The King and I – The Playhouse, Edinburgh

Music by Richard Rodgers

Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Based upon Margaret Landon’s Anna And The King

Directed by Bartlett Sher

As the shimmers of lustrous gold part, a steamboat trundles into view. This behemoth set-piece, simple though effective, offers an immediate scale to The King and I. Charged as the new teacher to the children of the King of Siam, or at least those children in favour, Anna docks in a distant land, where customs are not the norm for her English ways. Then again, neither are her behaviours for the residents of the Kingdom. A foundation in the musical theatre pantheon, The King and I is a staple of the industry. Borrowing, perhaps too closely, from the 1956 film starring iconic actor Yul Brinner, Bartlett Sher’s The King and I revels in splendour.

So, let’s address the Elephant in the room, shall we? Hammerstein’s original lyrics and script work for The King and I haven’t aged well, though in truth its white saviour plot point, overarching a narrative riddled with stereotypes, negative imagery and cultural appropriation has never been acceptable. If you cannot move beyond these aspects of theatre, The King and I won’t be for you (though this is another discussion entirely). Nor is three-quarters of musical theatre pre-millennium. In their drive to pursue a story of an independent woman, balancing a level of dignitary acceptance, with self-respect against a patriarchal establishment, Hammerstein inadvertently stokes issues of cultural representation.

If you can put this to one side, The Lincoln Centre Theater Production of The King and I is an absolute spectacle of musical theatre, and a triumph of stage, artistry and talent. From the leads to ensemble, there is little, is anything, not to enjoy. Annalene Beechey, stood upon the deck of Michael Yeargan’s set design frames the production triumphantly, not only holding a candle but snatching it from Deborah Kerr, the synonymous performer of the role alongside Brinner in 1956. With the abundant charm of an English rose, a dash of Julie Andrews’ thorny grit, she’s captivating to watch. Vocally foreboding, the control of tone is impressive, nary a strained note or forced delivery in earshot. 

In a moderate attempt to zhuzh up the text, snippets of modernist efforts are brought to the characters of Anna and the King of Siam. Jose Llana strikes less intimidation as the titular King, but his royal presence is evident. There’s as much a cowering adoration for the man, as there is a presence as a father. A welcome addition, Llana is accessible, warming to his humour, and stitch inducing facial expression. Timing to perfection, his delivery ricochets off any of those who are unfortunate to receive the brunt of his wit – that is, of course, except Beechey’s Anna. Naturally harmonious, the pair have instant chemistry. Individually, they excel, as a unit, their vocal melodies synchronise, their movement pieces the gleaming jewel of the production.

As the building notes of household classic Shall We Dance? ripple through the theatre, there is movement, not solely on stage. Silhouettes, bobbing in idyllic enjoyment, swaying to the tune, demonstrate the sublime attractiveness of live theatre. The necessity of insightful costume creation becomes apparent. Catherine Zuber’s pieces, which thus far have ranged from exuberantly whimsical, to gloriously vibrant, are put to the test. A magnificent gown, resplendent to replicate Beechey’s presence, it captures the tone of the production. Glamorous, elegant, but sculpted in a way to have fun.

To praise Beechey and Llana’s movement wouldn’t be enough, the weight of the costume, merely adds respect to Beechey’s ability as she laces back and forth around the Palace, all the while Llana’s control maintains a momentum, synchronising with the orchestra. Rivalled only by The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ infusion of Eastern storytelling, it fits precisely into the production, just on the cusp of overstaying its welcome, veers into a perfect amount of time, instigating the climax. Complimenting European ballet style, with fluid movements of traditional Eastern dance, its creativity is as exquisite as it’s storytelling mechanics.

Cezarah Bonner and Kok-Hwa Lie, taking on secondary roles as the Prince’s mother and Siam’s Prime Minister push their characters into the primary narrative with how successful they grasp attention. Clear, powerful vocals, bring emotion to their roles, only eclipsed by the finale between Anna and the King. Kok-Haw Lie especially selling a harrowing hurt in how Anna has ‘broken’ the King.

