Sher’s Siamese Triumph

Rating: 4

By Richard Barber

It was Gertrude lawrence who suggested to rodgers and hammerstein that the popular novel and hit film, Anna and the King of Siam, would make a good basis for a musical. that was 1951 and so it proved, although her suggestion that noël coward could play the King was kicked into touch in favour of the then-unknown yul brynner who went on to win an oscar (opposite deborah Kerr) in the 1956 film version.

The classic musical has been revived many times and is now to be found at the palladium in a production direct from new york’s lincoln center which arrives in london trailing the sorts of five-star reviews most actors would kill for.

Director Bart Sher has mined the original text for strikingly modern themes that clearly resonate with contemporary audiences. At one point, the King, having successfully prevented siam, as thailand then was, from being colonised by the French or the british, asks: ‘what should i do? build a fence around my country – or let everyone in?’ you can only wonder at the reaction to that in Trump’s America.

The action pivots on the clash between tradition and modernity. King Mongkut has hired governess Anna leonowens to teach his 82 children from 35 wives. but while he’s forward-looking in his approach to education, he’s a backwoodsman when it comes to women’s rights – they must all prostrate themselves (‘like toads,’ says an outraged Anna) in his presence – and in his handling of the illicit love affair between Tuptim (Na–Young Jeon) and Lun Tha (an underused Dean John-Wilson) which ends brutally in the second act.

There is much to admire here: Michael Yeargan’s imposing, fluid sets; catherine Zuber’s ravishing costumes; Christopher Gattelli’s clever choreography; Stephen Ridley’s more than competent pit band; and a clutch of pint-sized Asian children to melt the stoniest heart. And Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, is given one of the songs of the night in something wonderful that naoko Mori delivers impeccably.

But, in the end, it’s the two title roles that matter most. In casting japanese movie star Ken Watanabe, Sher has found someone who imparts the role with the requisite level of majesty – and not a little wit – but he’s no singer and his accent is such that you can’t always understand what he’s saying.

No such misgivings about the incandescent Kelli O’hara, her bell-like soprano and equally matchless acting skills combining to provide the jewel in the production’s crown. And her rendition of hello young lovers would bring a tear to a glass eye. 

Until 29 September (