Given that spelling bees (competitive spelling competitions for children) are an overwhelmingly American phenomenon, you may wonder why a Donmar audience would be interested in William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s furiously silly musical comedy. ‘Because it’s funny,’ is the only answer I can offer, assuming that this cartoonishly surreal humour is to your taste. If it is, this is great fun: Jamie Lloyd directs with a total commitment to the musical’s American flavour, aided immeasurably by Christopher Oram’s pitch-perfect school gymnasium set.
Six ridiculous, neon-bright caricatures of high school nerds – from Maria Lawson’s overachieving Asian-American Marcy Park to Leaf Coneybear (Chris Carswell), a cross-eyed simpleton whose spelling prowess seems attributable to demonic possession – square up to each other in an effort to triumph in the titular small-town contest.
Most of the best gags come from the ridiculousness of the words themselves; the manner in which Steve Pemberton’s laconically creepy Vice Principle Panch chooses to contextualise them (‘A musical comedy was a departure from the theatre’s usual lachrymose programme’); the ebulliently weird fashion in which the contestants react to said words and the four audience members dragooned
into the action.
Things lag whenever the ‘musical’ side rears its head. Considering past form and the potential for pyrotechnic wordplay, it’s disappointing that Finn’s shapeless songs mostly involve the characters singing about their feelings, to only mildly amusing effect. Rachel Sheinkin forgot to write much of a story, but her book is frequently side-splitting, plus you get to find out what ‘caterjunes’ means, which is a bonus.