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'The King and I' review – a spirited Helen George delivers in this golden musical revival

Read our four-star review of The King and I, now in performances at the Dominion Theatre to 2 March.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Shall we dance? That famous invitation from Rodgers and Hammerstein is once more being extended to West End audiences as Bartlett Sher’s Tony-winning revival of their 1951 musical The King and I returns to London – this time with Call the Midwife’s Helen George starring as the plucky governess Anna Leonowens, reprising the role from the UK tour.

Sher’s epic vision was last seen in London at the Palladium, but it’s an equally good match for the Dominion. From the ship-shape opening spectacle – an enormous paddle steamer docks centre stage, its prow jutting out proudly – to lavish scenes in the King of Siam’s palace, teeming with wives and children, it’s always a visual feast and, more importantly, conveys the vast scale of the Siamese court.

That’s key to our understanding of the courageous Englishwoman who dares to not only enter this hallowed space, but to challenge the authority of the King himself. George absolutely delivers as this spirited, sharp-witted, slightly entitled, but always scrupulously fair character, who wins us over with a charming combination of strength and warmth.

No stranger to period drama, she seems right at home in the mid 19th century, and, as you’d expect, is excellent at marshalling an adorable young cast. Her singing voice is sweet but needs more power in such a vast arena, and there’s too little romantic tension between her and Darren Lee’s monarch – but they do convey a fascinating meeting of minds.

Sher wisely places extra emphasis on this aspect to counter the orientalist criticisms often lobbed at this show. Lee’s commanding, fiercely intelligent King wrestles with complex decisions in numbers like “A Puzzlement”: should he ally his country with colonial Western nations and risk being consumed by them? Can he adopt some Western values while keeping his own cultural identity?

That dilemma takes on a personal dimension in his dealings with Anna. Can he listen to her ideas, and respect her, while remaining the untouchable, divinely appointed King – and a man, at that, while she is a mere woman? That’s enjoyably explored in their sparky repartee, which illustrates to us, at least, that they have plenty of common ground if they can only admit it.

Sher balances critiques of East and West – the latter in the amusing second-act number “Western People Funny”, as the King’s wives wrestle with corsets, hoops and tortuous shoes, and in a remarkable set-piece: the Siamese dance-theatre adaptation of anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, exquisitely choreographed by Christopher Gatelli, based on Jerome Robbins, and mesmerisingly led by Rachel Wang-Hei Lau.

Yet for all the beauty and splendour on display (courtesy of Michael Yeargan’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes), this is a still a world subject to the whims of a tyrant. That’s made clear in the subplot concerning poor Tuptim, who uses that Uncle Tom drama to comment on her own enslavement, and her forbidden lover – both imbued with shimmering vocals and fiery passion by Marianella Phillips and (at the performance I saw) Jeffrey Chekai.

Excellent too are Caleb Lagayan as the fervent but increasingly open-minded crown prince, and Cezarah Bonner as the King’s chief wife, Lady Thiang, who provides the knockout musical moment of the night with the stirring stand-by-your-man number “Something Wonderful”, which captures the show’s prevailing sentiment: love, in all its forms, is the great mystery.

But then this is a ravishing score, teeming with delights – “Shall We Dance?”, “Getting to Know You”, “Hello, Young Lovers”, “I Have Dreamed” – all robustly supported by the buoyant orchestra under Christopher Mundy.

Golden Age musical pleasures with a dash of contemporary wisdom: it’s a pretty heady combination. Shall we dance? You’d be a fool to refuse.

The King and I is at the Dominion Theatre through 2 March. Book The King and I tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The King and I (Photo by Johan Persson)

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