THE KING AND I review YORK THEATRE ROYAL
The King and I
York Theatre Royal
by Roger Crow
I’ve never seen the Yul Brynner/Deborah Kerr movie of The King and I, the big screen version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit musical, or Jodie Foster/Chow Yun-Fat’s take on the well-worn story. But I remember watching Anna and the King, Brynner’s 1970s TV series inspired by said show and film. So I’m a little familiar with the story of Anna Leonowens, the 19th-century English schoolteacher whose culture clash, love/hate relationship with King Mongkut of Siam forms the backbone of this yarn.
As the latest stage version at York Theatre Royal unfolds with a lengthy filmed preamble and credits, it’s clear those behind the scenes are devoted fans of the film. But I don’t need to see around 10 minutes of opening credits featuring behind-the-scenes footage. At just under three hours, including interval, the show is already too long. What it should be is: rousing music; curtain up. Action.
Excluding a rendition of ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’, the opening scene is a little stilted as the widowed Anna and her son approach Siam by ship. However, once things get going, any awkwardness dissipates and the leads come into their own. ‘Anna’ has a terrific voice worthy of any West End performer, while the ‘King’ acquits himself well as the arrogant ruler, despite some of his dialogue getting lost in translation.
The King and I: “A fine diversion”
The set is simple but effective; the costumes are colourful and dazzling, while the small army of kids playing the King’s offspring generate the obligatory ’ahhs’ from the audience. The lengthy introduction of his brood may be faithful to the original show, but it could have been snappier.
It’s not a bad show, but it could have been as effective with less cast and snappier pacing. Half the problem may be the source material. There’s at least four standout tunes and a lot of filler, while the subtleties of looks captured on film lose something when seen from the gods.
The King and I: “As dazzling as any professional show”
Performers and crew deserve full marks for effort, and purists familiar with the original show will no doubt be thrilled, but I like a production that takes more risks. (Name drop alert: David Essex once told his improv moments for the West End production were set in stone for the Broadway version). A shame some shows can’t be looser while retaining the spirit of the source, but luvvies are a superstitious lot, so I understand their reluctance to tinker with a beloved classic).
Later, I look up some of the film’s scenes online and realise how stilted some of them are. Adapting a 1950s musical film for a 2017 audience is no easy task. Pacing from 60-plus years ago has obviously changed enormously, but to get the show right for now, sacrifices should be made. Lose some of the filler songs, keep the classics and the core of the story and it should work just as well.
For those that fear change, York Light’s latest ambitious show should tick most of the boxes musicals fans insist on when escaping from their troubles for a few hours. Niggles aside, getting to know The King and I for a few hours is one of the highlights of the week and proof that am dram performances can be as dazzling as any professional show. With some judicious pruning, it could be even better.
images: York Light