Ahhhh, “The King and I”, one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite films. The very title sums up an era of lavish musicals and escapist exoticism, and makes you go, “Ahhhhh”. Mrs C confessed she normally cries at the end, so I knew I would have to be on tearwatch alert. I don’t think I’ve seen the film – I’ve seen very few really – but the songs were always favourites of me dear old mother, and one of my earliest memories is being allowed to play her 78rpm record of Getting To Know You, then putting it on the floor, kneeling on it and breaking it in two. The perils of shellac.
There’s no doubt that someone has done something right with this touring production, born at the Leicester Curve, as the Derngate was packed on Thursday night and indeed I think the whole week has been more or less a sell-out.
There are lots of good things to say about this show. Primarily, the appreciative audience really loved it and gave it a very enthusiastic reception. I think it’s fair to say that many of them were Of A Certain Generation; some probably remembered the film coming out in 1952, a few were possibly even around in the days it was set in 1862. But they loved it, so if you match the target demographic with the show, it’s a total success, and I’m all for that.
My guess is there’s no one quite like Yul Brynner, and comparisons are always going to be odious, but Ramon Tikaram gives a fine performance as the King. He has a very gutsy voice and sings splendidly. His rather wayward hair impresses with a suitably exotic manner and he does the important aspects of the king – petulance, self-doubt and a growing warmth to his newly acquired member of staff – very convincingly. I liked his subtle throw-away facial expressions when Anna was introduced to his 67 children – very nice. Mrs C used to work with someone who knew his sister Tanita.
Now for my first less-than-complimentary note of the night. Anna is normally played by Josefina Gabrielle, a fine actress, whom we loved in Sweet Charity, and whose casting was the final clincher on whether or not to book the tickets. Always a fatal mistake to book on the strength of an actor, because you never know when they’re off sick and will be played by an understudy – but that’s the rules of theatrical engagement and it’s right to give the understudy all the respect and indeed encouragement they deserve. However, on this tour, Ms Gabrielle has decided she wants one day off a week and, in Northampton, Thursday was decreed to be her duvet day. You can’t tell from the King and I website which shows she’s not doing, but only by going to the individual theatres’ websites to see if they mention it. When I realised we’d booked for her day off, I have to tell you I was pretty miffed. Being sick is one thing; escaping or having a better offer is another. In my mind, it doesn’t say much for her regard for her audience. It makes you feel like you’re not that important to her. So if you are a fan of Ms Gabrielle, check she plans to show up the same night as you. I am going to move on now.
“Alternative Anna” was therefore played by Lori Haley Fox; and she has a beautiful singing voice and absolutely looks the part. I felt she was a cross between Maureen Lipman and Joyce Grenfell, although not particularly Lipman as Grenfell, if you see what I mean. She put Mrs C in mind of Julie Andrews – and I can see the likeness, perfectly clipped syllables and splendid diction. At times I didn’t get a huge sense of emotion from her though. When she sings the song “Shall I tell you what I think of you” when she is venting her spleen with frustration at the way the King behaves, I thought she was a little too polite and reserved. But she did sing “Hello Young Lovers” very touchingly, and her “Shall we dance” with the King, both romping round the stage, was a delight.
Continuing the theme of beautiful singing – and this production is notable for that – I really enjoyed the performance of Claire-Marie Hall as Tup-Tim, the new bride from Burma who is secretly in love with Adrian Li Donni’s Lun Tha. She sings like a dream, and her tragic story makes a really strong subplot. Their love scenes together are very tender and affecting, and really delicately done. I didn’t know how the story was to unfold and was quite upset that it didn’t end happily ever after.
I wasn’t quite so sure, however, about Maya Sapone’s Lady Thiang. She makes a splendidly authoritarian chief wife, delivers the lines amusingly and effectively and looks the part perfectly; but I wasn’t sure about her singing. It seemed as though she ran out of breath and or saliva during the song “Something Wonderful”, and I found it a strangely uncomfortable performance. Maybe she wasn’t very well.
The rest of the cast are all absolutely fine in their roles and a “big up” to thirteen year old Matthew Russell who played the part of Anna’s son Louis at the show we saw – quietly confident, sure-footed, a very good singer, perfect demeanour; all in all a very enjoyable performance.
But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t highlight a couple of things that really got on my nerves with this show. First – the set. If you read other reviews of this production you will see comments on how magnificent the staging is, how lovely the set, glorious the lighting and so on. Well, it is; but there is a big problem. The show has so many changes of scenery – not only does each of its eleven scenes take place in a new location (obviously) but within those scenes they’ve decided to do things like move the big Buddhas, bring down a light screen and have silhouettes behind, and similar kinds of exotic effects; and in order to achieve this, they have to trundle on massive tall screens that move – rather noisily and distractingly – in front of the set, backwards and forwards, meeting in the middle, moving apart, so that changes can be made to the beautiful set behind. The bizarre consequence of this is that – it seemed to me – an awful lot of the action ended up taking place in front of these screens on a tiny strip of stage, cramping the otherwise expansive nature of the staging. Added to which, the screens themselves are plain and rather ugly. You would guess you were looking at the back of them. I found it really irritating.
Second – and there’s nothing anyone can do about this – the show comes from an era where it was de rigueur to have a “dream ballet sequence”. I blame Oklahoma. In “The King and I”, it comes in the form of a play within a play: Tup-Tim’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – designed to ruffle the feathers of the King in its criticism of slavery. It’s such a shame, because it puts the brakes on what is, up till then, a pacey, funny and rewarding second half. And, boy oh boy, does this sequence go on. It does precious little to move the story forward, and, no matter how well it is performed, how elegant the costumes, how pleasant the music, how skilled the make-up, “etcetera, etcetera and etcetera”, it is so boring. Sorry to have to say it.
To sum up, I think the name of the game here is nostalgia. There’s no doubt this production sent home over a thousand very happy people last night, as I am sure it will every night till the tour ends in May. If you think you are the kind of person who will enjoy this show, I am convinced you will. And why wouldn’t you – great songs, great singing and a huge wallowful of nostalgia. But it didn’t elicit a tear from Mrs C.