The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee @ Donmar Warehouse

Written for Exeunt Magazine

A teenage cub scout is serenading me about an erection I’ve given him, the distracting qualities of which have made him crash and burn out of the first round of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Who knew that seemingly wholesome American musicals could be so raunchy? Clearly Tony Award winning Rachel Sheinkin whose sharp and occasionally filthy book injects some welcome edge into what is a sweet, if a little average, show.

Take note, audience participation – if that’s what you call my inanely grinning embarrassment – is actively encouraged. The judges, Rona Lisa Perretti (Katherine Kingsley) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (a very classy Steve Pemberton), pepper their witty improvised introductions of these intrepid audience spellers with the funniest of lines. Quite why Perretti is a sex bomb in a tight skirt is a mystery, as are Panch’s references to his Indian chief guide, but they make very amusing facilitators of what is a surprisingly cut throat event.

Six children are battling it out to get to Nationals. All are ‘unique’, all slightly strange; they are an eclectic bunch each with their own idiosyncrasies, quirks which for the most part border on caricature. The dreamy Leaf Coneybear and the lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (whose surname is her dads’ names mashed together) are particularly delightful and imaginative creations. But this level of cartoonish exaggeration places too high a barrier between the characters and the audience and in the end it is impossible to feel more than a vague feeling of fondness for these broadly-drawn children. The audience is never put in a position where they might actually start to care about their plight.

The closest to emotional engagement the production offers are Hayley Gallivan and David Fynn as dictionary-obsessed Olive Ostrovsky and ‘magic foot’ speller William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay, dontcha know). Both independently and during their charming duet, these two nudge slightly ahead of the rest of this cast of energetic comedians, and at points actually tweak the heartstrings.

Director Jamie Lloyd and choreographer Ann Yee jazz up an inherently static situation with sequences of movement that all click very nicely together. If the whole thing smacks slightly of ‘musical by numbers’, there are enough smart and funny moments to keep the audience happy. William Finn’s musical numbers are however distinctly pedestrian with lyrics so ‘everyday’ and unmemorable that they leave one puzzled that someone has bothered to graft song and dance to them at all. His melodies meanwhile splash around in the shallows resolutely refusing to lift off.

As such this Bee never quite takes flight, no matter how much the adorable cast pump into it or how many pompoms, twirling tables, chorus numbers or ribbons on sticks Lloyd and Yee throw into it. Affectionate and fun-filled it may be, but this musical comedy never quite surpasses the sum of its – undeniably perky – parts.

Runs until 2nd April 2011


Review: Snake In The Grass @ The Print Room

Alan Ayckbourn has always wanted to be taken seriously, despairing of the snobbery that consigns comedies, farces and thrillers to the servants’ quarters of British theatre. He looks to redress this balance with his ‘ghostly’ Snake In The Grass, a poisonous Home Counties comedy dealing with family abuse. A tight three hander, it’s a cracking opportunity for an actress to get her hands on some emotionally ripping stuff, punctuated with one liners that would make a stand up jealous.

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Review: Beachy Head (National Tour)

Beachy HeadIn death are we someone’s brother/sister/lover or just a body? What happens in the moment from jumping to the fatal landing when you step over the edge? These are the questions that swirl around Analogue’s sophisticated yet makeshift Beachy Head, a theatrical autopsy on suicide.

We watch as two documentary film makers battle with questions of responsibility in the face of a Machiavellian artistic opportunity; a wife grieves for her husband, who in death has become a stranger; a doctor clinically explains the practicalities of finding out why an organism ‘shuts down’.

Analogue have created fragmentary moments of beauty in the midst of this somewhat ragged exploration. A phone conversation with the Samaritans is powerful in its simplicity. The acknowledgment of an artists’ culpability within the representation of such raw subject matter is communicated poignantly through the brash documentary film makers. Sarah Belcher turns in an intelligent performance as the doctor whose statistics on death deliver a strong emotional punch and Katie Lightfoot is thick with emotion as the widow tripping between coping and a pain so piercing it threatens to derail her.

A wealth of technical and theatrical trickery (projections, live video streaming, tightly choreographed scene changes) is at play here giving Beachy Head an intriguingly textured feel. In the middle of this patchwork a story is sewn loosely together, but the space between each seam is too clear. We are unsure if it is the brain or the mind we are supposed to be examining; unsure as to whether we are being shown a ‘play’ or an abstract expression of loss. As such the mines of potential underpinning this work never quite explode as one hopes they will.

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Tour dates here

New Blogs! (Just not here)

So it may look like I’ve fallen silent for the last week and a bit. Well think again avid reader. I have actually been writing a bit but for other sites. So in the interest of keeping Theatre Workbook current here are the links to these aforementioned pieces. Enjoy, I hope.

Blog on the online communication revolution: Shift Happens, State of the Arts Flash Conference, D&D6

Blog on musical theatre and how if you just look far enough you can find some vivid exciting work that trounces West End laziness.