Ian C Douglas reviews the King and I at the Theatre Royal...
The massive bow of a steamboat sails over a sea of dry ice. Silhouettes of bamboo houses, with their stilts and gabled roofs, rise in the background. A British widow and her son stare across the Mekong river to the pagodas and temples of Bangkok. What adventures, good or bad, await them?
You probably already know what those adventures will be: full of exotic pageantry and pomp and a generous handful of romance. But then that’s part of the joy. Here is an evergreen story, worth retelling again and again. And this particular production, from New York’s not-for-profit Lincoln Centre Theatre, never disappoints.
Okay, this is one of Rogers and Hammerstein’s legendary musicals, based on the book Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon, which in turn is based very loosely on Anna Leonowens' time as an English teacher in the court of King Mongkut. And a legend made even more famous by the movie version with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. And while a theatre production cannot compete to a Hollywood movie, this is a close second.
Three hours long, this performance has time for some touches of realism. The cast speak a little actual Thai, at least in the first act. Also, snippets of political intrigue float through the script. Cambodia (Kampuchea) is to be colonised by the French. Singaporean spies are circulating fake news about the Siamese King that might lead to a similar takeover by the British. And British diplomats are on their way! Luckily Mongkut has a secret weapon in the shape of his kids’ English teacher.
Mongkut has a secret weapon in the shape of his kids’ English teacher
Add to this the King and Anna knocking heads over East Asian versus Western culture and mores. Stir in a forbidden love subplot. Marinade in some the finest show tunes ever to be written. And you’ve got a cracking night’s entertainment.
Maria Coyne as Anna Leonowens and Darren Lee as King Mongkut, both excel and manage to banish any comparisons to Deborah Kerr or Yul Brynner. The large ensemble of child actors were also stunning simply that they kept going so late. Kudos to them.
The famous tunes are all perfectly delivered, including The March of the Siamese Children, Getting to Know You, and Shall We Dance. Pure delight for any Rodgers and Hammerstein fan.
In the second act, we have a play within a play, when Princess Tubtim tells palace guests the mistranslated American story of ‘The Little House Belonging to Uncle Thomas’. This tries hard to be authentically Thai, by use of traditional masks, dance in the style of Khon (traditional Thai dance particularly associated with the royal court) and the use of piphat-style musical instruments.
The cast got a standing ovation at curtain fall. What better recommendation could you have that that?
‘The King and I’ plays at the Theatre Royal from Tuesday 17 October 2023 to Saturday 21 October 2023
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