The King and I – Milton Keynes Theatre

Reviewer: Kerrie Walters

Music: Richard Rodgers

Book & Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II

Director: Bartlett Sher

The King And I is a quintessential Broadway classic by Rodgers and Hammerstein. This revival started at the Dominion Theatre, London with Helen George heading up the cast, but during its tour it has undergone a cast change and it is now Annalene Beechy in the role of Anna Leonowens, the English teacher tasked with schooling the royal children of Siam. Summoned by the King himself (Darren Lee), Anna makes her way from England to the palace of Siam where she impresses the monarch so much that he also instructs her to teach his wife and concubines.

It is fair to say that this is very much a show of its time and there are moments of borderline racism, some outright sexism and themes that frankly sit ill with a modern audience – the idea, for example, of receiving a woman as a gift.

Lee often uses these moments in a light-hearted and comedic way akin to the way that you may excuse an elderly relative for their vocal outbursts at the Christmas dinner table. His comedic timing is exquisite and his performance really encapsulates the progressiveness of the King. The monarch is desperate not to be seen as a barbarian and works hard to learn the ways of the Western world, learning the story of Moses and how to ballroom dance.

Lee’s physicality often dresses up what would otherwise be a very dull show. Indeed, when he exclaims that Anna is only a woman the glint in his eye makes the audience fall in love with him rather than despise him. He is a boisterous man-child, often running off with the scene in his swag bag having well and truly stolen it. The character is trapped in Kingship but tries to modernise it; Lee, as an actor, is in a similar position. He injects a joke or two where possible through gesture and physicality, and whilst discussing Princess Tuptim he explains that ‘somehow she is not honoured by me’ with such a boyish arrogance that it is difficult not to laugh.

Beechy has a wonderful onstage chemistry with Lee. There is more than a spark of electricity in their dual scenes, especially in the scene where she begrudgingly gives the King counsel and promises never to have her head higher than his. Naturally, he immediately tests her commitment to the promise and starts adjusting his stance to various different heights leading to her hilariously fighting with her corset and bustles to keep up.

Despite his many wives, the audience yearns for them to get together, but this is very much the story of two people, lonely in their own lives who build a genuine connection from love and respect for one another rather than a romantic comedy.

Whilst Lee’s performance is highly amusing and absolutely dulls the problematic elements of the show, it does blunt the climatic moment somewhat and the ending feels a little rushed.

Outside of the onstage partnership of the two principals, there is an incredible ensemble cast. From the exquisite precision of the Royal children to the singular organism that is the harem of Royal wives, the ensemble cast is highly accomplished, often flitting from physically taxing dance numbers to high-octane vocal work within the same scene.

Christopher Gattelli’s choreography peppers the show with some stunning visuals, in particular, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a vivid traditional Siamese dance theatre show. The movement is stunningly placed and controlled as the angular flex on legs, hands and feet bring to life the Siamese religious imagery. Rachel Wang-Hei Lau gives a physics-defying performance as Eliza during the theatre scenes in an impressive display of physical strength and control and a masterclass in acting through movement. Jason Yang-Westland plays nicely against Wang-hei Lau as the Angel/George the lover, often wowing the audience with his physical prowess. The costumes complement this sequence well, as Catherine Zuber has dressed the principals as Buddha and various other deities. It is absolutely resplendent and this sequence alone is worth buying a ticket for even if the subject matters depicted are a little close to the knuckle. The movement is impeccable and the use of symbolism to convey the story nonverbally is gorgeous.

The whole thing sits perfectly within Michael Yeargan’s set of sliding pillars which slip in and out of the action and play with the visual dimensions of the stage. The versatility of the set makes for an incredible grandiose palace that encapsulates the Broadway glamour that you expect. This show is a theatrical icon and can be forgiven for its moments of political incorrectness, but when pitted against the big productions and spectacle of modern musicals it feels a little dated. If you are looking for an evening of glamorous escapism look no further but be warned the show is good, not great.

Runs until 11 November 2023 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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