The King and I
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Story – Based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Nottingham Theatre Royal – Touring
Tuesday 17th October – Saturday 21st October
The King and I was my nana’s favourite film. She loved the romance, the lavish glamour and most of all, Yul Brynner as the King of Siam. For my part, I just wanted to wear Deborah Kerr’s beautiful, hooped dresses and swish around a palace. It made us both incredibly happy.
Currently, I am sitting in the audience, awaiting the start of this multi award-winning Broadway production. I am intrigued as to how what might seem a retrograde piece will resonate with audiences in 2023. The theatre is full and judging by the average age of the audience, I have a sneaking suspicion that many here are also huge fans of the 1956 film.
The King and I tells the story of Anna Leonowens, tonight played by the superb Maria Coyne. It is 1862 and our young widow arrives by ship into Bangkok. Travelling with her son, Louis (Charlie McGuire), she has been engaged by the King of Siam (Darren Lee) to tutor the children of his favourite royal wives.
Anna is met at the port by the intimidating Kralahome (Kok-Hwa Lie) who takes her to the palace and not to a house of her own, as promised to her by the King. Henceforth, begins a battle of wills as the determined, self-possessed Anna clashes with the King in ways symbolic of the wider geo-political situation at the time.
Coyne is wonderful both to listen to and watch. When teaching the children she tells them, ‘I want to hear the beginnings and ends of your words,’ and she practises what she preaches. Her singing voice is akin to Julie Andrews, meaning you can hear every word and syllable of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. I can guarantee that you will fall in love with her just like the King and the royal children do.
The late Yul Brynner is perhaps the definitive King Mongkut, but Lee makes the part his own, balancing the serious consideration of the threat from the west with the humour and comedic timing needed for life at the court.
The large ensemble cast work tirelessly and seamlessly, segueing between scenes and musical numbers like water flowing unobstructed down a hillside. Moreover, I defy anyone not to be thoroughly charmed by the royal children.
Lady Thiang played by Cezarah Bonner is a particular highlight. The character must tread a fine line as she vies for her own position and that of her son, whilst dealing with Anna and the new challenges the latter has brought to Siam. Bonner plays the part with subtlety, grace, and emotional heft. Her powerful rendition of ‘Something Wonderful’ brings all the complexities of the role to the fore.
Perhaps my favourite section is ‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas.’ Rachel Wang-Hei Lau shines as she performs meticulous choreography by Christopher Gattelli. (Original choreography by Jerome Robbins.) It is hard to take your eyes off her as she uses her hands, feet, and facial expressions in ways that confound and amaze.
The costumes by Catherine Zuber are equally exquisite. From Anna’s Victorian hoop skirts to fearsome masked bloodhounds chasing an escaped slave, there is just so much to admire. East meets West is a winning concoction. Indeed, I would watch the whole production again, just to revel in the beauty of the design and craftsmanship.
Furthermore, what a joy to experience a live orchestra of such talent. Directed by Christopher Mundy they are note-perfect and exhilarating. I would love to release them from the pit, so that they could take a well-deserved, centre-stage bow. They make the show tunes fly, particularly in the perennial favourite ‘Shall We Dance?’ but also in the lesser-known numbers.
Are there aspects of the narrative that feel dated? I would have to say that there are, but perhaps we need to leave the revisionist lens at the stage door, put the plot into historical context, and allow ourselves to be swept along by the visual and sonic spectacle.
This is a night at the theatre filled with laughter, enjoyment and a sprinkling of golden charm, which courtesy of lighting by Donald Holder comes in hues of copper, rose and champagne et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. (Pardon the pun!)
My nana would have adored this production. When Anna sings ‘All of my memories are happy tonight,’ it is a sentiment with which I concur.
And as for me, The King and I is ‘precisely my cup of tea.’
Age Guidance – 7+
Running Time – 3 hours (including 15-minute interval)