The King and I – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
By Gail Schuster, October 2019
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I has long been a crowd pleaser and the latest reincarnation of this classic is no different. Fans of the 1956 film version will not be disappointed, nor will newcomers to this piece of musical theatre.
The show opens with a thin piece of muslin suspended in front of the scenery, giving the impression of a shadow play, a reminder that we are going to be transported for the next couple of hours to the far east. The muslin disappears and we see an impressive ship docking in Bangkok bringing governess Anna Leonowens to work at the court of the King of Siam.
Anna is performed beautifully throughout by Annalene Beechey. Every song is enunciated perfectly as one would expect from a governess! Beechey brings emotion to her performance as the gutsy but essentially kind English teacher.
The story is taken from the novel Anna and the King of Siam written by Margaret Landon and published in 1944 which was based on Anna’s own memoirs in her book The English Governess at the Siamese Court written in 1870.
“Backdrop of creeping western imperialism”
Leonowens is an intriguing character. She was born in Ahednagar in India, which at the time was under the dominion of the British East India Company. The name of her maternal grandmother is unknown, and her biographer suggests that this was because her grandmother “was not European.” Landon suggests that it was likely that she was Anglo-Indian. Anna attended the Bombay Education Society’s girls’ school which at that time admitted girls of mixed heritage.
In later life Anna chose to have almost no contact with her family, claiming to have been born in Caernarfon with the surname Crawford (her father’s surname was Edwards) and to have attended an English boarding school. Perhaps she did this believing that her children would have better opportunities if their mixed heritage was concealed. Although in the production Anna only has one child, in life she had four, two of whom died very young which left her with a boy and a girl.
All of which leads us to the elephant in the room with this story. Although traditionally seen as a romance, it is against the backdrop of predatory, creeping western imperialism. Siam has just seen neighbouring Cambodia colonised by the French and the ruler is anxious about how best to protect his country from western ambition. Perhaps the prevailing view at the time that other countries were inferior and barbaric is summed up by the quote from Anna, “I am from a civilised country called Wales.”
“Truths being challenged“
Siam or modern-day Thailand was never colonised; was this due to the actions of King Mongkut and his son or because it suited the British and French to make Siam a buffer state between their colonies? The monarch’s uncertainty about how the world is changing, with things he once knew as truths being challenged, is explored in the song ‘A Puzzlement’: “There are times I almost think, I am not sure of what I absolutely know.”
The insecure, yet absolute monarch is expertly played by Jose Llana, who had the title role during the US tour and in the Lincoln Center Theater’s four Tony Award winning production. Like the great Yul Brynner, Llana brings humour to the character and has a good range of facial expressions, making the audience laugh without having to say anything.
The ridiculousness of having to demonstrate to the British that Siam is civilised is explored in the hilarious ‘Western People Funny’ when the king’s wives are dressed up in unfamiliar hooped underwear. They correctly surmise: “To prove we’re not barbarians they dress us up like savages, to prove we’re not barbarians we wear a funny skirt.”
“Bright and bold”
Another very enjoyable scene is the interpretation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The costumes in it are stunning, as indeed they are throughout the show. Costume Designer, Catherine Zuber won a Tony for the musical’s costumes in 2015. The stylised Siamese dancing choreographed by Christopher Gattelli is a joy to watch.
Cezarah Bonner, as Lady Thiang and Paulina Yeung who acted the part of the unfortunate Tuptim both sang beautifully and put in good solid performances.
There are many children in this production all of whom did a wonderful job. The scenes with the royal children in them are charming. Alfie Turnbull portrayed Louis Leonowens, Anna’s son well.
The sets designed by Michael Yeargan are exquisite throughout. From the opening with the huge steamer, to a garden adorned with masses of hanging flowers providing the hiding place for the illicit meetings of Tuptim and her lover Lun Tha and the gilt pillars representing the scale and majesty of the royal palace.
This is a big, beautiful, bright and bold version of The King and I, which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening out at the theatre.
images: Matthew Murphy