The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: who would think that spelling could be this much fun?

Playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 2nd April.

As soon as we get inside the Donmar Warehouse we find ourselves in the home of the ‘Pugs’, whose motto is ‘multum in parvo’ – ‘much in little’.  We never know any more than that about our hosts, but their pug mascot adorns the floor of this high school gymnasium, a fitting symbol for the show itself, which packs an awful lot of personality into a very small space.

This little dog grasped hold of the audience right from the start and didn’t let go for over 90 minutes, thanks to the energy of the cast, the whacky songs, and the witty semi-improvised dialogue.  The potential embarrassment of inviting audience members into the spelling bee itself was exploited to the maximum as we realise that each participant is having personalised insults created for them as we watch, along with unremitting sarcasm from the judge, played with expert ‘on the edge’ creepiness by Steve Pemberton from the League of Gentlemen.

We have a character for everyone – the glamourous, ex-winner hostess, the over-achieving asian, the nerd and the wildcard, not to mention Mitch Mahoney, whose community service involves comforting each loser with a hug and juice carton, whilst dressed up as a giant bee.  In a universally high-quality cast, Katherine Kingsley’s singing was exceptional as the hostess, but it was the ensemble playing that really made this show work, together with imaginative staging and clever choreography. 

Some critics have described the show as vacuous – we disagree.   Scratch the surface and there is a poignany, pognancy, poin…. it’s very touching!  As madcap as some of the characters are, a short trip to youtube reveals none of them are exaggerated.  One wonders why adults put children through this ritualised humiliation.  William Finn seems to be wondering that as well – his latest work, currently playing over the pond, is ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, about that other form of ritualised humiliation, the pageant.

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