The King and I, Dominion Theatre, review: it’s still worth getting to know this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic

Helen George (Call the Midwife) and Darren Lee in The King and I
Helen George (Call the Midwife) and Darren Lee in The King and I - Johan Persson

“It’s not a play, it is a happening,” Yul Brynner told a newspaper in 1979, ahead of his 2,500th performance as Mongkut, King of Siam, in The King and I and before returning to London in the role that made his name in 1951 for a Palladium run that lasted an impressive 15 months.

Nowadays, perhaps we should be grateful that The King and I shows its face at all, even for more limited durations. This production by Bartlett Sher, which had its first Tony-winning incarnation at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2015, is stopping off at the Dominion for six weeks following a tour – with Call the Midwife’s Helen George and Broadway stalwart Darren Lee in the leads this time. That’s barely long enough for people to raise a protest placard or organise a shouty demo.

As I pointed out when I saw it at the Palladium in 2018, it’s not a total over-reaction to find Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “problematic”. Based on Margaret Landon’s novel telling the story of Anna Leonowens, the British teacher who became a fixture at the court of Siam in the 1860s, it’s an ambitious depiction of cultural encounter – with burgeoning romance the dramatic crux-point. And yet, despite striving to give us both perspectives, it still inclines to Orientalism.

Aside from the touristic element to its opulence, the widowed Anna – rather like Maria (von Trapp) or even Mary Poppins – is a transformative female figure who runs rings around stubborn, stuffy patriarchy, holding her nerve (and demanding her own house). Even more than in 2018, with the drumbeat of decolonisation louder and antipathy to white-saviour narratives more vocal, the ground on which the large cast shuffles, squats, bows and dances shakes with the vibrations of the culture wars.

For that reason, though, it feels all the more valuable to catch it while you can. Yes, it’s a flawed, at times cursory-feeling piece, but it has a gentleness and innocent charm that’s as much a saving grace as a sign of its post-war origins.

The King and I, by Rogers and Hammerstein
The King and I, by Rogers and Hammerstein - Johan Persson

“Getting to know you”, trills George’s self-possessed, sweet-voiced Anna as she takes in Mongkut’s adorable, polygamous brood. The mood evokes a time of curiosity between peoples and in Lee’s King – all legs astride, hands on hips authority, stern but also subtly amused – an emblem of appreciation for Western know-how that stops short of easy deference. For all the grating simplification of his speech, his situation is satisfyingly complex.

The palatially designed production – with due choreographic attention to ceremonial splendour – combines the old-fashioned escapism offered by some of the best songs in the R&H canon (Hello, Young Lovers, Shall We Dance?) with a judicious sense of speaking to today’s concerns about the legacy of empire and the nature of civilisation. At almost three hours, yes, it’s a pretty long, rather too stately night, and George and Lee lack the chemistry that Brynner and Deborah Kerr displayed on screen. But were our own King looking for a theatre outing, post-hospital, he could do a lot worse.

Until March 2. Tickets: