This musical is American. Very American. So American that you have to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the start. During the first third of the musical when I was frequently overwhelmed by laughter, and the last third when the stories of several of the characters really engaged me, I also wondered whether it was this very Americanness which has led to the lukewarm reactions of many fellow critics. Yes, the show does slightly lose its way following the departure of the spellers from among the audience. Yes, the music lacks the inventiveness and variety of a Sondheim or a Gershwin. But for all that, this show does have something beyond the simple fact of making me laugh, and for that reason deserves its London premiere.
Once again the Donmar Warehouse performs one of its amazing transformations – this time into a convincing high school gymnasium with whatever the stuff is they use to floor gymnasia, banners, ropes and a band imprisoned in what looks like the scorer's eyrie. Trapped in this somewhat cage-like environment are a sextet of keen high-schoolers competing for the trophy of Best Representation of an American Stereotype...sorry Best Speller at the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee...and four hapless members of the audience (including on this occasion a show-stealing Rolf Harris who brought the house down by spelling a word he was clearly supposed to get wrong). Providing something vaguely resembling adult oversight are Rona Lisa Perretti (Katherine Kingsley), winner of the 3rd Annual Bee, the slightly deranged Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Steve Pemberton), and the recently released on parole school mascot Mitch Mahoney (Ako Mitchell).
The show is presented in a single act, as we gradually whittle down the number of spellers, alternating between the action in the gymnasium and brief insights into the frequently rather sad home life of the high-school protagonists including Olive (Hayley Gallivan), whose mother is on an ashram in India and whose father one suspects has turned violent and Logainne (Iris Roberts) who suffers from a pair of pushy, over-achieving dads. The first third of the show is kept buoyed up by some wild ensemble numbers, and the amusement of mocking the participating audience members; the last third by the question of which of the two remaining spellers who have in the course of the show developed a touching interest in each other is going to win and whether victory for one will destroy that delicate connection. Only in the middle do things sag a bit when the repetitive nature of the spelling contest starts to pall, Jesus makes a rather odd guest appearance and one song really doesn't come off.
The performers all round are stunningly good, and this bears emphasis because many of them have not got especially lengthy credits to their names. If I had to single out one it would be Gallivan's Olive but this is above all an ensemble show. Diction is particularly impressive and shows what can be achieved when you know you are not being given a license for laziness by subtitles. All of them convinced me as high school kids, and the slight adjustments made by each at the end when we hear about their later fates emphasise how well done the earlier performances are. While they are clearly intended to represent stereotypes there is something underneath the surface, and while the plot twists are often a little trite (apart from the actual victor which is left convincingly up in the air to the end) one is still kept engaged by it.
To some extent the accusation can be levelled at this show that it picks easy targets (American competitiveness, a dismissal of losers, mockery of the high-school stereotype whether it be the child with the disintegrating home life, the Asian overachiever or the geek). But I wonder if these are only easy targets to a non-American. To me the atmosphere the show conjures is finally faintly disturbing precisely because it is all too easy to imagine (especially if you are familiar with the films Saved or Spellbound) the edge of misery for children grappling with this harsh competitive environment. As a consequence, I have a suspicion that there is still something courageous in the celebration of the child who comes in second place and grows up shaped by the memory of that.
I don't think I would want to hear the score often in isolation, and I'm not sure how well the show would stand up to repeated viewings. But it is not a show that can simply be dismissed as trivial. There is seriousness in its championship of coming in second and in the moments of vulnerable individuality beneath the stereotypes. It's not Sondheim but it's a great deal more interesting and amusing than many West End behemoths (not least the appalling Shrek, the Musical shortly, and utterly undeservedly, to grace London by its presence). In sum, well worth picking up a return for one of the few remaining performances if you can.