The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse

“The word is lachrymose.”
“Can you use it in a sentence?”
“Putting on a fun musical made a pleasant change from the theater’s usual lachrymose fare.”

Spelling Bees have never quite taken off in the UK, although there were a few brief attempts following the commercial success of the documentary Spellbound. So this charming little musical, with music and lyrics by Willian Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, probably fares a little differently in the UK than in the composers’ native America, where the competitions to see which schoolchild can spell the most difficult words are a part of national culture.

The setup is simple: this local spelling bee is being supervised by former spelling champion Rona Lisa (Katherine Kingsley) and school vice principal Panch (Steve Pemberton), and six local children are competing. Actually, there are ten participants at the start of the play, the other four being members of the audience who have been brought on stage.

The audience members at times form the hub of the comedy of the piece, with Pemberton and Kingsley lobbing good-natured insults their way, be it about their clothing or, in one man’s case, his ability to look like he could come third in a David Blunkett lookalike contest.

The four public members are despatched before the end of Act I (although there is no interval, there is a clearly defined structure and it is easy to see where the break would come). As the ‘proper’ contestants compete and are despatched one by one, we learn more about each and their background in a manner that reminds one of A Chorus Line, with a similar variation in song quality.

Actually, of the songs in the show, only the ensemble number Pandemonium really stood out for me, although the faux Fosse choreography of Magic Foot did have some allure. I’ve seen so many pastiches of Fosse’s style that it has to be delivered particularly well for it not to seem tired, and David Fynn as the belligerent, self-confident Barfée sells it with the just the right amount of conviction mixed with parody.

Indeed, the actors’ performances throughout are excellent, and what makes this show the enjoyable evening it is. In particular, Maria Lawson’s overachieving Marcy (who speaks six languages, plays multiple musical instruments and can even throw in some gymnastics for good measure) and Chris Carswell’s socially awkward Leaf enliven the piece. The best performance, though, comes from Hayley Gallivan as Olive, blending vulnerability with an effervescent charm that lifts the whole show.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs at the Donmar Warehouse until April 2

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.