Home Estate Planning The King and I theatre review: Dated musical has some lovely bits

The King and I theatre review: Dated musical has some lovely bits

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The King and I review and star rating: ★★★

The colossal Dominion Theatre stages some of the most commercially viable West End shows, from We Will Rock You to The Bodyguard. The King and I fits that mould; an adaptation of the much-loved Rodgers & Hammerstein classic. There is much to enjoy here, but this story would benefit from a fresh pair of eyes to add a little more oomph and charm, especially when inevitable comparisons will be drawn to the brilliantly updated version of Oklahoma! that played in the West End recently.

Based on Margaret Landon‘s 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, this musical, which first played in 1951, follows Anna, a widowed mother who becomes an English teacher to the many wives of King Mongkut of Siam. She is a strong minded feminist, he a dictator who does not like being criticised by women and whose language is violence. Mongkut becomes wary of the tide of Western imperialism and hatches a plan to protect Siam from being taken by Europeans.

Seventy years ago, Rodgers & Hammerstein themselves were the progressives by platforming Siamese people onto western stages and projecting their concerns. But conversations have developed, and it has become less fashionable to stage stories about black and brown cultures where the white experience is centralised. (The King and I is about a British woman abroad, set to the backdrop of Western threat.)

It means any production needs to work incredibly hard to feel in-keeping with today. While the cast are fine, including Helen George’s Anna, who sings well and captivates throughout, the show overall feels out of date. The set feels undercooked, with two-dimensional castle walls and empty spaces which struggles to bring you in, and although some sections of amazing dance choreography do draw you in, they are too thinly spread against overly long excerpts of dialogue that is too often repetitive.

The script needs updating: one issue in the production is Siamese people used clipped English, but also basically speak fluently, meaning they miss the odd word out of sentences here and there in an attempt to make characters sound authentic. But it just sounds like a white person has written a badly sketched Siamese character. Mongkut himself is stuck with very challenging little half-lines, holding back his character development. Too many of the Siamese interactions feel hemmed in by the writing.

The staging in general reminds me of King and I director Bartlett Sher’s recent My Fair Lady, which glided along but never quite kicked into gear, lacking imagination. Though there are famous songs, like Whistle a Happy Tune and Shall We Dance, but here they never quite lift like you want them to.

There are some lovely moments, not least Lady Thiang’s Something Wonderful, which, sung beautifully by Cezarah Bonner, has the line “the man who needs your love can be wonderful,” denoting the Syamese resistance to the tide of western belief that said women should no longer look after their men. It feels good to hear the Siamese thoughts evocatively presented, but there isn’t enough where this came from.

There is still plenty to enjoy here, but you’ve got to wonder for how long these traditional interpretations of problematic musicals can go on.

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