Monday, 15 June 2009

The King and I - Royal Albert Hall

The King and I
by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

Director: Jeremy Sams

Reviewer: Mark Valencia

The Royal Albert Hall is the star of the show, of course. That vast arena is tailor-made for spectacle and sweep, and this King and I doesn’t disappoint. Robert Jones has fashioned a majestic curved space within the arena, versatile enough to accommodate the play’s many locations. He avoids all decorative clutter once the early harbour scene has been played out – wisely
for an in-the-round experience – although the Bangkok waterfront, replete with moored sapmans on waters of steaming humidity, remains powerfully in place throughout the performance.

At first glance, The King and I seems the idea choice for this enormous space. Anyone familiar with the tale of a widowed Englishwoman, Anna Leonowens, who arrives in Siam with a suitcaseful of British Imperialist values and sets about westernising the children of the King before belatedly and inconveniently falling in love with their
father, will be thrilled by the scale of this grand royal palace. It is tailor-made for parading Siamese children and energetic shall-we-dancing. But so much of Oscar Hammerstein’s book comprises intimate duologues (between Anna and the King, Anna and Lady Thiang, Lun Tha and Tuptim et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, as the King might say), that an equally viable case might be made for staging this play in a little studio theatre. It is, therefore, a tribute to the production that intimacy is never lost amid the pageantry.

Producer Raymond Gubbay has followed form in recruiting Jones and Jeremy Sams, the designer and director behind the recent Palladium Sound of Music, to head a team that includes Susan Kikuchi, who has been involved in over twenty productions of The King and I as either dancer or choreographer, and the MD Gareth Valentine, who does a valiant job of marshalling his distant singers and reconciling them with the (barely-visible) Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. Given the scale of the sprawl it is hardly surprising that his tempo choices veer towards the cautious.

A great deal hinges on casting a charismatic King. Daniel Dae Kim is too restrained to convey the role’s comic dimension, but he cuts an authoritative figure nonetheless. Maria Friedman is ideal in a role that she wears as confidently as her hooped skirts, and her Anna has surprising complexity. Jee Hyun Lim is outstanding as Lady Thiang (Something Wonderful is heart-stoppin
g), Yanle Zhong is a touchingly anguished though slightly florid-voiced Tuptim and, in the underwritten role of Tuptim’s lover, Ethan Le Phong gives the performance of the evening.

There’s no busy-ness like show busy-ness, and this is one very busy show. The enormous floor space is used kaleidoscopically by Sams and Kikuchi, but their bustle and traffic always has a clear purpose. Andrew Bridge’s subtle lighting offers them great support, and the only disappointment in an otherwise splendid production is the failure of Bobby Aitken’s sound design to tame the notorious Albert Hall cavern. He was not helped on opening night by some intrusive air conditioning noise (although this was dissipated after the interval and may not affect future performances). The ear does tune out the resonance after a while, but solving the RAH acoustic remains a work in progress.

Rodgers and Hammerstein went on to cap their partnership with The Sound of Music, a theme-for-theme, practically
scene-for-scene, retread of The King and I, but they could not match this original for melodic richness or emotional depth. Despite perpetuating some questionable attitudes towards Johnny Foreigner (and we must remember that this musical is almost ready for its buss pass, so it’s a product of its time) Hammerstein hints that all cultures have feet of clay, not least our own, and we should relate to the unfamiliar with humility rather than certainty. Some might argue that it’s a lesson still to be learnt.

Photos: Tristram Kenton
The King and I runs at the Royal Albert Hall until 28 June 2009
(20 performances only)
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