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Review: The King and I at Eastbourne’s Congress Theatre

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Sometimes it takes a multi award-winning classic show – billed as the greatest musical from the golden age of musicals - to make you realise you’ve finally grown up.

As a child I would race to catch a glimpse of the 1956 film The King and I starring Deborah Kerr and the wonderful Yul Brynner, eager to catch the glint in his eye whenever he said anything chauvinistic or called his pretty governess his servant. But more importantly, I loved watching the pair – she a Victorian widow, he the dictatorial King of Siam – fall for each other frame by frame.

It was, to me, one of the first romcom movies, an almost- romance in a Hollywood musical with beautiful costumes, set in an exotic far away location us mere film fans would never see, and a Rodgers and Hammerstein score that gave us iconic songs such as Shall We Dance? and Getting to Know You.

Fast forward to 67 years later and all I can see is the stark contrast between the two main characters, whose worlds collide on every level: geographically, culturally, ideologically, and financially. The thought that they could ever fall in love would be hard to believe nowadays.

But The King and I is a gorgeous glimpse back to another time – one that might be hard to understand in the modern world, but that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

The King and I film, which won five Oscars, was based on this musical which was based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which was based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who became the governess to King Mongkut of Siam’s children in the 1860s. Phew!

Of course, the world is easily accessible nowadays with Thailand (Siam) a popular tourist destination. But back in 1862 few people had ventured there, and Anna’s memoirs shone a light on a culture and place Victorian Brits couldn’t comprehend.

Anna laments at how unprogressive Siam is but back in Britain women didn’t have the vote then and were equally constrained by their corsets and society. It is this theme of a woman coming into her own and having the strength to know her own mind and ask for what she has been promised – a house – that plays out on the Eastbourne Congress stage in 2023. And the packed theatre lapped up every moment.

Helen George, best-known as Trixie in Call The Midwife, is billed as the star and she is playing Anna on Friday 15, Saturday 16, Tuesday 19 and Wednesday 20 December. But the rest of the run won’t disappoint because Maria Coyne, of Phantom of the Opera and Wicked fame, portrays the role of the feisty Victorian governess superbly, with an inner strength as a widow bringing up a young son who, despite being thousands of miles from home, stands up for what is right against a tyrant king.

Broadway star Darren Lee convincingly struts, swaggers and even sashays his way through the show in a role he has been playing since 2016.

No one can resist the cute array of The King's children. There are 18 actors ranging in age from seven to 13 and the entire audience said ‘awwwwwww’ every time the youngest appeared.

But the break-out star is Marienella Phillips who plays Tuptim and had the entire audience spellbound with her faultless rendition of We Kiss In a Shadow.

Backed by a full-scale orchestra, the songs are the true highlight of the show, and I dare any of you who watch it not to be humming at least one of them for days afterwards. (For me it alternates between Shall We Dance? and I Whistle A Happy Tune!)

Fresh from a record-breaking run at the London Palladium and on Broadway, this is a show that is slick, polished and, surprisingly, funny. It is also endearingly popular – there wasn’t a seat to be had on opening night, and the theatre was packed with people who would have gone on first dates to watch the film through to young children. 

The costumes were exquisite, the dancing sublime – the Small House of Uncle Thomas’ sequence was a real show-stopper – and the cast were superb in telling the story of how we all have to work hard to overcome cultural differences to create meaningful relationships.

It’s rare to have such a big production on tour in the UK – see it while you can for a night of nostalgia and culture.

The King and I is at the Congress Theatre, Eastbourne until 22 December. Nightly performances at 7.30pm and 2.30pm Matinees on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Tickets priced from £32, concessions apply at selected performances, including £10 off for child tickets. or call 01323 412000.

Helen George on starring in The King and I: ‘I couldn’t say no’  

Known as Trixie from the hit BBC show Call The Midwife, Helen George is returning to her stage roots to play Anna in The King and I.

‘I’d been wanting to do a musical for a while,’ she says, ‘and I was waiting for the right one to come along and just couldn’t say no. It’s just such a classical musical theatre part.’ 

Though better known for bringing babies into the world on TV, her first job after drama college was in the ensemble of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White in 2004. She has since sung at the BBC’s VE Day 75th anniversary commemoration and on the cast album of Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella.  

As for dancing, Helen took the dancefloor by storm on Strictly in 2015, so she won’t have any trouble with Shall We Dance? In the show’s climactic song, Anna and the King dance a sweeping polka that is an ecstatic meeting of minds, hearts and, most of all, feet.  

‘When we do this incredible dance I wear this incredible dress,’ she says. ‘I’m as big as a house. In the rehearsal room everybody has had to get out of the way. I lift up the skirt and drag scripts and teacups with me along the way. It weighs 10lbs and it’s uncomfortable but this was the life of a Victorian woman.’  

The story of a young English widow who takes a job teaching the children of the King of Siam is one of the big five from composer Richards Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Most will know it from the 1956 film which won five Oscars.

The King and I is a multi-generational musical, and generations of families come together to see it. That means there is a new generation who, like Helen, won’t realise much loved songs such as I Whistle a Happy Tune and Getting to Know You belong to The King and I.

‘I went to see the show when I was seven or eight when I was growing up in Birmingham,’ Helen says. ‘I haven’t gone back and watched the film because I need to find Anna myself, and I hadn’t realised how many songs she sings. I knew them but I hadn’t quite figured they were all together in this show.’ 

The musical is set in a time when the countries surrounding Siam were colonised by the French and the English and women weren’t considered equal to men – and certainly, at first, not to a King.

‘I would argue that it’s completely current,’ Helen says. ‘What’s so brilliant about this progressive king is he is passionate about educating his daughters.’ 


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