In the pantheon of great theatrical quotes, the words "etcetera, etcetera, etcetera," hardly ring with Shakespearean tension. Yet they remain central to the script of The King and I in a way which suggests Rodgers and Hammerstein, or their collaborators, thought they'd found a joke well worth repeating.
After the King of Siam has heard his English schoolteacher, Anna, using this mysterious saying, he takes endless satisfaction in rolling the phrase around at every opportunity. It mimics both the King's own innocence of Western culture, and his subtle belittling of the refined manners displayed by a woman who becomes central to his life. Two matters which are important to the plot.
But given that Siam/Thailand is now virtually the first point of call for Western tourists, you'd have thought that maybe an updating of The King and I's finer points might be in order? Not a bit of it. From the traditional costumes to the staid orchestration, this show is an exercise in pure nostalgia. Preserved in amber. Not even our thoroughly modern Josie Lawrence can shake off the satin drapes that hang heavily over the whole auditorium. Maybe they should have called Ang Lee in to direct.
Which isn't to suggest that this is an unworthy venture. Far from it. For wholesome, all-round family entertainment, you'd be hard pushed to match The King and I's finest moments. And there are plenty. Lawrence started out with the cautious hesitation of one still feeling her way into the part, and much of the first half suffered rather as a result. Being dwarfed by the colossal sets can hardly have helped anyone either, as much of the opening 90 minutes is given over to solo pieces.
Part two certainly found Lawrence beginning to loosen up, however. The Palladium audience, with a hastily quaffed interval drink inside them, began to do likewise. But the second half is dominated, and rightly so, by the sparkling ballet that the children and supporting cast put on to entertain the King's visiting dignitaries. This is pure, engaging musical theatre, with timing and continuity of the highest order.
Keo Woolford, as the King, is suitably strident although his singing voice hardly matches the character's dominant persona. However, some of the solo work from the female Oriental leads is exceptional. As are the imposing sets, even if the portable Buddha shrine has a touch of the Ferrero Rocher's about it. A less than saintly homage.
But Lawrence remains key to the whole adventure, and a dapper, demure performance sits well with her occasional forays into sensual promise. Comical, even self-deprecating when required, she can only grow in stature as the show's run settles in. Even if sections of the script do resemble an Oriental Goodness Gracious Me, and the culture clashes fall like stony clichés over today's fertile theatre landscape.
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
- Gareth Thompson
Note: The following review dates from this production's original cast and West End opening in May 2000.
The King and I is one of those enduring warhorses of the musical theatre that you just can feel the audience purring with pleasure over as they encounter its involving story, warming melodies and familiar enchantments again. As spectacularly rendered at the Palladium, in a production first seen in Australia in 1991 and subsequently a Tony-award winning hit on Broadway in 1996, it's also one of the most eye-poppingly beautiful productions you'll ever see on a West End stage.
Rather than reinventing it, this production goes by the book - literally so, in honouring the meticulously crafted drama that Hammerstein unfolds out of the novel Anna and the King of Siam and the story it tells of the conflict of cultures that occurs when a widowed English schoolteacher goes to Siam to educate the children of the King's favoured wives.
British director Chris Renshaw does a respectable job of keeping it all flowing. Likewise Lar Lubovitch, responsible for the musical staging, wisely retains the original choreography of Jerome Robbins where it matters, especially for the legendary Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet.
It's left instead to designers Brian Thomson (sets) and Roger Kirk (costumes) to provide the ravishing originality and flair. The tone is set the moment you enter the theatre - the stage is a vision of red drapes, drenched in Oriental atmosphere. Monks in orange robes emerge from the reconfigured stage boxes to take up positions on the stage before the overture even strikes up. As one stunning scene dissolves into another, the vast, wide stage of the Palladium is put to beautiful, awe-inspiring use.
But musicals aren't just about all-singing, all-dancing sets; they need casts who can do the same. And here Renshaw's production delivers again. As Mrs Anna, Elaine Paige - Britain's self-styled 'First Lady of the British Musical Theatre' - proves once again why she deserves that billing. In the role of the King, Jason Scott Lee is solid and appealing, but he has tough memories of the late Yul Brynner, who made this role totally his own, to compete with. Even fiercer competition is provided by the Siamese children, and this happy brood of pint-sized royals virtually steal the show.
A truly beautiful, memorable production, this The King and I won't surprise or challenge you; but the pleasure it gives is wholehearted and full-blooded.