his own performance in the Standard later this afternoon...
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