A gleam of burnished gold runs through the Leicester Curve’s production of The King and I, revived by new production company Music and Lyrics for a tour, opening at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh.
A scene from The King and I at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh Photo: Catherine Ashmore
This is much more than the dated 1950s telling of a quaint Oriental despot’s downfall. In Ramon Tikaram’s representation of the King of Siam, there is a man deeply questioning his own reality. Josefina Gabrielle’s I, widowed schoolmistress Anna employed by the King to teach his many children, has her own superficial, cut-glass accented certainties - but built on a quagmire of emotion.
The result, with a spectacular set designed by Sara Perks and lit impressively by Philip Gladwell, is a piece of theatre that gives something of real substance for Richard Rogers’ strong melodies to play out across.
Between a ten-piece onstage orchestra, which is visible through the backcloth for most of the production, and the sliding flats which screen the stage from the audience between scenes, Tikaram and Gabrielle construct a play about the nature of self-deception that transcends the imperialist fiction of English superiority which a superficial reading of the production might assume it was based upon.
The key is obvious as early as Gabrielle’s performance of the opening number, I Whistle A Happy Tune. Musically she allows her voice to give warmth and a lilt to her accent. But through her body language you realise that she has her own fears and anxieties from which she is protecting not only her son Louis, but herself.
Those not seeking anything more than a good performance of an old favourite need have no worries about her performance, either. She carries her vast, ballooning dresses with utmost conviction, while her voice constantly finds the dance and movement in the melodies. Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?, performed alone in her bedroom in her far from scanty foundation garments, is an electric scene, undercut with sensual tension.
Tikaram gives an appropriate but not quite as fulsome performance. As a character he has found the humanity at the King’s core, the self-doubt of one who knows the power of appearance, and the intelligence of one who is both understanding of new ideas but circumspect at how to introduce them. Musically, he has a slightly more vacillating performance with a voice that does not quite convey the power and strength of the character.
Director Paul Kerryson, with choreographer David Needham, ensure there are no doubts that Siam is culturally equal to the visiting British dignitary, Sir Edward Ramsay - a twinkle-eyed James Hirst. The Act II ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, is clear and concise in its message, while being a jewel of storytelling ballet and song. Makoto Iso provides a standout performance of concentration and control as Little Eva.
The secondary characters are performed well, particularly Adrian Li Donni as the Burmese emissary Lun Tha, in love with the Burmese “present” to the King, Tup-Tim. While his voice has a boldness of approach, Claire-Marie Hall’s Tup-Tim sadly falls to the demands on the extremities of her vocal range.
A powerful, satisfying production which lifts the original story while retaining what made it so satisfying as a musical in the first place.