Sunday, 19 March 2023

REVIEW: The King and I at the Wycombe Swan Theatre

Bartlett Sher’s magnificent revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s wonderful 1951 musical was first produced for the Lincoln Centre in New York in 2015 before being remounted at the London Palladium and released to cinemas in 2018. The production has been recast and remounted for an extensive UK tour which began in January 2023 in Canterbury and currently continues until November in Norwich and last week visited the Swan in High Wycombe for a sell-out week. It is well worth catching with its beautiful score, simple slick staging and appropriately diverse cast lead by Helen George as Anna and Darren Lee as the King.

Helen George is best known for her role in Call the Midwife but fully inhabits the role of the Governess arriving in Siam with her young son Louis and standing up to and winning over the dictatorial King. She handles the huge crinoline dresses with aplomb and delivers her songs with great passion and a good voice. She may not have the stage presence of Kellie O’Hara who played the role in New York and London, but she gives full range to the emotions from anger to caring and growing respect for the King and makes a very good and convincing Anna. We feel her nerves in “Whistle a happy tune”, her sorrow and hope in “Hello young lovers” and her joy in “Getting to know you”.

Opposite her, Darren Lee brings all his American musical theatre experience to the stage as the aloof King who is used to fawning at subservient courtiers around him and gradually learns to adapt his leadership in response to her prompting. It is an excellent, well-judged performance played with just enough comic touch to make him endearing. He is regal in “A puzzlement” as he reflects on the modern world and then burst into joyous life in “Shall we dance” as they swirl around the stage together.

They are well supported by an impressive cast with Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thiang with the charming “Something Wonderful” and then leading the Ensemble in the amusing take on different cultural dress styles in “Western people funny”. Marienella Phillips is very engaging in the troubled tole of Tuptim and narrates the second half ballet “The small House of uncle Thomas” with great charm. Indeed, I enjoyed watching the ballet more in the more intimate setting of the Swan than in the cavernous Palladium. Her love interest Lin Tha, is played by Dean John-Wllson and together they delivered the beautiful “I kiss in the shadow” with great control and charm. Caleb Lagayan does well creating the role of young Prince Chulalongkorn struggling with the impending responsibility of being king. Part of the endearing charm of the show is the young royal children who we meet in “March of the Siamese children” each responding differently to the King and Anna and establishing their individuality and love for both people.

The staging is a largely open stage with the high wall upstage reflecting the nation's insular outlook and pillars to set the internal palace rooms. The opening arrival boat sequence is well staged as is the transition into Anna’s first tentative steps on land. The front cloth and false front proscenium arch are beautifully lit during the overture with all these lovely tunes and let you know that you are in for a musical treat with this show. Nearly three hours later you leave with a smile on your face and a sense that it is a privilege to see this quality of production in UK Regional venues.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row J | Price of Ticket: £55

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