This UK premiere of the US musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee apparently came about as director Jamie Lloyd wanted something light and fun to work on after a succession of intense productions. Actually I was thinking on the way out you could extend that to the Donmar Warehouse's recent work in general, where even where the musicals are concerned they qualified as relatively upbeat if they didn't feature a lynching. Bee on the other hand is unashamedly fun and nothing else - the title says it all, there's no story as such just a spelling bee in an American school (Christopher Oram's design applying its blue-and-yellow school colours throughout the building to turn the Donmar into the gym where the competition's held) set to music. Of the ten "children" taking part, four are volunteers from the audience, signed up on their way in. For the second night in a row I was seeing a show with Andy, who considered volunteering for a split second - I've never seen someone blush so red so quickly at just the thought of something so unsurprisingly he didn't get any further than that. For my part I might have been tempted to test my spelling but having heard rumours there might be dancing involved I also steered clear. In fact the volunteers are on stage for a surprisingly long time - nearly half of the 95-minute show.
The remaining six "kids" are a variety of geeky, overachieving types whose lives outside the competition we get brief glimpses of. All the actors are excellent but Chris Carswell as a dim boy who goes into a sort of spelling-related trance, and Iris Roberts as a lisping, politicised little girl with two gay dads stood out for me. The League of Gentlemen are all over the West End at the moment and here it's Steve Pemberton who plays the competition's adjudicator and gets most of the good lines: The show's highlights for me were the sentences used to illustrate the (often very inappropriate) words in context, like the sentence for "Sapphic" - "She deals with her occasional sapphic feelings by comfort eating - she is by and large... She is bi and large." (We also got "interesting facts" about the volunteers from the audience, which is where Andy's favourite line came from, about a Scottish lady: "She hasn't read Shakespeare. She hasn't read Dickens. She hasn't read Austen. But she has red pubes.") I think those couple of lines probably give you an idea of the tone.
Once the volunteers have been got rid of thanks to some ridiculously obscure words, there's more songs which does show up the biggest problem with this musical: The music's not very exciting. The songs are at best forgettable, at worst dull. In a less exuberant production this would be more of a problem but fortunately everyone involved has pulled out all the stops to make this, perhaps not a classic piece of theatre, but one of the best bits of silly escapist fun I've seen for some time.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin is booking until the 2nd of April at the Donmar Warehouse.