Friday, 25 February 2011


or rather, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

17/2/11, Donmar

95 mins straight through. A preview (though we hadn't realised that and it was as polished and energetic as if it had been running for weeks). A familiar set-up to anyone who's seen the film documentary Spellbound: this was the fictional version, set to music and well-directed by Jame Lloyd

We thought it was great, though Billington in the Guardian evidently saw it when he was feeling especially dyspeptic (he called at "a flimsy vacuous diversion": The Indie caled it "a dippy, spirited mix of the genuinely funny and gratingly fake," which seemed fairer. It had its faults, It dragged a bit two-thirds of the way through, partly because everyone had to have their solo and some of the songs weren't as snappily-written or tuneful or well-sung. It was (being American) essentially a sentimental, feelgood affair beneath the superficial satirical bite. The music wasn't memorable. But in a small space like the Donmar a musical can't really fail if it's done with sufficient verve and panache and this had both.

We were in a school gym in Putnam County as six contestants lined up to compete for a place in the national finals. Children played by adults, plus a wonderful question-master, at once pompous, portentous and sleazy (Steve Pemberton unrecognisable in specs and sports jacket), the man charged with counselling and comforting the losers (a prisoner on community service dressed in a bright orange bee costume), and best of all the mistress of ceremonies, herself a former winner, now a real estate agent resplendent in blonde hair, electric blue miniskirt and jacket and high heels (Katherine Kingsley, superb).

There was some doubling as well, mainly in scenes representing the kids' parents. One frantic overachiever had two dads pushing her relentlessly. The lonely girl who pals up with the aggressive fat boy no-one likes (David Fynn) had a dad too busy to make it to the competition and a mum who'd gone off to find herself by the Ganges (sung rather movingly by Kingsley in a headscarf). There was also one ill-conceived intervention from Jesus.

The Donmar's regular bench seats had been stripped out and replaced with blue metal gym-style chairs. The back wall was hung with a huge Putnam County banner. And there was some audience participation, with four people invited to play contestants in the early part of the show and being gently ribbed while being given impossible words with silly definitions to spell. One man clearly wished he was somewhere else. One woman seemed to be enjoying it immensely but blew it when she couldn't spell "lachrymose". Another man played along marvellously and, when given an impossible word, delivered an impossible answer which was declared correct to much hilarity.

I always say I don't like musicals, but I liked this, just as I like Sondheim and most musicals produced at the Donmar. D said afterwards that in fact what I don't like is big West End musicals in big West End theatres, and she's probably right.

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