Attempting to stand out against illustrious staging, Ethan Le Phong’s Lun Tha suffers. Washing out, his character is extremely minimal for what is a pivotal tertiary narrative, which brings about the climax with his secretive relationship with Burmese ‘gift’ to the king, Tuptim. Tuptim, performed by Paulina Yeung, gifts us with reciting Uncle Thomas’ reading. Her meeting with Lun Tha in secret, cast in the atmospheric royal sapphires of Donald Holders lighting feels held together on her end.

Your head should never be above the King’s, so luckily, the raised Playhouse stage offers plenty of wiggle room to allow for a standing ovation. A well deserved one, for a near-perfect production whose only notable flaws lies within the skeleton of the piece itself, a product of its era – the talent involved in the production are wonders in their field. You don’t have to travel far off the map to experience an entirely new world, or revisit a familiar one. The King and I promises grandeur, and it is triumphant in delivering this.

Runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until October 26th, then continues touring: https://www.atgtickets.com/times/the-king-and-i/edinburgh-playhouse/2019-10-21

Photo Credit – Johan Persson

The Panopticon – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer: Jenni Fagan

Director: Debbie Hannan

Panopticon: noun. A historical building, most often a windowed prison turning in on itself, allowing a sense of visual connection. The inhabitants are on view at all times. Never really themselves, their thoughts the only thing kept apart from their keepers. It is also the titular building in which Jenni Fagan’s 2012 book primarily takes place.

A piece refraining from vanity, self-reflective but attempting to stray from auto-biographical, there will always be a sense of ownership. Rather than force ideals of characters, roles or stereotypes, Fagan’s text allows these performers the ability to inhabit their part. In moments Fagan’s writing is self-evident, clear and emotionally obvious. Other times, more interpretative, particularly for ‘the experiment’, a warped creature of dark mass and teeth is given shape by video designer Lewis den Hertog. Whose connotations may vary, playing on the nuances of the care system, refusing to make it a clear-cut statement. Layering itself, The Panopticon has breakneck pacing at times, which whips you into a standstill with a single word, scene or character – such as central character Anais.

No recollection of her birth mother, her adoptive one stabbed in the bathroom as she watched cartoons, Anais has spent her life shuffled around a care system that wishes to check boxes, avoid paperwork, but ultimately keep her safe. Amplifying the necessity of friendship in these situations, The Panopticon houses choice characters who will help, hinder and merely exist in Anais’ journey. Bluntly, Anna Russell-Martin excels in capturing a system she did not choose to be in, but one which will echo throughout her life. Her range is bewildering in the schizophrenic lunges between attitude and vulnerability. It’s an enrapturing performance which maintains a steady involvement throughout the lengthy runtime. A counterculture daughter of a cigarillo queen, Russel-Martin is a remnant of anarchic attitude in sailor shorts.

In this intense situation, bonds are formed in the unlikeliest of circumstance. Fights, bursts of raw aggression can be an outlet of passion, frustration and necessity, but they birth connections. None more so than with Isla and Shortie, brilliantly played by Kay McAllister and Louise McMenemy. Understating her role, McAllister is integral to the development of the stomach-churning plot, while Gail Watson as Joan, among many ensemble pieces, balances with a richly cut humour with her aghast reactions, accents and physical delivery.

If it feels as though the first act is pulling punches, it seems a ploy to lure a false sense of security for the devastation of the second act. Even those for whom theatre exposes humanities’ cruellest actions, no staging, writing or performance can capture the devastations lain before us – though Fagan comes closer than other playwrights and is among the champions in a series of female creators like Meghan Tyler who refuse to sugar-coat or apologise for their publications and intent. There is a richness in her ability to tell a story, yet place it secondary to the people. These young women, boys and girl in care, hell, in prison, are a priority, something director Debbie Hannon matches.

Adapting The Panopticon for the stage, there is a difficulty in conveying a sense of ‘nanny state’, a constant watching eye in the structure of the young institution. A series of prisms, spinning in succession where scene changes will shift location, Max John’s design is superbly methodical, both in management and conception. Working as a narrative device, it’s also a tool of symbolism. These high-rising walls, containing children, secrets, violence and adoration – they see everything the others do not.

