The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse, London
Friday 25 February 2011
The Broadway musical, as a habitat, tends not to throng with nature's great spellers. Gypsy's Mama Rose could probably get through "audition", without mishap, but the chances are that she'd put a middle "e" in "monstrous". And, even though it's her native German, how would Maria von Trapp cope with "Weltanschauung" – the word that happens to be the climactic clincher in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a musical comedy (by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin), that redresses the balance, to an almost parodic degree, in favour of the non-orthographically-challenged?
Receiving its English premiere in Jamie Lloyd's rumbustiously enjoyable production, the show pitches us Brits into the arcane alien rituals and anthropological bizarreries of the kind of tortuous, torturing contest for teenagers that seems designed to put the "eek!" in "geek". We're in a school gym. We're sponsored by local optometrists. There's a black, handsome "comfort counsellor" on community service (excellent Ako Mitchell) who longs to tell the nerdy little brain-boxes that "pain has degrees" and that losing here is as nothing ("but that would violate my parole"). Officiating over the event is blonde glamour puss Rona Lisa Perretti (spot-on Katherine Kingsley), a former winner whose blinkered romanticising of the proceedings is in hilarious contrast to the dog-eat-dog reality. And contributing to the pervasive sense of more-than-faint perviness is Steve Pemberton's sublime pronouncer-in-chief, who is there to deliver undermining introductions and to read out deadpan, deeply unhelpful sentences in which the usage of the word-to-be-spelt is demonstrated (eg "Billy, put down that phylactery. We're Episcopalian").
Spelling Bee is a dippy, spirited mix of the genuinely funny and gratingly fake. It's at its best when it's involving us in the technicalities. Members of the audience are invited to be participants and on the press night these included the actor Daniel Kaluuya (Sucker Punch). One of the most elating moments was when he managed to guess the correct spelling of that ancient Scottish whaling term: "catergunes".
By this token, I much preferred songs such "Magic Shoe" in which the fabulously fat and aggressively repressed William (superb David Flynn) gives terpsichorean expression to his method of tracing the words with his foot to the much more generic numbers about the family neglect, pressuring parents (one girl has "two dads") and stressful American Dream ("You hate losers/ So do I/ I'm a loser/ So goodbye") that have propelled the kids onstage. I expect that Mama Roses (or should that be Mamas Rose?) are a dime-a-dozen on this circuit ("Spell out, Louise!). But in assimilating the experience of these teenagers to the very different exhibition world of the Chorus Line humiliation-plus-inner-monologue format, the show reneges on its own wittiest insights. And the blanket happy ending is as phoney as hell. The piece lasts one hour 40 minutes and for the last half-hour I have to own to up to a sensation of satiety. "Sa-ti-e-ty. The feeling or state of being sated." Can I have a sentence, please? Yes, here it is. "Could it be because there's no interval, mother, that I feel full to satiety?"
To 2 April (0844 871 7624)
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 'Cheeky' Nando's under fire for apparently coming onto a customer on Twitter
- 2 Saudi Arabia mosque bombing: Two volunteer security guards hailed as heroes for stopping Isis suicide bomber reaching worshippers
- 3 Playboy model April Summers speaks out about being a victim of revenge porn
- 4 There is something wrong but very right about this Bible illustration
- 5 iPhone 'effective power' text: how to be safe from iOS bug that lets people crash your phone
Jay Z's Tidal could be about to lose Beyonce's music in ultimate humiliation
Royal Academy of Arts' Tim Marlow: Bronze statue of lovers embracing at St Pancras station is a lesson in 'how not to do' public art
Britain's Hardest Grafter: Petition set up as Twitter reacts to BBC 'poverty porn' series pitting low-paid workers against each other
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Jamie Raven divides Twitter as fans expose mind-boggling magic trick
Big Brother contestant Aaron Frew removed from house for 'inappropriate behaviour' after flashing fellow contestants
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote