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.
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