The King and I – Review – Hull New Theatre
By Karl Hornsey, February 2020
When Hull New Theatre underwent a major rebuilding programme and subsequently reopened in 2017, it was with the aim of attracting productions such as The King and I to the city. This version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s much-loved stage play is now on a worldwide tour, having wowed audiences in the West End, and as such, it demonstrates the pulling power that Hull now has, with the likes of Mamma Mia! and Les Misérables to follow later in the year.
The King and I comes from the golden age of musicals, when the aforementioned writing duo could seemingly do no wrong, and director Bartlett Sher’s production is quite breathtaking in the brilliance of the sets, costume and stage management, not to mention outstanding performances from the two leads in an adaptation that has stayed faithful to the original novel.
The story begins back in 1862 as British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens arrives in Siam, now Thailand, with her young son, having been hired by the King to help modernise and teach his many children about the world that exists outside the boundaries of the country. She arrives at a time of emotional conflict for the King, who rules his people in very traditional ways, while under pressure from the West to impose modern ethics upon them.
With the King proving spoilt, stubborn, headstrong and used to getting his own way, and Anna refusing to simply become another one of the women who bow down to him, the scene is set for a battle of wills that dominates the story. It’s a tale of East v West, of the relics of slavery and, of course, of the place of men and women in society at the time, but even now, more than 150 years on from the original source material, there are moral issues that are hugely relevant to this day.
“Chemistry that sizzles”
Despite the lavish production, full-scale orchestra and beautiful costumes, this is essentially a story dominated by the two leads, played by Annalene Beechey and Darren Lee, and both turn in wonderful performances as two vastly different people who gradually begin to find some common ground and grow closer. While there’s never an element of romance as such, certainly not of the type often found in musicals, there is a chemistry between the two that sizzles on the stage, none more so than during my highlight of the evening, the climactic duet ‘Shall We Dance?’
The likes of ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’ and ‘Getting to Know You’ are also among almost 20 musical numbers packed into the production, and the second act features a remarkable and somewhat bizarre ‘show within a show’, as the King lays on a traditional ballet for his visiting guests from England, that has to be seen to be believed.
As well as the music, the script also injects plenty of humour, especially for the often bemused King, as he tries to understand Anna and the ways of the world from which he has been hidden for so long, and with a fair dollop of tragedy as well, this is truly a production that has a bit of everything for all ages.
images: Matthew Murphy