SHALL we dance? Pose that question to Ramon Tikaram and the chances are that at this precise moment, you might get a knock back.
The star of The King And I, which previews at the Festival Theatre from tonight, has just finished a technical rehearsal and is preparing for the first of two dress rehearsals. It’s a nerve wracking time.
“For a technical rehearsal it went quite quickly and smoothly, although there are some issues with the polka in Shall We Dance? - I really have to fling my feet around to avoid stepping on the dress and decapitating my poor Anna,” he laughs.
For those unfamiliar with the Rodgers And Hammerstein classic, the musical tells the story of a British governess brought to the court of Siam to tutor the King’s many children.
Needless to say, what starts off as a testy relationship soon melts into romance as the pair’s mutual attraction surfaces.
It’s a tale most know from the 1956 movie version, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr.
“Like everybody else I had seen Yul Brynner’s version many years ago, but I wasn’t thoroughly au fait with the essence of the story,” admits Tikaram who, in his own words, is “completely exhausted.”
He explains, “We have just finished a technical run, we’ve got a dress rehearsal tonight, another tomorrow afternoon and then the first preview tomorrow evening.
“It all comes on really quickly. I don’t know why I get surprised every time I do theatre, but that’s just how it operates... you go straight from the tech into the dress into the performance.”
He adds, “I always suffer huge tiredness before dress rehearsals and in this show you can’t afford to be tired because from the start it’s like an express train, you can’t really get off.
“The minute you step on stage the adrenaline and fear kick in. It’s almost as if the slump in energy is your body and mind saying, ‘Right, better keep every single ounce of energy for the performance.”
A favourite with audiences, The King And I is now widely regarded as one of the greatest musicals of all time. Consequently it has been seen by millions around the world since it was first performed in 1951, and boasts an ever-green soundtrack that includes numbers such as Shall We Dance, I Whistle A Happy Tune, Hello Young Lovers and Getting To Know You.
Joining Tikaram in the current production as Anna is Josefina Gabrielle. Unlike many musical roles which are two dimensional, the King of Siam and his paramour are quite complex characters.
Tikaram, whose musical credits include Bombay Dreams and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, offers, “When I watched Yul Brynner’s film recently, I could see why he made the choices he made.
“I am trying to make the choices that fit me, that feel real to me.
“There are moments in The King And I that are written to be played towards the audience, other moments are written for the actors to internalise the emotion. For example; the moment when the King has to decide whether or not to whip Tuptim is very much one of the actor’s moments, whereas when he is the library, talking about Moses, is very much a moment for the audience’s edification.
“So, as a role, it dips in and out of an actor’s comfort zone. That is what I find most difficult to negotiate.”
That said, it’s not the first time Tikaram, best known for TV roles such as Ferdy in This Life and Qadim in EastEnders, has encountered the King. Back in 2001 he was in discussions to play the role on London’s West End.
The 44-year-old recalls, “Many years ago I was brought into the London Palladium to potentially take over from Jason Scott Lee and play opposite Josie Lawrence.
“I’ve met Josie since and talked about this and it would have been hilarious because she is 6ft 1... and I’m not. So it would have been more hilarious than perhaps it should have been.
“At that time it was probably a good steer not to do it and we have now found an Anna that is more convenient for me to act opposite.”
Directed by Paul Kerryson, the action of the current production unfolds around giant gold Buddhas as the cast is joined by a chorus of local kids, acrobatic dancers and a ten-piece orchestra.
It’s a very different show to the one that first brought Tikaram to the Capital for his only previous visit.
“The last time I was in Edinburgh was in 1983 doing a student production of Tom Stoppard’s After Magritte, at the Hill Street Theatre. This is my first time back since and I’m looking forward to it..”
The King And I, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, until January 7, £17.50-£33, 0131-529 6000