fri 25/09/2020

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse | reviews, news & interviews

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse

Broadway hit crosses the Atlantic, its charm (mostly) intact

Just in time to capitalise - is that how that word is spelled? - on awards season, along comes the latest Broadway-to-Britain transplant, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a musical all about a culture that likes to win, win, WIN! Does William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's surprise 2005 New York hit go to the top of the London class?  Intermittently, yes. Charming and cheeky at its best, repetitive and sentimental elsewhere, the piece may simply be too echt-American to repeat its success here, though it certainly marks a change at the Donmar from the daunting fare this playhouse has favoured of late.

Indeed, there's even a riff on that very topic midway through, when Steve Pemberton, in the standout performance of the night, defines the word "lachrymose" as follows: "Staging a musical comedy marks a change from the theatre's usual lachrymose fare." And for the director Jamie Lloyd, the generally giddy spirits of this piece must have made for a larkier rehearsal period than was the case with the same Donmar associate's scorching revival of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine Passion that remains one of the highlights of 2010. (Theatre buffs will note that Spelling Bee, like Passion, was previously directed on Broadway by Lapine.)

The venue certainly looks different. Gone are the trademark benches in favour of folding chairs suitable to a gymnasium setting that is presented by the theatre's protean house designer, Christopher Oram, in bold colours and the slight whiff of some (unseen) basketball game forever waiting in the wings. A warm-up act of sorts exists in the form of contest co-host Rona Lisa Perretti, herself a former winner who makes for an almost scarily vivacious compere. The role is played by Katherine Kingsley, late of Aspects of Love at the Menier, as someone a delicious syllable away - in her own mind, at least - from a Vegas nightclub act.

Pemberton, playing the school's wry, dry Vice-Principal Panch, joins Rona Lisa at one of those long rectangular tables that anyone who has done the audition rounds will know too well, and along come the contestants, a motley cross-section of American misfits. There's the tousle-haired Leaf Coneybear (Chris Carswell), who comes from a family with a gift for nomenclature to put even the Phoenix clan (as in River and Summer and, um, Leaf) to shame, and the porky, dorky William Barfee (David Fynn), whose running joke about the assemblage's inability to pronounce his last name - it's spoken as if it had an acute accent, apparently - is no less tiresome here than it was States-side.

beeiris2Logainne Schwartzand-grubenniere (try spelling that one) has two dads and a severe lisp - paging Geoffrey Rush! - and is played with devouringly wide eyes by Iris Roberts (pictured above right) while the slouchy, indrawn Olive Ostrovsky (Hayley Gallivan) tells us of a mum who has gone to an ashram in India and of the fact that her first name is an anagram of "I love" - cue sentimental music theatre response of the sort that tends to make English observers go cold. One contestant has an "unfortunate erection" that gets him tossed out early on, while another, Marcy Park (Maria Lawson), speaks umpteen languages but seems incapable of smiling (though the report on what happens to Marcy in later life is especially funny).

Four members of the audience are chosen before each performance to join the cast in the bee, a line-up that on press night included the Evening Standard's redoubtable Henry Hitchings, who got out on a word I had never even heard of, much less knew how to spell. That not all the words are of comparable difficulty was clear from another audience recruit, actor Daniel Kaluuya, who was able to spell "cow" (!), though elsewhere, a contestant was eliminated for making too much of a meal of the simply spelled "vug": a Cornish word, apparently, which may score points with English audiences.

Not landing at all on press night was a lamely inserted joke about Nick Clegg - I don't remember him getting name-checked on Broadway - while the commentary on a society hell-bent on achievement at any cost seems pretty unexceptional these days. Far more appealing are the alternately swoony and satiric riffs of Finn's score, not least a number, "Life Is Pandemonium", that finds a stage full of school kids rocking out Spring Awakening-style, and the bespectacled deadpan proffered throughout by the priceless Pemberton. His deployment of the various words in need of spelling across a slew of sentences leaves a smile on one's face even when this latest analysis of the price paid by our prevailing win/lose ethos has begun to pall.

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