The King And I – Dominion Theatre, London

Reviewer: Sonny Waheed

Music: Richard Rodgers

Book & Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II

Director: Bartlett Sher

It is with great fanfare that this much-vaulted, Lincoln Centre Theatre production returns to the West End, following a Broadway stint, a record-breaking run at London’s Palladium and a sold-out UK tour. Actually, you may wonder, following that, who’s left to see it? But the producers must feel confident as they set up for a six-week run at London’s cavernous, 2,000-seater Dominion Theatre.

Based on the Margaret Landon novel, Anna and the King of Siam, The King And I tells the story of a British teacher, Anna Leonowens (Helen George), appointed to teach the English language and British customs to the King of Siam’s (Darren Lee) children and wives.

It’s set in the mid-1800s, at a time of increasing colonialism across the region, and addresses several sensitive topics around tradition, power, and society. Gender politics, in particular, feature heavily – the attitudes towards a single (white) woman taking on such a post, the widespread acceptance of the King’s polygamy, and the use of women as objects.

The piece is very much of its time and so the politics and opinions represented do grate with today’s sensibilities. Looked under a modern lens, Anna’s vocal distaste for gender, power, and social imbalance, her rebuttal of it, and the way in which everyone comes around to her way of thinking can be seen as a sort of White Hero situation.

Whilst there may be questions about the politics of the piece and how it’s handled, there can be no such quibbles about the production. From an applause-inducing opening scene, where a larger-than-life steamboat glides across the stage into a chaotic and bustling Bangkok, through to the emotional finale, this has quality stamped all over it. Following the visually impressive opening scene, Michael Yeargan’s set design is deceptively sparse and simple, yet gives us everything we need to feel transported to this foreign land. This is beautifully enhanced by Catherine Zuber’s costume design that feels authentic across both cultures.

The ensemble cast is a joy to watch, especially the King’s children, but it is Helen George and Darren Lee who beautifully anchor this piece. They inhabit their roles perfectly, each giving a nuanced performance of, in George’s case, a fish out of water, and for Lee a man trying to navigate unchartered change. Their on-stage relationship works perfectly in expressing their evolution from monarch and subject to something akin to friendship. A special mention must be given to Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thiang, the King’s number 1 wife and mother to the crown prince. Her role as the bridge between the King and Anna, helping both sides find a middle ground from which the two can help drive forward the changes needed, provides a deeper perspective into the overall environment.

The King And I shines a light on a country in change and delivers it with an impact and honesty that is both surprising and refreshing for a musical of this nature. With stellar performances, a glorious soundtrack, and a story of a nation in flux, it is a mighty piece that is beautifully delivered. Political narrative aside, this is a hugely enjoyable production that does honour to the golden age of Hollywood musicals.

Runs until 2 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Royally Entertaining

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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