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Review: The King and I at Liverpool Empire ****

A lot has happened since the Lincoln Center Theater’s lavish-looking production of The King and I last swept on to the stage at the Empire in early March 2020.

Then, we were (unknowingly), just days away from a lockdown which brought the country – and with it live performance – to a juddering halt. And there were times when some of us probably wondered if we would ever sit in the dark in carefree enjoyment again.

But three years on, here we all are, and what a pleasure to welcome back this touring version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 stage classic with busy houses all week in the Empire’s capacious auditorium.

Visually it remains delightful, from the gauzy curtaining in iridescent hues to the deep sunset which suffuses the sky as widowed teacher Anna Leonowens and her son Louis arrive by steamer in the Chao Phraya river, to the cascading flowers amid which young lovers Tuptim (Marienella Phillips) and Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson) steal illicit moments, to the ravishing framing of the narrated ballet-within-the-show Small House of Uncle Thomas.

Michael Yeargan’s set is clever in creating a sumptuous feeling with relatively few components, achieved in partnership with atmospheric lighting design from Donald Holder and Catherine Zuber’s detailed period costuming.

Meanwhile the ballet, one of the highlights of the evening, is a stylish showcase for Christopher Gattelli’s polished choreography (based on Jerome Robbins’ original dances).

Above: The Small House of Uncle Thomas. Top: Helen George as Anna and Darren Lee as King Mongkut.

But strip away the setting (and a phalanx of cute children), and the heart of the piece remains the relationship between the titular ‘King and I’ – the stubborn Leonowens and the equally stubborn Siamese ruler Mongkut.

Darren Lee, returning as the King, marries imperiousness, boyish fun and vulnerability in his vigorous and enjoyable characterisation of an absolute monarch torn between tradition and progress.

And Helen George, a firm and reassuring presence on Sunday night television, also proves a firm and reassuring presence here as a woman navigating her way through a man’s world with a strong sense of justness that finds itself challenged.

George, who trained in musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music, sings with clarity and her time on Strictly a few years ago also proves useful when it comes to the energetic whirl around the stage with Lee to the crowd-pleasing Shall We Dance?

Above: Helen George as Anna Leonowens.

Together Lee and George create a very watchable rapport, while there are also expressive performances from Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thiang, and Caleb Lagayan as Price Chulalongkorn.

While the show’s big numbers are charming, the action around them could occasionally do with a bit more energy.

And as I’ve mentioned previously (rather like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific) what was accepted 70-odd years ago can feel a mite more problematic today with its visual and vocal depiction of the inhabitants of the Siamese court and the suggestion that what a ‘barbaric’ and backward Siam needs is a ‘civilising’ Western influence.

But certainly colonialism isn’t given an easy ride here, while the show also pokes fun at rigid Victorian convention – including the preposterousness of its acres of ‘modest’ crinoline, and delivers the more audacious (historical) inherent misogyny with a knowing raised eyebrow.


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