Theatre Review - The King and I, Manchester Opera House
PUBLISHED: 12:25 01 May 2019
A sumptuous production of a classic musical, a must-see for theatre fans
I haven't seen The King and I for years and years, and only then on the small screen – the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. It made an impact however, and this subconscious expectation, hope even, came to the theatre wit me last night – and was wholly satisfied.
The Royal Court of Siam in the late 1800's was a palace of gold and jewels, silk and gold-thread, flickering torchlight and carefully executed traditions, centuries in the making. This was represented beautifully, with dazzling drapes and a beautifully dressed cast, from the King himself through his collection of wives, the prime minister and all the servants. Into this rigidly controlled, yet beautiful place, steps Anna Leonowens, a widow, mother to a young son, who has accepted the role of schoolteacher to the King's children – well, his favourite ones at least. He has 'only 65' when we first meet him, but he started late…
Anna is played to perfection by Annalene Beechley – her voice is pure and strong and delivers that Rogers & Hammerstein sound we all expect from one of their shows. It's pure 1950's Hollywood - Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds and, of course, Deborah Kerr. She's a feisty and determined lady and Annelene portrays her determination and her vulnerability with great balance. She also has excellent comic timing and delivery, bringing a warm humour to her role.
Jose Llana brings huge, likeable, character to the King of Siam too. Flashes of petulance are counterbalanced with moments of humour and kindness, self-doubt with self-confidence and arrogance with uncertainty.
The King of Siam is, as we see clearly as the story progresses, caught between two worlds and trying to find his way clear in both. The old world, the traditions and practices of his royal court, and of Siam, have served his family well for generations. However, he is seriously threatened by the encroaching new world, the British Empire is on all sides, and the French too, having offered protection to both Laos and Cambodia – a diplomatic way of brushing over colonisation. He is determined to keep Siam safe, but how? One way is to ensure his children are aware of the greater world and the way it works – hence his desire for an English schoolteacher. Her 'scientific' teachings will be of great help, he believes.
Science and emotion clash however. He and Anna are drawn together, though always morally beyond reproach. However, he has been gifted a woman, Tuptim, by the King of Burma, an act Anna finds reprehensible. This form of slavery, where a woman can simply be given to a man and have no voice of her own, is something she cannot accept.
The thread of slavery, of cultural differences – should we challenge, or accept but not support? – runs through this story. In a completely stunning 'story within a story', we watch Tuptim's version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, played for a visiting British diplomat. It's an astonishingly beautiful ballet, using traditional Siamese (Thai) dance motifs in exquisite form. The use of masks, a puppet dolls, the presence of a Buddha figure, all are beautifully done and reflect the cultural identity of this ancient land to perfection, while taking a tale that's purely American and presenting it to a modern British audience.
One thing I had forgotten about this wonderful show is that it has a rather bittersweet ending, which brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. It was only shortly after the most joyous and jolly part of the show – Shall We Dance, a riotous polka that leaves the audience breathless and cheering. Talk about emotional ups and downs!
You'll love the songs (Shall We Dance is my favourite, but Getting To Know You comes a very close second, and I actually heard more than one audience member whistling a happy tune as we left), you'll love the spectacle, you'll love the story (and the knowledge that it's based in truth gives it an extra thrill) and you'll leave feeling proper wrung out, after an evening of pure pleasure and celebration of talent and storytelling supreme.