Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 21 February, 2011

“Could I hear that word used in a sentence, please?” – “Certainly: ‘A musical comedy was rather a departure from the theatre’s usual, more lachrymose programming.’” Jamie Lloyd’s production pokes gentle fun in all directions, including at the Donmar itself. Following King Lear with a chamber musical about this American social/educational phenomenon is indeed a change of gear, but Lloyd has a sure touch with musicals. Indeed, I first saw his directorial talent ten years ago when, as a student, he helmed a production of Falsettoland by William Finn, who has also written music and lyrics here. And what lyrics they are, every bit as verbally exuberant as the subject event requires: quite early on, a triplet lyric rhymes “species”, “Nietzsche’s” and “Christina Ricci’s”. Finn’s music is likewise jaunty; the yearning introspection of so much contemporary off-Broadway musical fare gets little look-in here, even in our occasional glimpses into the domestic or inner lives of the school-age contestants.
We first meet these contestants – at least, those of us sitting on or near the ends of rows do – before the show proper begins. Christopher Oram has turned the Donmar into a school gym/hall, complete with folding seating replacing the usual bench upholstery, and half a dozen hopefuls are milling around, sitting next to us and chatting away excitedly. But there are ten contenders in the bee: at each performance, four members of the audience are invited to join in. On the press night these included one of my critical colleagues who, embarrassingly, was the first to be eliminated (albeit on a dubious definition), and the actor Daniel Kaluuya, who in contrast had to be nobbled when he fluked the correct spelling of a word intended to be impossible (caterjunes).
Steve Pemberton of the League of Gentlemen is several thousand miles from Royston Vasey as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, presiding over proceedings smilingly but sometimes through gritted teeth. Hayley Gallivan is the most engaging of a winning bunch of contestants, but the 100-minute show is very much an ensemble piece, even including the four guest performers in big dance routines before they are eliminated. To conclude, I am happy to give the lie to the press-night joke that the Critics’ Circle’s own spelling bee had no winner because none of us knew how to spell a particular word: this show is excellent.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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