“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 – with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – is a change of gear, but Lloyd has a sure touch with musicals.
I first saw his directorial talent at work 10 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 requires. Quite early on, a triplet lyric rhymes “species”, “Nietzsche’s” and “Christina Ricci’s”. Finn’s music is likewise jaunty.
We first meet the participants – at least those of us sitting near the ends of rows do – before the show begins. Christopher Oram has turned the Donmar into a school gym/hall, complete with folding seats to replace the usual benches, and half a dozen hopefuls mill around, sitting down next to us and chatting away excitedly.
However, there are 10 contenders in the bee, and so 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 was the first to be eliminated, and the actor Daniel Kaluuya, who in contrast had to be nobbled when he fluked the correct spelling of 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 Gallican is the most engaging of a winning bunch of contestants, but the 100-minute show is very much an ensemble piece. 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.