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The King and I

Rodgers and Hammerstein, after Margaret Landon

The Lowry, Salford

January 9 - 13, 2024: 2 hrs 55 mins

Helen George as Anna Leonowens with the King's children in The King and I. cr Johan Persson
Helen George as Anna Leonowens with the King's children in The King and I. All pics: Johan Persson

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The King and I is one of those evergreen shows from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic period, and its latest revival again pulls in an appreciative audience – at least of a certain age.

Bartlett Sher’s production, which opened in the West End in 2018, is based on his Lincoln Center Theater one of 2015, and this version is now nearing the end of a UK tour that began last year and will close soon with a brief return to the West End.

It has many of the virtues of Sher’s My Fair Lady (seen in 2023 at the Palace in Manchester); it stays faithful to the text and values of the 1951 original while using today’s technology for sound and staging, and preserving much of the choreography first created by Jerome Robbins.

The “Small House of Uncle Thomas” scene (which tells the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in supposedly Siamese terms and is effectively a traditional Broadway ballet to start the second Act) is Robbins’ work, as realised by Christopher Gattelli, and it’s one of the best things in this show, relying on an excellent troupe of dancers and Michael Yeargan’s costumes.

It's remarkable how rich an orchestral sound can be made to come out of the speakers either side of the stage, even when you know there are relatively few players in the pit, so I doubt if anyone would have complaints about that either.

Yeargan’s set begins with its best tableau (showing “Mrs Anna” on board ship as she arrives in Siam) and after that is mainly a matter of drapes, a few flying panels and lightweight props and effective lighting by Donald Holder.

Of course the lead performers are the key to success. Helen George (Trixie from Call the Midwife) uses virtually the same proper middle-class voice and sweetly determined personality she has cultivated in the TV show, and it slots into the story of a Victorian widowed schoolteacher, sticking to her principles in a foreign land, very nicely. She has a sweet and well-tuned singing voice, too – best heard in Hello, Young Lovers and Getting to Know You, which suit her range.

Darren Lee (the King) is a refreshing surprise – he’s not Yul Brynner and doesn’t try to be, rather reminding us of the historical character behind the story, Mongkut (who was no spring chicken). With his wide Broadway experience and choreographic skills he fits the role perfectly and sings Western People Funny very well.

Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thiang began her role with Sher in the USA and her class shows, and the dancers include Yuki Ozeki from the US cast, Prem Rai from the earlier tour, and Cher Nicolette Ho and Rachel Wang-Hei Lau, supported by an ensemble that has mainly Asian names and the right look.

Marienella Phillips is Lady Tuptim and with her operatic background sings We Kiss in a Shadow” effectively, partnered by Dean John-Wilson, who has an attractive baritone timbre, as Lun Tha.

The King and I is obviously a period piece and sometimes criticised for naivety about the role of Western powers in the race for influence in Asia, shown in its storyline, but it’s a product of a post-Second World War era (it followed South Pacific) that was probably at least as blind as the 19th century had been.

What may jar a little today is more likely to be the advice to married women expressed in song lyrics like "This is a man to forgive and forgive, and love and protect as long as you live…" (from Something Wonderful) – but that was the 1950s for you: feminism was a long way off.

More info and tickets here


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