king and anna

Jose Llana as the king and Annalene Beechey as Anna

The King and I

The Alexandra Theatre


Every so often along comes a show that reminds you what a wonderful, magical place theatre can be, and this is as close to perfection as you are ever likely to see,

Every element plays its part. The acting and singing is first class, every word in every song, clear as a bell, every note pitch perfect.

The setting from Michael Yeargan is a masterpiece of the designers art, worth a curtain call all on its own including a huge steamboat gliding serenely on stage and the clever use of six columns dropped from the flies and gliding around the stage to change emphasis or focus of sets and adding extra interest to the Shall We Dance scene.

Donald Holder’s lighting lifts every scene making full use of the wonders of LEDs with some lovely touches, while an excellent 13 piece orchestra under musical director Malcolm Forbes-Peckham is huge by touring standards and boy does it show with a full, glorious, rich sound to enhance every number.


That wonderful paddle steamer with Anna and son Louis from set designer Michael Yeargan

Jose Llana is just superb as the King, he is a Broadway and West End star, and it is easy to see why. He brings a real charm to the king with some lovely amusing touches amid his autocratic heritage as king and his voice shows the operatic training he had early in his career.

While Coventry born Annalene Beechey is just magnificent as Anna, she has the voice of an angel, the sort you could listen to all day long, and has just the right amount of feisty reverence for a king she, and indeed, he wants to change et cetera, et cetera.

The pair are a delight complimented by the king’s first queen, Lady Thiang, a superb performance from another West End star, Cezarah Bonner - her solo number Something Wonderful is another highlight.

While, hovering a little in the background, is the prime minister, Kralahome, loyal to the king and well attuned to his ways, played by Kok-Hwa Lie who played the role in the West End and who, incidentally, will be elevated to king in a sort of palace coup from 17 December, and on this performance he will make a splendid monarch.

Running side by side with the love story neither the king nor Anna will admit is the tragic tale of Tuptim, the girl given to the King as a gift by the King of Burma, a girl who is in love with the envoy who brought her, Lun Tha. Their illicit affair, secret meetings in the garden, doomed from the start.


Paulina Yeung as the doomed Tuptim

It is a convincing performance from Paula Yeung and Ethan Le Phong with their lovely duets We Kiss in a Shadow and I have Dreamed, and a love story which lead us to Anna reprising one of the songs that became a standard from the show, Hello, Young Lovers.

Waiting in the wings is the surly crown prince, Chulalongkorn, played by Aaron Teoh, who wears the future crown uneasily, a mind in conflict, who at first sees himself above a mere schoolteacher, yet is perhaps learning more than anyone else about himself and his nation. A nicely balanced performance interacting well with Anna’s son Louis, played on Press night by Joseph Black, one of four youngsters alternating in the role.

There is good support from the likes of Philip Bulcock who pops up as Captain Orton on the impressive opening scene’s steamship, and then dons dinner jacket and urbane airs as visiting dignitary Sir Edward Ramsay – the man Anna and the King want, or rather need to impress.

There is wonderful support from the king’s various wives and a wonderful bunch of children who always get the biggest cheers of the night.

lady Thiang

Cezarah Bonner as first wife Lady Thiang

I must admit I am not altogether sure about the Uncle Tom’s Cabin play, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, a play within a play in Act 2 – interesting but it seems a little awkward to fit in, a bit like the ballet sequence in West Side Story – but it does help to showcase the wonderful costumes from Catherine Zuber and the stunning choreography of Christopher Gattelli, based on the original  choreography by Jerome Robbins – speaking of West Side Story . . .

This is director Bartlett Sher’s acclaimed Lincoln Center Theater production from Broadway, which also starred Llana, and which transferred to the West End and now is bringing those same spectacular production values on tour.

This version has gone back to the original drafts of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, a musical banned in Thailand incidentally, which moderates what has been seen as a rather patronising notion that Siam was a backward nation needing to be taught Western ways.

Shall we dance

Shall We Dance: Anna and the King and the dress that weighs in at a hefty three stone!

Here the geopolitical picture of 1860 is explained more fully with European nations trying to colonise Asian nations by making them protectorates, and Siam is vulnerable, with its monarch seen as a barbarian, a despotic ruler of a backward nation. Modernisation had become a necessity if the nation was to survive the imperial ambitions of European powers.

The emphasis in the production is also to frown upon the idea of slavery, of subjugating women and giving them as gifts, of absolute monarchs – with Rodger and Hammerstein not afraid to raise the issues back in 1951, a back story to what is a magical musical.

The original production, by the way, had only two Asian actors, while this one is a wonderful celebration of the talents of a whole host of actors of Asian descent.

It might be set amid mid 19th century imperialism, but at it's heart are very human tales, parallel love stories with Anna's enduring love of her late husband along with a love that cannot be be acknowledged and certainly never acted upon between Anna and the King. There is the love of Lady Thiang, the first wife, for her husband the king, a man she knows is far from perfect and who has more wives that Heinz have varieties and finally we have the doomed, secret love of Tuptim and Lun Tha in shades of a Siamese Romeo and Juliet,

The origins of The King and I, incidentally, go back to the real Anna, feminist Anna Leonowens, and her time as governess to the children of King Momgkut of Siam, chronicled in her 1870 memoir The English Governess at the Siamese Court, a catchy titles which in turn became the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon.

The story became a classic musical from the golden age with so many familiar songs already mentioned as well as Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You, A Puzzlement and The March of the Siamese Children. It’s a big cast and an even bigger show, the best King and I that I have ever seen.

It might be 68-years-old but this production is as fresh and vibrant as if it was written yesterday, with three hours just flying by. Buy, beg, borrow or if all else fails, steal a ticket because this is a real must see. Musical theatre at its magical best. To 04-01-20.

Roger Clarke



Jose Llana and Annalene Beechey came to the Alex in autumn to launch the tour and sang some of the numbers from the show.

Annalene Beechey sings Getting to Know You and Hello, Young Lovers

Jose Llana sings A Puzzlement

Index page Lichfield Garrick Derby Belgrade Hippodrome Grand Alex Malvern Rep RSC  Town Hall Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre