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Review Round-up: Donmar Bee Spells Success?

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William Finn and Rebecca Feldman’s Tony Award-winning musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee received its UK premiere at the Donmar Warehouse on Monday (21 February 2011, previews from 11 February).

Directed by Donmar associate (and potential artistic) director Jamie Lloyd, the musical comedy showcases the tension and emotion of a regional spelling contest with a place in the national finals at stake.

Running until 2 April, the cast features Steve Pemberton, Katherine Kingsley, Chris Carswell, David Fynn, Hayley Gallivan, Harry Hepple, Maria Lawson, Ako Mitchell and Iris Roberts.

The overnight critics - one of whom was called upon to participate on press night - were far from united in their views...

Michael Coveney

"If Jamie Lloyd’s high-octane, brilliantly cast production doesn’t clinch him the artistic directorship of the Donmar Warehouse in succession to Michael Grandage, I don’t know what will. With designer Christopher Oram, he’s transformed the theatre into a school gymnasium, replaced the bench seating with blue school chairs and created a playground atmosphere with some stabbingly sharp characterisations and a perfect balance between music and comedy; it’s so much more fun than Passion … Finn’s score, endlessly inventive and mordantly intriguing, with great use of shifting rhythms, has several great break-out moments, and Jesus himself puts in an appearance to confirm that he deals in more important matters than spelling; suitably enough, the competition is then won with  “weltenschaung.” I loved every minute, and there’s also a top-notch five-piece band under the musical direction of Alan Williams.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

“What clearly struck everyone else as blissfully funny seemed tooth-rottingly sentimental and insufferably cute to me. And, after achieving such a thrilling success with his brilliant production of Sondheim’s demanding but richly rewarding Passion at the Donmar, director Jamie Lloyd’s decision to stage this glib, candy-floss confection seems unfathomable … The show is clearly meant to be a satire on America’s passion for competition and achievement. It becomes evident the kids’ parents are fiercely ambitious for their offspring and have palpably screwed them up as a consequence. But the musical packs a remarkably feeble punch … most of the characters are little more than glib stereotypes and the show’s mixture of satire and insufferable whimsy struck me as nauseating. That’s spelt n-a-u-s-e-a-t-i-n-g, and it is not a word I expect to see prominently displayed on the theatre’s billboards.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Designer Christopher Oram has transformed its intimate space into a school gymnasium. The atmosphere calls to mind the early stages of the lovely documentary Spellbound and also - strangely - that goofy Ben Stiller vehicle, Dodgeball … With assertively appealing music and lyrics by William Finn, and a sassy book by Rachel Sheinkin, there's plenty of chutzpah in evidence. But there are serious elements: flashbacks give us an idea of the parental manipulations and evasions that cause a child to become a prospective spelling champion … In addition to the six children, each night four members of the audience are selected to take part. On press night I was one of them, and crashed out in the second round … There are enjoyable performances throughout. Katherine Kingsley is excellent as imposing hostess Rona Lisa Peretti, and while all the actors playing the contestants are impressive, David Fynn, Hayley Gallivan and Iris Roberts stand out.”

Michael Billington

"Given the Donmar's exemplary musical track record, it is a bit of a shock to find them importing this flimsy, vacuous diversion … The pretence is that we are in a high school gym watching a competitive spelling bee. To add verisimilitude we are asked to stand and recite the pledge of allegiance and four audience members are invited to join the contest. It says much for the bravery of my colleague, the Evening Standard's Henry Hitchings, that he agreed to participate and he acquitted himself with dignity and style. But much of the spontaneity and fun goes out of the proceedings when the four volunteers are eliminated and all we are left with is a remorseless whittling away of the survivors: it's a bit like The Weakest Link without the laughs … the highly forgettable songs seem to be imposed on the action rather than arising organically from it and many of the jokes are just as arbitrary … The best one can say is that the cast in Jamie Lloyd's production works with unremitting energy.”

Libby Purves
The Times

“This Tony-winning musical by William Finn and Rachel Shienkin is knowing, upbeat, clever, all-American. The Donmar stage is a school gym with ropes, explosive cheerleader romps, and a mission to send up spotty teenage bewilderment and rah-rah winner-worship … Hollywood and TV have made high-school culture as familiar to us as St Trinian’s, so in-jokes work. Most of them, indeed, are so true to human absurdity that they’d work anywhere ... The music is unmemorable, bouncy, brassy: the movement terrific under Ann Yee’s choreography and Jamie Lloyd’s direction. Oddly, it was the attempt at sadness which failed to produce any lachrymosity: Hayley Gallivan does a belting job singing about her mother who has sloped off to an ashram, but amid the larks it didn’t quite fit. The show will vary night by night, judging its audience and whichever patsies come up to join in and fail.”

Ian Shuttleworth
Financial Times

"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 … is a change of gear, but Lloyd has a sure touch with musicals … 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.”


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