Some shows really stand the test of time well, and others don’t – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I sadly falls into the latter category. It’s a well-known and well-liked musical, but its themes wouldn’t be tolerated if it was written as a new work today. Whether it’s the ‘white saviour’ undertone for the whole narrative, or the depiction of foreigners as barbarians, or the dated attitudes towards women and how they should always be subservient to men – this all may have been acceptable when it was first staged over 70 years ago but not so much today… which makes it all the more baffling as to why none of its problematic themes have been addressed.
As a production, it’s not without redeeming features. Helen George (star of Call the Midwife) is great – she’s sweet, charming and sings wonderfully. The orchestra sounds magnificent and the arrangements are very impressive. Generally speaking the singing performances are pretty solid, and the choreography is strong, too – there are a some genuinely great moments. So it’s technically pretty decent, we just feel the source material itself needs something of an overhaul.
We were also a little disappointed with how it all looked – there’s an impressive opening scene with a boat docking at the chaotic harbour. Beyond that there isn’t another ‘wow’ moment – curtains and drapes are used a lot throughout, and we kept expecting something more exciting to be revealed, but nothing ever was. There were scenes where curtains would rise to reveal a slightly different array of curtains, which was underwhelming – in a space as cavernous as the Dominion Theatre we expected something a little more exciting.
Whether or not you enjoy this production of The King and I will depend entirely on how much you like the source material – there are plenty of nice songs in the musical and they’re performed perfectly well. At its heart, though, is essentially a show about a white English person talking loudly at Asian people until they agree that she’s right – which frankly feels a bit uncomfortable to watch in 2024.
GAY TIMES gives The King and I – 3/5
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