Review: The King and I, New Wimbledon Theatre

Review: The King and I, New Wimbledon Theatre

“Allow yourself to be swept away by this production’s infectious charm and the sheer talent of the performers.” Jenny Booth reviews.


Bartlett Sher’s fabulous revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical masterpiece The King and I won four Tony awards after its launch at New York’s Lincoln Center in April 2015. The press garlanded it with superlatives – “resplendent” (New York Times), “hypnotic” (Hollywood Reporter), “glorious” (The Guardian) – and five star reviews. After a long Broadway run it came to the West End and went on tour. Now, eight years on, with none of the original cast still attached, Sher’s production has started a fresh UK tour – and Wimbledon is its second tour date. Is it still any good? You had better bet it is. It is better than good, it is superb. This is a show out of the absolute top drawer, a glorious reminder of the golden age of Hollywood musicals. It held me gripped from the first big swooning rush of chords from the live orchestra to the final standing ovation. We clapped between scenes; we clapped after songs. If you see nothing else this week, try to see this.

Why? Well, there’s the quality of the acting. Helen George (Call the Midwife) is a revelation as principled English schoolma’am Anna Leonowens: she glided elegantly through her scenes with the poise of a Hollywood heroine, and won hearts with her humanity and humour. George inhabits her part every bit as credibly as Darren Lee, who is fantastic as the stubborn, impetuous but warm-hearted King of Siam who employs Anna to bring Western polish to his children and wives. Together, the pair generate a chemistry that makes them compelling to watch. They get excellent support from Kok-Hwa Lee as the cynical, Machiavellian prime minister and Caleb Lagayan as passionate Crown Prince Chulalongkorn. Then there is superb singing, notably from Cezareh Bonner as first wife Lady Thiang, and Marienella Phillips as tragic princess Tup Tim, but most of all from George herself, who showed an unsuspected ability to command the stage with her pure renditions of famous numbers including ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’ and ‘Shall We Dance?’

A high point for me was the ballet interlude in the second half, where dancers in classical Thai costumes reenact the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (or rather, The Small House of Uncle Thomas) to impress a visiting English dignitary – it was witty, exotic and evocative. Every schoolroom scene had the audience melting at the precocious talent of several small and inexpressibly cute children in Thai dress. The costumes originally designed by Catherine Zuber (of Moulin Rouge fame) are spectacular, and the lighting by Donald Holder is colourful and lushly atmospheric projected against filmy gauze screens. The set of the opening scene makes your jaw drop as a river boat glides towards the audience. The King and I hasn’t got the most cheerful ending but allow yourself to be swept away by this production’s infectious charm and the sheer talent of the performers.

New Wimbledon Theatre, until 18 Feb

Image: Helen George