FeaturedMusicalReviewSouth West

The King and I – Theatre Royal Plymouth

Reviewer: Francesca Parker

Music: Richard Rodgers

Book & Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II

Director: Bartlett Sher

The King and I is heralded as one of the classics. Set in 19th-century Siam, it tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher hired to tutor the royal children of the King. The original film (1956) demonstrates how a rather complex relationship evolves between the pair, amidst cultural clashes and palace intrigue. This production relies heavily on the audience being familiar with the tale, its music and subtle inter-personal nuance – mostly because the script doesn’t offer a great deal in terms of timeline continuity or character development. Despite this, the audience carry the responsibility with ease. Through the medium of song and dance, the musical explores themes of tradition, relative modernity and the power of understanding. As Anna and the King navigate their differences, they discover the benefits of both change and tradition.

As poignant as it was when first produced, the idea of acceptance and embracing one another’s differences could not be more relevant today. However, a person’s need to change, specifically in the hope of appealing to another individual (or group of individuals), is quite distasteful and an audience will likely feel quietly uncomfortable as the production develops, particularly one that is culturally sensitive. Equally frustrating is the protagonist, Anna, a ‘modern woman’ of the 19th Century. Although she represents a fraction of what today’s women have wholly embraced – the freedom and choice to pursue a career – she lacks resolve.

One of the key elements contributing to the popularity of this production is its soundtrack. The dynamic portrayal of Anna Leonowens by Annalene Beechey, offered some depth and authenticity to the character, her vocal range was suitably impressive and lent itself well to a number of the title tracks – most notably ‘Getting to know you’. To complement Beechey’s performance, Darren Kee assumed the complex role of the King. Together, they worked hard to create a chemistry that should be both compelling and emotionally charged. Most captivating of all the performances was Cezarah Bonner in the role of Lady Thiang – she oozed passion and devotion.

One of the production’s main strengths was its use of costume. The colour, silken threads and subtle gold detailing helped to transports the audience to the opulent palace of Siam, with its ornate details and regal splendour. Catherine Zuber did a splendid job of showcasing the elegance and grandeur of the era – particularly memorable were the costumes during the play-within-a-play version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The set, however, felt relatively soulless and in places actively detracted from the ensemble’s best efforts.

Irrespective of this, the timeless music of Rodgers and Hammerstein remains at the heart of The King and I and carries the production from beginning to end. The company boasts a talented, but seemingly sparse, orchestra that breathes life into classics like “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?”. Without doubt the audience were swept away by the beautiful melodies that punctuated the narrative.

Runs until 23 September 2023

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. 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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