Stepping into the auditorium at the Donmar at the moment is to cross – CS Lewis style – into a new world. Not a fantasy world of fauns, lions and evil queens but the very real (and sometimes scarier) world of the USA elementary school level spelling bee. Tears will be shed, specs will be stolen and audience members deliberately embarrassed, but all in the noblest of causes – a fantastic night of modern musical theatre.
The Donmar production of Spelling Bee has gone all out – members of the cast wander around the bar before performances ‘looking for their parents’ and interact directly with the audience as the show gets ready to start (a bespectacled cast member sat beside me, asked what I was writing and then pointed out the winner of last year’s bee, informing me that he was a ‘Butt-Munch’. Then he wandered off to tell other audience members that his Mom said his Dad’s new girlfriend was the village bicycle but he thought that was stupid – she could never ride a bicycle in those skirts).
This mixture of audience interaction and improvisation with a top quality book (Tony award winning in 2005) and a range of catchy numbers really worked here. Special mention has to go to Katherine Kingsley and Steve Pemberton (of League of Gentlemen fame), whose one-liners describing the audience members taking part as ‘spellers’ were on the button every time. Other attempts to make the show topical fell slightly flatter – one Charlie Sheen joke is funny, but two?
Did I mention the set? Fully festooned in yellow and blue, the show is watched from the Putnam County ‘gym’, complete with climbing rope and basketball hoop. The audience sit on matching blue folding chairs (far more comfortable than expected on first sight, thank god) and participants are seen off stage with a box of juice for their efforts. It’s the little touches that count in a show like this.
Yet, with all of this effort nothing ever felt strained or over-done, every little piece of the jigsaw just made it easier to immerse oneself in the atmosphere. Without doubt this is an extremely slick production. The choreography and costumes are outstanding and whilst many of the characters were caricatures (the hippy kid, the girl with 2 gay dads, the bookish one and the over-achieving Asian), predictability was kept at a minimum.
In fact, this show must have seemed pretty original at the time of its Broadway debut six years ago. Surely it has to be credited somewhere as an inspiration for Glee – just without the perfect white teeth, the wheelchair kid and infuriating auto tune.
Whilst very loosely plotted, this show acts almost as a hybrid of improv stand-up and cabaret. The real interest lies in the characterisation of each child and ‘adult’. Their stories remind us of the injustices of childhood that we all too readily forget, and throw in to sharp relief how much more mature a lot of kids are than the grown-ups trusted to take care of them.
It’s not a Wicked with show-stopping numbers, nor an Avenue Q awaiting to shock and scandalise, but reminiscent more of a modern-day Annie – celebrating kids, reminding us that we really wouldn’t switch our places as adults for all the money in the world and, maybe, sparking a few parenting resolutions for the future. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden until Saturday April 2nd. Call 0844 871 7656 for tickets.