The King and I

"Exquisite production - precisely my cup of tea, etc, etc"

Bartlett Sher’s critically acclaimed Lincoln Center production has returned to the North this week at The Lowry in Salford.

What is deemed by some as “problematic” and others as “the best production they’ll ever see”, I was intrigued to see how a now classic musical from Rodgers and Hammerstein would sit over 70 years since its inception.

The plot describes the relationship between British school teacher, Anna Leonowens (Helen George) and King of Siam (Darren Lee), who hires Anna to teach his children in a bid to modernise his country- a striking change to social structures as a result of the colonialism of the time. 

The book is not without its issues: the hefty run-time, in a world where less is more, could quite easily be trimmed to ensure a more streamlined experience. There are subplots within the story which are not entirely necessary and fail to produce the same effect as I’m sure they would have in previous decades- adultery, for example. I also found myself slightly entangled in the irony of a British woman criticising the King of Siam’s moral compass in his treatment of others when, in England during this time, the suffrage movement was stirring and only recently were women allowed practice teaching. This being said, its general themes are still relevant in 2024- sometimes eye-opening when considering how far the world has yet to come. 

The music, however, is truly timeless. Richard Rodgers sumptuous score peeled away the amassed years since its Broadway debut and felt fresh for its 73 years, whilst Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics were endearing as ever. Classic earworms such as ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’ and ‘Getting to Know You’ reverberated cheerfully and harmoniously around the auditorium and had the audience in the cast’s palm, grinning ear to ear. 

As Director, Sher did a good job with the beloved period source material and Casting Director, Serena Hill, deserves serious props for bringing together such talented cast members on such a vast scale. George was punchy, emotive and powerful in her delivery of Anna. Lee, whilst he could have used more strength to show why he was dubbed as a barbaric monster, worked hand-in-hand with George to create an easy chemistry between our lead characters. Their journey together was both turbulent and heart-warming with spurts of dry humour implemented that were genuinely rib-tickling. Caleb Lagayan was excellent as Prince Chulalongkorn. The character developed wonderfully as the show progressed, his vocals were strong and there was glorious support from Cezarah Bonner as his mother, Lady Thiang, who commanded the stage and presented powerfully emotive vocals throughout. Furthermore, the comedy of the ensemble, particularly during the play within a play scene, was a highlight. 

Lighting design by Donald Holder, with its rich hues and use of shadow to add dimension to the set, wonderfully complemented Michael Yeargan’s simple yet effective set design. This, though decadent in parts, was minorly let down due to, what I assume was, budget constraints in comparison to other recent productions. Costumes, designed by Catherine Zuber, were sublime. Culturally accurate, their rich colours and textures popped beautifully against the backdrop of Sher’s Siam.  

All in all, this is an exquisite production which left me with a thirst to learn more about the historical details on which the story is founded- precisely my cup of tea, etc, etc.

This show was reviewed on the 9th January 2024 at The Lowry, Salford where it runs until the 13th January 2024.  Tickets available here: The King and I | What's On | The Lowry

Review written by Lee Gregory

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Photo Credit: Johan Persson

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