'Spelling Bee' review or 'Glee, if they all sang their spelling homework'

Spelling Bee (Ham & High, p.10)
Donmar Theatre, 21st February 2011 

Have you got your dictionary ready? Your candy? And your hideously over-trained kid? Good! Then let the 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee competition begin.

This bubble-gum flavoured, musical comedy is not what we've come to expect from The Donmar. Indeed, it's the antithesis to the earnest, gritty shows normally staged in this tiny, theatrical hothouse. Some critics have found fault with 'Spelling Bee' as a result, deeming it too light and too thin for such a heavy-hitting venue. But what, I ask you, is wrong with a little fun in theatre?  Shouldn't exuberant, light-hearted shows be judged in their own right? Just as overtly political shows seem to gain extra stars for exploring complicated ideas, shouldn't sillier shows be rewarded for casting aside the shackles? It's time to celebrate - not condemn - pure, skilfully-executed entertainment. 

Granted, the characters in Rachel Sheinkin's script are pretty thin. There are ten competitors at the spelling competition and, of the ten, three are audience members. That should give you an idea of the emphasis (or lack of) on character development. Even those characters given more attention are drawn with sweeping strokes; the pink-clad word-lover, the geek with glasses bigger than his face, the self professed stupid kid in whacky, home-made clothes. But none of this matters. This isn't meant to be an exploration of character - more, a celebration of it.

That isn't to say 'Spelling Bee' is child's play. There is a dark, spikey humour rumbling beneath all the multi-coloured crooning. Most of the one-liners are gifted to the adults and they normally involve sex. Or prison. Or the state of the government. The mascot for the competition is a huge, dread-locked stallion of a man, dressed in a massive bee costume. He also happens to be on parole:   

For every sickly-sweet sentiment expressed, an equally jaded one-liner swiftly follows. Granted, the jokes start to feel a tad formulaic and follow the same set-up throughout:  a kid, hovering over a towering microphone, is given a word to spell. Said kid then asks for a definition and  an example of the word in a sentence. At one point, a cowering competitor asks for a use of the word  telepathy. He is greeted by silence. Does it matter if a script relies on formulas (especially a musical, surely the most structurally stilted of plays) when the formula works this well? 

And, although the structure is fairly rigid, there's still a giddy flow to this production. The songs swirl on and off stage, with only a few chairs and a lot of lighting marking the divide. Unexpected characters pop up in strange places - even Jesus makes a five second appearance:

Time dissolves. The play oozes between fact and fantasy. And the nature of the songs - sometimes sentimental but often downright bonkers - changes the show's ambience in an instance. The production, pulled together with rigorous discipline but  colourful enthusiasm by director Jamie Lloyd, gathers a gleaming, quirky sheen. 'Spelling Bee' might be a slightly saccharine affair - but it is damn tasty and enjoyable, too.


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