One Night In Bangkok: The King And I At London Palladium

The King and I, London Palladium ★★★★★

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One Night In Bangkok: The King And I At London Palladium The King and I, London Palladium 5
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Seventy years before Maria left the abbey to look after the von Trapp children, British governess Anna Leonowens sailed to Bangkok to tutor the 82 princes and princesses of the Siamese court, far outranking the Austrian postulant for both class size and influence.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

The balance of the show, and your reaction to it, pivots on casting. Kelli O’Hara trails a cloud of Broadway success and redefines the role in a way that not only lays the ghost of previous incumbents, but also with vocal techniques and acting subtlety that outshine all our home grown talent.  There is something extraordinary about how she sings — her voice has an intense soprano power even in the softest lines at the beginning of some verses where her diction and English inflection are so impeccable, but when it climbs through a crescendo it does so seamlessly: there's no gear change, no stagey belting, no break. It is rare and enchanting to hear.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Ken Watanabe, sadly, is not in the same class. For sure there's tangible chemistry with O'Hara and he has fine comic timing to debunk the pomposity of the King: but particularly in Act One he's unpardonably indistinct, and his diction destroys the lyrics.  

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Constant set changes and a glittery front cloth repeatedly drawn across the stage give Bartlett Sher's production a grandiose, lush pantomime feel. In the Thai-styled ballet 'Small House of Uncle Thomas', the choreography by Christoper Gattelli derived from Jerome Robbins' is tremendous and the 40-plus cast show their mettle, but at 16 minutes in a three hour show it's a bit too much of a good thing.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

The show has been very slightly updated, but resists reference to contemporary politics — not even when the bombastic King boasts he wants to build a Wall round Siam. The hints at modernisation and emancipation remain, but detractors question whether the replacement of traditional Thai values with those of the moralising Empire-builders of Victoria's reign would constitute an improvement.  

Photo: Matthew Murphy

None of which undermines the fact that The King and I is an immense piece of work, and to see a grand production in a great theatre, you could not do better than this at the Palladium.

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The King and I, London Palladium, Argyll Street, W1. Until 29 September 2018.

Last Updated 04 July 2018