Review: The King and I at Newcastle Theatre Royal
We got to know the story of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I at Newcastle's Theatre Royal - and it was precisely our cup of tea
The King and I, featuring hits from the golden age of musicals such as ‘Getting to Know You’ and ‘Shall We Dance?’, tells the story of British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens who, after becoming a widow to her beloved Tom, travels to the palace of Siam with her son, played by talented child actor, Dexter Barry, to work for the King of Siam who is in search of a teacher to educate his many children and to help him fix his ‘barbarian’ reputation in the Western world.
After having watched the King and I film over a decade ago, I was excited to rediscover the story of this multi-Tony Award-winning production. Being a huge fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s other musical masterpieces, I very much enjoyed the opening number of ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’ as it reminded me of the similarly uplifting hit ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music, even though the King and I was first written and performed in 1951, eight years before the legendary duo brought the Austrian Alps to theatres.
The musical expertly explores some hard-hitting themes that were ahead of its time when it originally opened on Broadway in the 50s, including death, attitudes towards women, race, and culture. In fact, it was the cultural clashes between the King and Anna that made the story so compelling and at times amusing.
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In Act One, Anna, expertly portrayed by Annalene Beechey, shows her strength of character by immediately standing up to the King after arriving in the country. This is something the people of Siam had previously been too scared to do, as demonstrated in the song, ‘Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?’. Beechey gives us a masterclass in performing through song and her vocals are pure perfection. For me, she stole the show by singing lines such as ‘your servant! Your servant! Indeed I’m not your servant’, and ‘because I’m a woman, you think, like every woman, I have to be a slave or concubine’. She didn’t hold back and it was empowering to watch.
The King is played by Darren Lee who is a bona fide Broadway legend having starred in Chicago and Guys and Dolls (to name but a few of his credits). He plays the character in such a delicate way by showing the flaws of the King’s ego. In the song ‘A Puzzlement’ he emotionally exposes himself to the audience by remarking on his confusion about how to be a good leader. This gives us a glimpse into his almost child-like vulnerability, showing a depth to the character we hadn’t previously seen. Seeing him perform this song, it is clear why Lee is celebrated in the musical theatre world.
Throughout the show, it was interesting to watch Anna and the King’s relationship evolve as they go from constantly butting heads to liking each other in their own unique way. Their back and forth is often quick and at times funny, the King’s catchphrase is ‘et cetera, et cetera, et cetera’ which he learned from Anna, and it’s heartwarming and amusing to witness how Anna influences him (even though his stubborn attitude won’t allow him to admit this).
It would be remiss of me not to mention the children in this production; not only are they adorable (there were a few ‘awws’ in the audience) but their acting is also impeccable. When they are introduced in The March of Siamese Children, the way they portray their different personalities through their body language and the choreography is fantastic. The King’s son Prince Chulalongkorn, played by Caleb Lagayan, was brilliant at this. He stormed onto the stage, making you dislike him at first, but as you watch his character develop your opinion changes. He is the underrated star of the show.
There are so many interconnected stories in this tale and the whole ensemble was fantastic, from the beautiful ballet dancing in The Small House of Uncle Thomas to the tragic love story between the characters of Lan Tha and Tuptim played by Dean John-Wilson and Amelia Kinu Muus, and the inspiring wisdom of Lady Thiang. The show shines a spotlight on every individual character, giving the audience an opportunity to learn something from them.
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There is so much to unpack in this brilliant musical that you just need to witness it for yourself. It showed the power of human connection and belonging and every character teaches or reminds you of some valuable life lessons that we should all live our lives by. As Anna joyfully sings in the musical’s most famous number, The King and I was precisely my cup of tea and it had me whistling a happy tune on my way home.
The King and I plays at Newcastle Theatre Royal Tuesday 23rd – Saturday 27th May 2023 playing evenings at 7.30pm and matinees Wednesday and Thursday 2pm and Saturday 2.30pm.