THE KING AND I
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 28th March, 2012
Just like the reign of our own monarch, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical is now sixty years old. I found it surprisingly pertinent to life in Britain today – in much the same way that the play-within-a-play version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is regarded as a comment on the kingdom of Siam.
The production comes from Leicester’s Curve, a venue that is rapidly gaining a reputation for the consistently high quality of its musicals. It begins with a gong that announces the theatrical feast on which are about to gorge – and gorgeous it is! Shadow puppets on rods illustrate key moments during scene transitions. Humungous gilded statues of Buddha assert their presence as status symbols and signs of the value system. The staging is largely emblematic rather than naturalistic, permitting the performers and the wonderful score to hog the spotlight.
There are similarities with The Sound of Music in that it is a story of a female outsider arriving to teach the children of a stern man whose position keeps him at a distance from others. As the King, Ramon Tikaram (Ferdy off of This Life) cuts a dashing figure with his long hair (no Yul Brynner, he) and his globe-trotting accent. He boasts of siring seventy-odd kids (talk about Bangkok!)and when they parade on to meet their new teacher, it seems like they’ve all turned up. I felt like Macbeth watching the line of Banquo’s descendants stretching out until the crack of doom. Sorry, local kids, trying so hard to provide the cute factor, but I’ve seen Matilda and that’s the standard by which I judge all children. On stage and off!
The King is striving to be progressive, despite keeping slaves and comparing women to bowls of rice. He embodies that modern-day oxymoron: caring Conservatism. Developments in the modern world are at odds with his culture, traditions and ideology. The song, A Puzzlement, brings to mind current wrangles and spats over non-issues such as “gay” marriage. The King, charming and amusing though he may appear, reminds us of the backwards aspects of our own society. There are more obvious parallels with the recent change of rulers in North Korea but for me the relevance is seeing this show in the UK in 2012.
The King goes to great effort and expense – or rather he forces his people to – provide an extravagant display to welcome foreign visitors in a bid to show there is nothing amiss in his country. His people aren’t suffering. There is no hardship or barbarism. It’s a snow job, a costly PR exercise; fireworks, banquets and boat races to mask what is really going on. He would do well running the Olympic committee.
Mrs Anna (Josefina Gabrielle in excellent voice) is the voice of dissidence. She will not kowtow to His Majesty and tries to reason with him or flatter him into taking a more moderate line. But she is also drawn to his charismatic personality and friendship and understanding blossom between them. However, when a runaway slave is captured and her boyfriend is killed, the King reverts to type, even insisting on whipping the girl himself. His rule has been openly defied and so he seeks to reassert his power. The world, and his country, have moved on. His efforts bring about a heart attack from which he eventually dies (all the bloody kids have to come to his deathbed…) leaving his son and heir to proclaim changes to modernise the country. The old regime will die along with the individual ruler. Regimes and ideologies are mortal too if we refuse to propagate them.
This production is a jewel. The entire company sing the familiar songs very well. Standouts, apart from the two leads of course, are Claire-Marie Hall as Tup-Tim, Adrian Li Donni as Lun Tha and Maya Sapone as Lady Thiang. The humour and the melodrama are well-balanced and the design, by Sarah Perks, is exotic and sumptuous without crowding out the performers. Choreography by David Needham uses moves and motifs from the Far East – the Uncle Tom’s Cabin sequence is absolutely stunning. Director Paul Kerryson (the man behind the fabulous Gypsy currently at Curve) cements his reputation as the go-to guy for musical theatre.
But of course, inevitably, the stars for me are Rodgers and Hammerstein. This is a remarkable show as rich as the King of Siam.