Review – Putnam County Spelling Bee – Donmar Warehouse


Unlike many, I went into the Donmar Warehouse’s production of the Putnam County Spelling Bee completely cold – I think I didn’t even know it was a musical, and I certainly hadn’t seen a previous production. Therefore, when, shortly before I was due to meet my very large group of fellow theatre die-hards at the pub, I got a message saying that there was audience participation to happen, and that if one wished to participate one must be at the stalls bar at the Donmar at 6:45, well, I’ll have you know I was all up for it. I mean, I remember the glory that was the Holiday Gameshow Spectacular back in Seattle, where I won the grand prize with my glamtastic rendition of “My Way” … could the magic happen again?

I did manage to get on the list, but, to eliminate any possible tension in this review, no, I did not make it on stage. Was the choice of people truly random? Somehow I think not, else why the photographs et cetera? Still, be aware that you, too, could be among the lucky four that spend 30 or so minutes (or less if you can’t spell well) on the stage of the Donmar, dancing, fending off the cast, and generally feeling unsure if Joseph’s Amazing Dreamcoat was in Technicolor or Technicolour (I suspect the correct spelling is whatever will result in your being kicked off stage).

The Donmar’s interior was done in a classic American school fashion, with school banners everywhere, Putnam County logo clothing on the front of house staff, rows of blue plastic seats in the stalls, and a basketball hoop hanging from the back of the stage. It was great to see and I’m pleased to report the cast held up their end of creating the illusion, with nary an English mispronunciation in sight. I’m embarassed to report I actually had a wave of nostalgia as we were all forced up to recite the Pledge of Allegience, though I was snickering that the pledge leader was having to recite the words in small sections for us to repeat as if we didn’t all know them already.

Our bee-ers were a motley collection of nerds: the pushy science master with the unfortunate nut allergy; the over-achieving Asian student who speaks six languages; the home-schooled kid with the strange clothes; last year’s winner, a boy scout with way too many badges; a girl whose parents were too busy to bother to come (this one hit a note with me). Of course the entire cast was played by adults, and, while I didn’t buy the kid-ness of the cast (I kind of wanted to mess with their clothing a little bit to make it look more naturalistic and less like Beryl the Peril), their various responses to what was going on and the event they were participating in were appropriately child-like without being nauseating. I loved their (pretend) raw enthusiasm as they jumped around singing about how exciting it all was – it was just so much more fun than many different versions I’ve seen of this same excitement.

Shortly after the beginning, four schmucks were picked from the audience to fill out the ranks of the spelling bee participants. For us, we got a woman in her 20s, one in her late 30s, a cute tall guy in his early 20s (apparently one of the crew I was there with although we hadn’t met before), and a man in his 60s. I am pretty sure they are very controlled about who stays on and who goes off, and though I wrote down the words as they were spelled (it was fun to see how good my spelling was 🙂 ), I think they make sure that you leave when the story dictates you will. So if you are number one to be picked, you’re just going to leave as soon as you are called – take your juice box and walk away with dignity, knowing many other people wished just to make it as far as you did. It’s rather a nice metaphor for a real spelling bee, I think.

While I admired this show’s brisk pace and running time (hurray for 9PM exits), the music wasn’t outstanding and the emotional content was thin. That said, I did get some laughs, and it was certainly more engaging than Ordinary Days or Frankenstein, both of which had similar running times. I also had fun comparing my spelling of the words as the show went along (easy enough with my little notebook already there) and liked the jokes they made by mispronouncing words and giving comic examples of their use in daily speech. I’d say overall it’s an amusing post-work evening, certainly worth the £10 I spent for it, but nothing to cry over if you can’t get a ticket.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, February 15th, 2011. It runs through April 2nd. Sample words for the geeks among you: elanguescence, flagellate, cuniculus, strabismus, capybara, telepathy, cystitis, mammilaria, boanthropy, xerophthalmia, titup, hausehole, chimerical, omphaloskepsis, phylactery and weltanschauung. For those of you who prefer your reviews spoiler-free, the Whingers have reviewed this same night’s performance – fair enough as they’re the ones who arranged my ticket!)


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11 Responses to “Review – Putnam County Spelling Bee – Donmar Warehouse”

  1. Andrew (a west end whinger) Says:

    Good God woman, have you no idea what the word “spoiler” means?

  2. Andrew (a west end whinger) Says:

    Do you want me to use it in a sentence?

  3. webcowgirl Says:

    I think it’s fair to point out that any audience member that gets picked is not a real contestant and to explain the way in which they rig what happens to the audience members. I think it will make people more likely to want to participate if they’re not afraid of what will happen.

    Also, I think it’s good for people to practice their spelling.

    However, I didn’t say who won, so I don’t think I spoiled it all that much!

    And could you please define “spoiler?”

  4. Jasmine Says:

    Darling, late 30s? I’m 51. But thank you.

  5. Jasmine Says:

    By the way I think the spoiler was giving the spelling of the words away. They use the same words every night.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Hmm … well, I think it would be easy to see them just once but not know how to spell them under pressure … but as a word nerd, I was totally fascinated by the delicious vocabulary of the show and wanted it to be preserved where it could be enjoyed thoroughly by others. Elanguesence! A word that should be cherished by all! And if you asked me, I still can’t spell half of them …

      That said, I think there is something to proving the words they use are (mostly, I think) real that actually makes the show feel more meaningful as an audience member. So I think it’s only a wee spoiler – I don’t think I got more than half of the words they used, but in retrospect I’m mortified at how bad my spelling is.

      • webcowgirl Says:

        Also I didn’t say which words were for the audience participants and which for the actors. You got a really hard one, and I was sure it was fake … I kind of think it might have been as what I thought they said did not match up with the definition, and my sense of fairness was offended, thus I had to look it up. I still think they said something else from the definition they gave, but I used the word that matched the definition and was sort of close to what I heard. But I am deafish in one ear.

        PS: I hope you had a good time, I’m very jealous!

  6. Jasmine Says:

    No, it was real since I too looked it up. Actually I heard double “n”, not “m”. I assume they plan to get someone out in the first round since I don’t think anyone would have got it, unlike the other first round words! But I enjoyed it anyway.

  7. JohnnyFox Says:

    Some of the words aren’t in Merriam-Webster so I suspect cheating. Hauseholes.

  8. destinque warren Says:

    i love spelling bees and ohers should to because it helps you learn.

  9. A year in blogging – Webcowgirl’s most popular posts of 2011 – and tips for improving your blog stats « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Review – Putnam County Spelling Bee – Donmar Warehouse876 […]

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