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Review: The King and I at the Palace Theatre is ‘expressive, exquisite and a timeless classic’

The King and I takes center stage at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, captivating audiences with its timeless charm and talented cast.

The King and I makes a royal entrance at the Palace Theatre in Manchester.

While we celebrated the Coronation with a weekend full of royal events for our very own King Charles down in London, another royal family were making their way up to Manchester.

The classic musical from the ’50s, The King and I, brings with it a diverse and talented cast to the Palace Theatre stage.

The show begins before the lights have dimmed, with the orchestra playing snippets of their instruments, and low booming drums echo from under the stage.

They begin to play the recognisable melodies from ‘Shall We Dance’ as the last few members of the audience take their seats.

As the curtain is pulled away by the cast, it reveals the bow of a ship, carrying Anna, her young son Louis and the ship’s captain; and what Louis says is all their possessions.

Just like the well-known film from the ‘50s and the later animated version, The King and I centers around Anna Leonowens, played by Annalene Beechey and The King of Siam, played by Darren Lee.

Anna is a widowed school teacher from Wales, traveling Asia with her son, and about to begin her new role as tutor to the royal children of Siam.

She arrives wearing typical Western attire for the era, the 1800’s, consisting of a tightly laced corset and a large floor-length skirt that is as wide as she is tall.

As the ship pulls into the dock of Bangkok in Siam, now known as Thailand, the king’s servants and prime minister come to greet the new guests.

The contrast between Anna’s and the prime minister’s outfits is stark, with her son pointing out over the edge of the boat “He’s naked!” as a barefooted, shirtless man wearing only a cloak covering his shoulders and loose pants appears on stage.

Trying to calm her worried son, she tells him not to be intimidated and they sing “I Whistle A Happy Tune” together as they put on their brave faces and continue with their journey to the palace.

Before she can begin teaching, she must meet with the king, which seems to be much easier said than done.

The king is a stubborn character with many wives and a distinct lack of respect for women.

He is given a new wife, Tuptim, by a neighboring country, however, she already has her heart set on another man.

Anna witnesses the gifting of the new wife and is shocked that he treats women in this way as if they are something to collect.

Upon their first meeting, the king tells Anna that he has 60 or so children, which by the end of the show rises to over 70, with a few more on the way.

However, she will only be instructed to teach a select few of his wives and children who favour him, including his new wife Tuptim and eldest son Prince Chulalongkorn.

Anna endeavours to do her job, and do it well, educating them all on the world and magical things they have never seen or heard of, like snow.

The king’s character throughout the performance changes dramatically. Intentionally and otherwise.

Darren Lee’s portrayal of the king stops the character from being two-dimensional, as you can see the changes in body language and facial expressions as the acts progress.

He becomes softer the more he and Anna learn from each other, he learns to show restraint and compassion.

However, Darren’s American twang comes through when he is supposedly learning to speak better English at the beginning of the show.

This is only noticeable a few times and with Lee’s acting ability shining through, you get hooked on the character and the bond he has with Anna.

They strike up a unique partnership, with Anna educating his wives and children and teaching him how to be a better ruler.

Eventually, even after all the bickering, they share a dance to the classic “Shall We Dance?”

The best scene in the entire performance, in my opinion, takes place when the king is trying to clear his name.

He feels he needs to put on a good show for his noble guests and tell the world he is a good king.

With the help of Anna and Tuptim, played by Marienella Phillips, the wives and the royal dancers put on a storytelling performance of a traditional Thai ballet-inspired dance.

Every movement is purposeful and expressive.

It’s like watching a show within a show.

The staging is dramatic, with the cast sitting around the edge of the stage, watching along with the audience.

The traditional headpieces and costumes are exquisite, their outfits reflect the stage lighting perfectly, making them look like they are made from solid gold.

They tell the story of a young slave fleeing her captor, an evil king, to find her long-lost love.

The illusion is only broken once Tuptim cuts into her narration, heart-wrenchingly admitting that the story hits a little too close to home and that she too wishes she could escape the palace in pursuit of love.

The entire show feels nostalgic and vintage.

The performers and directors have not tried to modernise a classic, they have simply brought it to a new audience who may not have seen the original film or theatre shows.

They’ve produced something that feels as though you are watching a black-and-white film from an entirely different era, while simultaneously being drawn in by the bright and inviting staging and use of colour.

It is a story that can be enjoyed by multiple generations and is a timeless classic.

The King and I is on at the Palace Theatre from the 9th to the 13th of May 2023.

You can grab your tickets here.

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