The King & I
Reviewed – 4th July 2018
“built on its flawless singing and orchestrations, and the set can afford to be barely an afterthought”
Perhaps there’s no bad time for a revival of The King and I. Amid themes of relations between cultures, what it means to be a woman and what it means to lead, this story and the questions that it asks may never cease to be relevant. That said, if no time is the wrong time, this feels like the perfect moment. As the world continues to turn outside the walls of the London Palladium, the King’s frustrated cry of “sometimes I wish I could build a wall around all of Siam” and his referral to Anna as a “difficult woman” hold onto a grim relevance that Rodgers and Hammerstein couldn’t have predicted.
For all its new pertinence, it’s clear that the London revival is making a great effort to maintain the classic nostalgia, with very few changes from the Broadway version, even down to having the same two brilliant actors in the lead roles. Kelli O’Hara’s portrayal of Anna makes it blatantly obvious how she has become so iconic in this role. She has a light and unassuming presence on stage, but underneath this there lies great power and tenacity. She perfectly captures the constant balancing act of existing as a Victorian widow, living outside the safety of the British empire. However, she doesn’t hide the exhaustion that this would bring: the moments when Anna’s carefully curated image cracks are some of the piece’s most powerful.
Likewise, Ken Watanabe’s King absolutely fills the stage by himself. While a few of his words were lost at times, this only served to remind me that the character was functioning in his second language and was constantly struggling to be understood, on both linguistic and personal levels.
When reviving this musical, an awareness of its history is key. When both the original Broadway and film casts were all too white, approaching this version with sensitivity is absolutely paramount and was clearly at the forefront of the creative team’s minds. For example, by staging a number with the King’s wives navigating the horrors of Victorian dresses before turning to look straight at the audience and inform us, directly and with obvious anger, that “Western people funny”, the balance of power is changed. We as a Western audience are accused of hypocrisy and self aggrandising, and this criticism cannot be ignored.
It would be impossible to discuss this musical without at least touching on the ensemble. Flitting easily between roles with an ever present energy, their talent is unmistakable. At times the sets felt as if they jumped between the opulence of the castle and something a little more unfinished, but this piece really doesn’t rely on the set. It’s built on its flawless singing and orchestrations, and the set can afford to be barely an afterthought.
While this revival had relatively little new to offer, the overwhelming sense is that they know what works, and they’re happy to stick to it.
Reviewed by Grace Patrick
Photography by Matthew Murphy
The King & I
London Palladium until 29th September
Previously reviewed at this venue