The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical ‘The King and I’, set during the 1860s, takes you on a whirlwind year in the life of widowed and strong-willed English teacher Anna Leonowens as she teaches the royal children, and wives, of the King of Siam, the country we know as Thailand.
The show begins with the arrival by boat of Anna (Annalene Beechey) and her young son Louis, the Captain (Sam Jenkins-Shaw) pointing out the lights of Bangkok in the distance. Culture shock kicks in as Kralahome (Sam Yo), the prime minister, arrives “half naked” and waiting people immediately want to see the mysterious shape of the English woman, wearing a floor-length wide-hooped skirt, as was the Victorian fashion. It’s a good job Anna has already taught her son to ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’ whenever she’s scared. Her strong character immediately objects to being lied to about their accommodation, of the broken contract between employer and employee, and the scene is set for many clashes between Anna and the King (Brian Rivera).
When we first meet the King, he’s anguished over the future of his country, with nearby Cambodia about to be protected by the French; lose their independence. The show is based on the 1940s novel Anna And The King Of Siam by Margaret Landon, who based her story about true events and people in Asia.
A gift arrives for the King, from Burma, a young slave girl, Tuptim (Marienella Phillips), who will become his latest wife. Her escort, Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson) is her secret lover, and their story mirrors events in the USA at the time. Tuptim asks Anna if she has the book about the little house in the woods where Tom lives; the 1850s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Hariet Beecher Stowe, had a profound effect on attitudes towards African-Americans in America. Indeed, this book is the impetus for a turning point towards the end of the show, an intense clash of cultures, when Tuptim performs this play for visiting English dignitaries.
The show has appeared on Broadway, with Yul Brynner playing the original role of the King, and in the West End, since the 1950s, and was made into a film in 1956, starring Brynner and Deborah Kerr, during the latter part of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The show really belongs to the future generation of actors, with the young performers stealing the limelight effortlessly, each time they’re talking, singing or dancing. Louis, the Royal children and Prince Chulalongkorn, are spot on with their dialogue, timing and sheer confidence on stage, the younger children owning quite physical comedic roles.
The costumes of Anna’s hooped dresses, the Royal wives’ traditional dresses and the play-within-the-play outfits are absolutely breathtaking, helped to stand out even more by a simplistic set design, of which huge curtains and small stools are the rotating characters.
The iconic musical numbers, including ‘Getting to Know You’ ‘A Puzzlement’ and ‘Shall We Dance’ were performed superbly, bringing smiles to faces and warmth to hearts. The developing affection between Anna and the King worked well on stage, as they began to understand one another.
However, I did feel that the show was a little too long, at two hours and forty minutes, and it’s not for people who need to fidget. With the film, if not the pause button, there is more comfortable seating. The history of the story doesn’t really work for today’s audience, so there’s an element of appreciating this as a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein show, set almost two hundred years ago (give or take a decade) – the duo were responsible for shows which are still performed on stages today, including ‘Oklahoma!’ and ‘The Sound of Music’.
Cast: Annalene Beechey, Brian Rivera, Cezarah Bonner, Sam Jenkins-Shaw, Dean John-Wilson, Caleb Lagayan, Sam Yo, Marienella Phillips, Josh Bortoloso, Fin Goodman, Louis Levy, Charlie McGuire and ensemble Music and Lyrics: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II Costumes: Catherine Zuber Sets: Michael Yeargan Musical Supervisor: Ted Sperling Directed by: Bartlett Sher Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes Theatre: Theatre Royal Plymouth Performance Dates: 19th – 23rd September 2023