The uniquely American phenomenon of Spelling Bees, where students are one by one eliminated as they attempt to spell such words as Weltanschauung seems an unlikely subject for a musical comedy but, in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the Donmar Warehouse has shown that the comedy works just as well for a UK audience.
The Donmar has been transformed into an American High School gymnasium as a selection of geeks, misfits and co-opted audience members gather onstage to try and claim the crown for the lexicological skills. Although loners, they share a common bond trying to find the sense of acceptance and recognition they desperately crave. There’s the boy scout troubled by adolescent frailties, the overachieving Catholic Asian, the lisping child of two gay dads, the socially inept know-it-all, and the shy girl desperate for parental love.
This being a musical comedy, each of these characters are over the top but, in Jamie Lloyd’s production, the cast keep just the right side of caricature.
While William Finn’s score is unlikely to send you out into the night humming the tunes, it does contain an infectors energy that serves each of the characters well and alongside the comedy does provide a glimpse into the pressure this pushed children face in wanting to achieve. The I Love You Song, I Speak Six Languages and Woe is Me show a darker side to the comedy.
For this show to work it needs total conviction from the cast and the Donmar have come up trumps. From pre-show when the cast circulate in the bars to the final notes, these larger than life ‘children’ are vividly portrayed. Highlights include David Fynn’s obnoxious know it all William Barfee (pronounced Bar-Fey) and Hayley Gallivan’s sweetly sung Olive. For the adults, Katherine Kingsley as the outwardly vacuous blonde host Rona Lisa Perretti is a wonderful mix of steel and vulnerability while League of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton lends quizmaster Vice Principal Panch a darkly sardonic tone.
The plot may be paper thin but it’s a refreshing change to see a show that is unashamedly looking to entertain. It’s witty, well staged and in places surprisingly moving. Spelling Bee does require its audience to enter into a surreal world and take an active part in the evening but, make that leap, and you’ll be rewarded with 90 minutes of fun.
Photo: Full Company in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photograpger Hugo Glendinning