A spelling bee is a very American phenomenon, so it is questionable whether the Donmar’s new production of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ will resonate with a British audience. This stylish one act musical comedy, with music and lyrics by William Finn, is a short show about a fictional spelling bee, with a distinct lack of storyline despite originating from Rachel Sheinkin’s witty book. Much like Million Dollar Quartet, which I saw last week, it is a musical about one special event on one day.
The Donmar Theatre is a gem in the centre of Covent Garden, whose productions regularly receive critical acclaim. It is not unusual to see queues of hopeful punters waiting to try and snatch the few remaining day tickets hours before a performance. After hearing the music of this American revue at University I booked well ahead of time to secure my seat.
Along with the six wacky contestant characters, the actors are joined on stage by four willing and brave audience members who must actively take part in the spelling competition. I wasn’t feeling 100 percent on the night so didn’t volunteer myself, as I normally would. The poor participants have to suffer as the judging panel call them up to spell, announcing them with hilariously cruel introductions. The words given are unrecognisably tricky, so when one audience member correctly answered three words the improvising actors had to stifle a giggle wondering what to do next... for us watching it was eye-wateringly funny.
It is a chirpy piece and I really enjoyed it, though I can understand why some are not so keen on its cutesy agenda, it does seem a strange programming choice for the Donmar after the prestigious production of King Lear. The music is fast and furious with snappy witty words. As I said before, there is little action, and the songs mostly involve the characters singing about their feelings, on a very superficial level.
Christopher Oram’s school gymnasium set is perfect and immediately creates the scene. Of the six geeky kids, it is David Flynn as rotund and repressed William Barfee that stands out for me. Utterly hilarious he brings his own quirks to the role, becoming a startlingly convincing teenager. There are brilliant performances throughout, Ako Mitchell is absolutely fantastic as the counsellor on standby to comfort losing contestants, he has a nonchalance that is very natural on stage and a stunning voice of gold. Iris Roberts is great as the enthusiastic lisping girl who is eager to please and Steve Pemberton thrills as the creepy principle.
A silly show with a real feel-good factor. Book here.