My mother-in-law once had dinner with Yul Brynner. She delighted in telling this to anyone who would listen and always ended the tale with the throwaway line “I didn’t care for him – he was very arrogant.”Brynner took the role of the titular king, used to be on TV all the time when we were kids. It means that classic numbers such as Shall We Dance?, I Have Dreamed and Something Wonderful are embedded in our collective mental songbooks. Such nostalgic fondness for simpler times provides something of a get-out clause for the problematic datedness of some of the musical’s themes, but we’ll get to that. The King and I is a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical based on a book about the true story of an English governess who, widowed with a son, went to teach English to the children and wives of the King of Siam in the 1860s. The King was eager to modernise his country and, over a five-year period, the influence Anna had on the King’s ideas, politics, ethics and heart became increasingly significant.Watching The King and I at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, I was reminded of how much I loved that story and its reminder of childhood. Because, for those of a certain age, it feels as if great film musicals like this one, in which Hollywood star
Shall We Dance?, will leave goosebumps all over you. They are more then ably supported by the rest of the cast who bring charm, fun, delight and real emotion to the piece. It’s all very romantic.In the musical version, this clash of cultures begins as a confrontation between a headstrong Victorian lady and a King used to never being challenged, especially not by a woman. But as the differences between East and West, men and women, hearts and minds are explored, Anna and the King’s relationship blossoms until a friendship, a romance of sorts, brings out the full emotion of the piece. The production values in this glorious revival have no hint of touring production cost savings – it’s certainly a lavish piece of theatre. Sets, costumes, lightning and direction all serve to ensure you’ll have a night out that impresses visually. It also has a pretty much faultless cast, with stunning singing and dancing that at times overwhelm and really highlight how skilled the team of Roger & Hammerstein were as songwriters and dramatists. As the leads, Broadway star Darren Lee and Annalene Beechey have great chemistry which sweeps you along. Their big number,
So, while this is undoubtedly a splendid production, there’s just no getting around the fact that The King and I is a problematic musical. It’s certainly the case that the writers tried to address themes around colonialism, women’s rights, Empire and slavery, but what was forward-thinking in 1951 when it was written can be cringe-inducing to modern audiences. It’s fair to say that director Bartlett Sher has decided not to address contemporary issues too strongly, opting for eye-roll delivery of some of the worst offending lines here, and that embeds The King and I very much as a product of its time.If you’re able to get beyond that, this is just about as good a production as you’re likely to see.