Simply Breathtaking. That is the only word that can be used to describe ‘The King And I’ which has opened for the Christmas season in Birmingham at The Alexandra this week. The story of the young English widow who became a governess for the children of the King of Siam is well known, with three film versions, one that includes the career defining performance by Yul Brynner. This beautiful stage version wows with glorious well known songs, impressive sets and staging, and glorious central performances by a pitch perfect cast. It is, quite simply, wonderful.
This new version of The King And I brings the politics of the original story back to the fore. It is, first and foremost a story of love and friendship that blossoms despite a clash of cultures, but there is also an underlying story of a King trying to keep hold of his traditions and his power as the European states start to expand their empires in the Far East. Anna Leonowens is a young widow with a son who goes to Siam to be the teacher to the children of the King. She has a strong independent spirit and a real sense of her own worth, and is shocked by the way that the women of the court are treated, and the way they accept this submissively. Her own relationship with the King is fiery to begin with, and she threatens to leave on more than one occasion, but a real friendship develops, one that could turn to something more, and based on a mutual respect that is totally new to the King, but all this is threatened by the doomed love of the King’s new wife Tuptim and Lun Tha, the man who brought her from Burma to Siam.
Annalene Beechley and Jose LLana are just perfect as Anna and the King, with a true chemistry, pitch perfect vocals and classy performances. Llana makes the King both infuriating and easy to love, whilst Annalene pitches Anna to perfection, with the clipped accent, the ladylike elegance and the feisty spirit. They have a wonderful supporting cast around them, notably Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thiang, the King’s most important wife and mother of the heir, Kok Hwa Lie as Kralahome the Prime Minister, and Aaron Teoh as the heir Prince Chulalongkorn.
Paulina Yeung is a stunning Tuptim, with an incredible voice and a real sadness to her performance. Ethan Le Phong as her doomed lover Lun Tha is also very good, and I loved their scenes together, so romantic but tinged with foreboding. The staging of Tuptim’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin chillingly echoes her own feelings towards the King, and is a sad reflection of what is to come.
The King and I is a sumptuous treat. The ‘Shall We Dance’ scene is a highlight, but there are so many more, not least the school room scenes with the wonderful children. The King and I is a true classic. Not to be missed this Christmas.