'The King and I' at the London Palladium - review

"A lavish, subtly updated revival."


This revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic is as lavish as they come, opening with a huge boat sailing right up to the front row and filling the massive Palladium stage with opulent scenery, big numbers and colourful costumes, including a hooped skirt so large it would struggle to fit within the proscenium arch of a smaller venue.

The skirt in question is worn by widowed English school teacher Anna, who sails into 1860s Siam with her young son in tow to take up a post as tutor to the King's numerous children sired by many wives.

It is, on the surface, an argument for Western imperialism, with Anna bringing knowledge of the world (which some believe to be carried on a turtle's back) and Siam's rather small place in it to the siblings and the King himself whilst challenging long-held traditions like his insistence that no-one's head should ever be higher than his and that women should love who they're told to, not who they want in their hearts.

Photography: Matthew Murphy

But written by Hammerstein and scored by Rodgers in the 1950s, it's more complex than that, questioning values on both sides of the tradition vs progress debate. Some have carped about its casual racism but, in director Bartlett Sher's subtle reinterpretation, Siam's customs – like the delightful 'March Of The Siamese Children' and the narrated ballet of 'The Small House Of Uncle Thomas' – are revered and the King is a troubled leader, not a despicable despot.

Ken Watanabe is wonderful in the role. He's not, to be frank, much of a singer but he gets at the warmth behind the King's steely exterior and he has a great rapport with Kelli O'Hara's Anna.

Feted with a Tony Award for her performance on Broadway in 2015, O'Hara is sensational, staunch in her feminist beliefs but deftly comical when trying to convince the King, thus lessening the 'Britain knows best' subtext. And she has a voice of such purity that when she sings 'Hello, Young Lovers' it brings you to tears without any histrionics.

Photography: Matthew Murphy

A production of this size is all about the sheer joy of musical theatre and The King And I delivers. It's good old-fashioned entertainment with a magnificent score that takes flight during numbers like 'Getting To Know You' and 'Shall We Dance?'

But it's also surprisingly modern in Anna's championing of women's rights, sending you out whistling a happy tune but also debating its larger themes. Bravo!

Rating: 5/5

The King and I is at the London Palladium until 29 September. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.

Words by Simon Button