The King and I

Sep 13 2023 | By More

★★★★☆     Spectacular

Playhouse: Tue 12 – Sat 16 Sept 2023
Review by Torya Hughes

Bartlett Sher’s opulent production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I calls at the Edinburgh Playhouse this week as part of its on-going UK tour.

The 1951 musical is based on the true story of Anna Leonowens, an English governess who was employed by the King of Siam in the 1860s to give a scientific, secular education to his many wives and children.

Annalene Beechey (Anna). Pic: Johan Persson

Arriving in Bangkok with her young son, Anna soon finds that she is entering a society where women are given as presents, and where the hierarchy of the monarchy is unquestionable. She finds herself falling in love with the people, even though she is frustrated at the ingrained misogyny that surrounds her, and tolerance and respect slowly develop on both sides.

The story has been a controversial one over the years, with several of the film versions being banned by the Thai government for the way they portray the country. There is certainly some discomfort for a modern audience in watching the courtiers dress in Western clothes to avoid being seen as “barbarians”, and equally in seeing the violence towards Tuptim, a slave girl who is forced into a harem away from her secret lover.


However Hammerstein’s lyrics comment on both sides – in Western People Funny the Thai women laugh at the absurdity of European dress and customs, “to prove we’re not barbarians, they dress us up like savages” while in Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You Anna rails at the “conceited, self-indulgent” King.

Cezarah Bonner (Lady Thiang) and Female ensemble. Pic: Johan Persson

Sher’s direction also highlights the complexity and internal conflicts of the characters, and shows that “they fight to prove that what they do not know is so.” Annalene Beechey shines in the role of Anna, with a beautiful soaring voice and an inner fire which gives the character a steely determination.

The interactions between Beechey and Brian Rivera’s King are a joy to watch. Rivera is immensely charismatic and plays the King with a dry wit and a sense of real vulnerability which he hides behind his tyrannical exterior. His voice perhaps lacks some power in “A Puzzlement” but he more than makes up for it with the emotional journey that he goes on over the course of the song.

Cezarah Bonner’s quietly formidable Lady Thiang seems to be the true power behind the throne, while her son Prince Chulalongkorn is powerfully sung by Caleb Lagayan.

Marienella Phillips (Tuptim) and Dean John-Wilson (Lun Tha). Pic: Johan Persson

Marienella Phillips shows off an incredible soprano voice as Tuptim, blending beautifully in a duet with Dean John-Wilson’s Lun Tha. Sam Jenkins-Shaw is unrecognisable as both Captain Orton and Sir Ramsay, differentiating them very well. The royal children also deserve a special mention, by turns funny and touching, but always energetic.

A particular highlight of the second act is a ballet sequence of traditional Thai dance, where choreographer Christopher Gattelli allows the talented ensemble to shine. Although Michael Yeargan’s set is physically simple, the opulent costumes from Catherine Zuber and Donald Holder’s rich lighting combine to create a spectacular and expensive looking picture.

heavy themes

The audience are left with no doubt that things are not perfect behind the shiny facade of the palace. This is a musical which deals with some heavy themes which are still relevant today across the world – gender equality, colonialism and the place of the monarchy.

However it is also filled with glorious music from the 11 piece orchestra and a cast of hugely talented performers, tackling the issues whilst remaining very entertaining.

Running time: Two hours and 55 minutes (including one interval)
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA.
Tue 12 – Sat 6 Sept 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinee Wed, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Annalene Beechey and the school children. Pic: Johan Persson


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