One or two performance cannot maintain pace with Russel-Martin or McAllister. Never wholly detracting, it just stands to show how easy it can be to shift from such ferocious emotions or momentum. Fagan’s piece is challenging, spitting directly into the eye of a statistical obsessed experiment, tying people down for decades. A visceral, earthy drama which pulsates long after leaving the theatre. Just as the system’s taint will remain on those who shuffle through its watchful eye. Bloody, bold and fierce, it is a masterful reversal of The Panopticon itself, no longer looking into but staring straight back out.

Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic

The Stornoway Way – The Studio, Festival Theatre

Written by Kevin MacNeil

Directed by Matthew Zajac

Touring Scotland, tickets available from Dog Star Theatre: http://www.dogstartheatre.co.uk/the-stornoway-way.html

Endlessly lyrical, Kevin MacNeil’s take on his best-selling novel lends itself to the musical format well. With each song have originality in composition, with a few notable exceptions standing out as clear favourites. To hear Gaelic sung in a natural form, with new arrangements, is a fitting match for the production. Encouraging a rejuvenation with a language by infusing it’s archaic, island tones with fresh lyricism. Naomi Stiratt, Chloe Ann-Tyler and Rachel Kennedy’s vocals, particularly in Gaelic, are a staunch reason for The Stornoway Way’s moderate success.

Awash with colourful characters, we first open on the cold, brisk blue Isle of Lewis. With a drink rich community, everyday life centres on the pursuits of merriment, ‘chicken’, and a further chaser to follow the first one. Chicken, a term for Famous Grouse Whiskey, is a lifeblood for the islanders. It’s a warming agent, a talking point for communities, and as the inhabitants gather to sing, talk life and, well, you guessed it – drink, it feels as though The Stornoway Way takes from Local Hero on its opening up of the outer Hebrides and Isles of Scotland. In reality, it plunges focus onto a singular, not very likeable, but roguishly charming hero – Roman.

Dreamer, romanticist, narcissist, and all around, a bit of an arse. Roman is the guy many would envy, charismatic with his deliberately misleading Gaelic, terrific vocals courtesy of gender-bending cast member Stirrat, but his reliance on a liquid crutch is one all too familiar. Forever patient, friend Eilidh is understandable in her frustrations with helping Roman achieve his dream by travelling to Edinburgh to record an album, only to be abandoned in return.

Maintaining a focus on Roman’s downward spiral into depression, fuelled by his love of the dram, the stage adaptation also attempts to divert a small amount of attention away. Aiming to secure further character development, as well as shoehorn in additional songs, it’s a double-edged premise. For the occasional character, such as Eva, it brings biting commentary and gripping drama, which was sorely lacking. Unfortunately, other character decisions fail to add much, eking into the length of the show which stretches itself excessively.

Roman’s characterisation fails in one key element, and it has nothing to do with performer Stiratt, who garners all she can. The issue is that the character’s motivations, while identifiable in people we encounter in day to day lives, are weak. The isolation of an island community isn’t built enough to offer a reason to extend sympathy. Psychologically, the darkening clouds surround Roman, hastening his toxic masculinity, but it isn’t until his argument with Eva where we get a sense of the self-obsessive, self-destructive manipulation he is capable of. Both Stiratt and Ann-Tyler are giving out a tremendous amount more than the script offers. Building to the keenest performance with Ann-Tyler’s broken, tired strumming’s of the guitar, lamenting her good intentions.

Its dramaturgy fails to fully capture its intention, shifting focus to the big city for a fish out of water narrative, it leaves behind an island setting – wonderfully designed, built as an aetherial, solitary space. Multi-purpose, lit wonderfully, its use as various locations is inventive, shifting from Edinburgh pub, Island chapel or ocean waves. Setting for the final scene, a remnant of what the entire production should have shifted towards, an amalgam of desperation, yet freedom is a touching moment.

Shifting to the stage, The Stornoway Way’s attempts at meta-commentary on theatrical tropes are a welcome addition, but one too many waters the joke. It reduces the narrative to contextualisation, bordering on panto territory, explaining far beyond what is required. It so desperately, valiantly wants to illustrate the dangers of alcohol’s seductive appeal, that it disconnects from the story to pursue this venture. Scatterings of investible songs, with some powerful performances, make MacNeil’s stage adaptation a venture worthy of pursuing, no doubt improving with time.