Rodgers and Hammerstein’s portfolio of musicals continue to be classics in today’s theatrical world. Never shying away from important themes such as politics, culture and race, the duo’s musicals are decades old now, but in the present day they still hold importance as reminders of social and political injustices of the past. In the last six months I have been fortunate enough to watch two of their musicals: South Pacific in November and The King And I earlier this week.
The King And I was revived at New York’s Lincoln Center Theatre in 2015 and that same production is currently out on a world tour. This week it has stopped at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre, with Call The Midwife star Helen George taking on the principal role. As a first timer to the renowned musical, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review another Rodgers and Hammerstein creation, this time set in historic Thailand (Siam).
Set in nineteenth century Southeast Asia, the production begins with Anna Leonowens and her young son’s journey to Siam after she secures a job as tutor to the Royal Household. Mrs Anna (as she is known by the family) is a straight-talking, no-nonsense widow who is not scared of the King’s authority. She is a bridge between the King’s many wives, children and the men in power, helping the women and children with their English and educating them on world affairs.
Constantly sparring with the King over issues such as women’s rights, slavery and royal customs, the musical covers their complicated and blossoming relationship against the backdrop of a modernising Thailand. Like most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, the story is deeply political and challenges society throughout history in its 2 hour 40 minute runtime. Despite the complex themes, there is plenty of room in the source material for humour and it’s a lighter watch than South Pacific.
With costumes by celebrated designer Catherine Zuber who is responsible for Moulin Rouge!, the production is a spectacle of rich colours and shining gold. From the sparkling headdresses to the intricate fabrics, the creative team have produced beautiful garments in the spirit of nineteenth century Siam.
In addition to the Southeast Asian costumes, I was wowed by the dresses created for Anna Leonowens. The wide skirts were so ridiculous that you couldn’t help but laugh at her historic Western attire. Although extravagant and a symbol of high society, the outfits certainly wouldn’t have been practical for her daily duties. The royal wives commented on Anna’s outfits in the production, suggesting that a much narrower skirt would make her life far easier. With all that Anna teaches the wives throughout her time in Siam, you can’t help but think she could learn a thing or two from them about practical fashion!
From the moment the show started, it was clear to me that we were in for a visual and mechanical treat with the staging. Getting past the extravagance of the royal props and sets, it is the technology that I find most inspiring. There was an impressive animated boat at the centre of the stage in the first scene that was such a complex item to display through the medium of touring theatre. In addition, pillars moved about the stage smoothly between scenes, completely transforming each palace location. Everything was so cleverly arranged that scene transitions were barely noticeable aside from the visual overhaul of the stage. Michael Yeargan has done such a tremendous job here.
Overall thoughts on the story
In terms of the storyline, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s plot is very full-on within the allotted runtime and consequently I lost a sense of the bigger picture within the theatrical production. There were multiple smaller storylines between supporting characters that I wish had been explored further, such as the Prince’s (Caleb Lagayan) reservations about inheriting the throne, Princess Tuptim’s (Marienella Phillips) relationship with her Burmese lover Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson) and the dynamics between the royal wives. Questions were left unanswered with the supporting characters and although the production focuses mostly on Anna and the King, I think these open endings made it difficult for me to appreciate the relationship conclusion between the main characters.
Humour and show highlights
Despite this I thought the show was incredibly well balanced, including just the right amount of humour and entertainment in a piece of theatre that has upsetting moments. The cast were fantastic, particularly Helen George and Darren Lee in their portrayal of Anna and the King. The ‘Shall We Dance’ duet was a delight and the highlight of the production for me. The young cast were also spectacular in their portrayal of the royal children, each taking to the stage on their own, something that takes incredible bravery at such a young age.
Reflecting on the show as a whole, whilst The King And I storyline isn’t quite for me, this touring production is beautiful with its impressive sets, costumes and cast performances. The King And I* is playing in Canterbury until Saturday before visiting multiple other venues across the UK and Ireland until July. Last minute tickets can be purchased from the Marlowe Theatre’s website.
Thanks for reading my blog today.
Love Kat xxxx
*Our tickets and programme for The King And I were gifted in exchange for a review of the performance.