Friday, September 22

The King and I – Edinburgh Playhouse

A show originally performed in 1956, It would be easy to write this off as old, irrelevant, dull, an anachronism, a three-hour yawn fest? How wrong you would be! It is the very opposite on all counts and has to be one of the most opulent and lavish and thoroughly entertaining touring productions I have ever seen at The Edinburgh Playhouse. Not only that, it also has themes which are extremely relevant and pertinent to our times. At its centre, the role of women, particularly in Asian society and the tensions between East and West, which are probably even more extreme and concerning now than they ever were when this was written.

Anna Leonowens, played brilliantly by Annalene Beechey, is the headstrong school mistress travelling to Bangkok in Siam (now Thailand) to teach the King’s (Brian Rivera) 57 children English etc etc. As it turns out, it is not only the children she has to educate and attempt to make civilised. The chemistry between the two talented leads is there for all to see, and whilst they originally bump heads, the arc that Leonowens and Rivera play out towards a deeper relationship is both believable and real.

This show, like Madame butterfly was always controversial, portraying as it does a society very different to our own, and trying all the time not to slip into parody or outright criticism. It is a delicate tightrope, and one of the biggest problems in 2023 is that it is hard to get too invested in a well-educated independent woman falling for a misogynistic, polygamist dictator.

Credit: Johan Persson

Given the delicacy of some of the material, humour is pushed stronger than the romantic element, and director Bartlett Sher somehow manages to pull just the right amount out of every scene.

And then there is the music! Waves of sublime Rodgers and Hammerstein from the orchestra pit directed brilliantly by Christopher Mundy.

Special mention has to go to the creative team, set designer Michael Yeargan, Costumes by Catherine Zuber and Lighting by Donald Holder. From the moment that the iridescent golden curtain lights up from the first bars of the overture, we know we are in for a visual treat, the likes of which is becoming increasingly rare. The production values here are off the scale!

Perhaps my favourite part of the whole three-hour long show has to be the King’s show-within-a-show during act II, a bewitching, balletic dance sequence lead by the magnetic presence of the superb Rachel Wang-Hei Lau in the Eliza role and pursued energetically by the wonderfully elastic Qinwen Xue as Simon of Legree. Stunningly choreographed by Christopher Gattelli.

Given the complexity of casting this, the sensitivity of the material and the cost of touring this lavish set, I expect it is going to be a long time before this one comes back around, if ever? In which case, don’t miss your chance to see this brilliant production.

Reviewer: Greg Holstead

Reviewed: 12th September 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.