THE art of Christmas tree decoration is a touchy subject. Those of us who have an outright ban on tinsel have to sneak in there and get the job done “tastefully” before any small children enthusiastically offer their services. But then you stand back and tasteful trees, with real candles and wooden decorations, somehow seem that little bit less fun without chocolate parcels hanging from their boughs and tinsel dangling at awkward angles.
It’s the same with musicals, and The King and I is, frankly, just too tasteful for it’s own good.
Of course, the Festival Theatre’s remit is to provide a contrast to the King’s pantomime and all the gaudy delights held therein. But The King and I is a confection of silliness, racial stereotyping and threatened violence that only just gets away with existing because of its opulence, exoticism and fun. Telling the true story of Indochina’s answer to Margaret Thatcher, Anna (played by forthright Josefina Gabrielle) and her tempestuous relationship with the King of Siam (a subdued Ramon Tikaram), the work charts the tragic trajectory their journey takes.
Staged in a similar manner to many modern operas, the set is elegant, Spartan and designed to give impressionist images of setting. Against the austere black backdrop are a pair of immense Buddhas standing sentry on stage, lanterns outline a clandestine meeting place and a brief interlude of shadow puppetry introduces the production.
Director Paul Kerryson allows his cast lots of room for expression and emotional manoeuvre, their solos are frequently performed standing static, centre stage, against a dark backdrop. Yet the pacing of an opera is different to that of a musical; there is a constant swell of soundthroughout an opera, so scene changes shift and occur with the music encouraging momentum. In musicals there are breaks between musical movements, making, in this case, the silence on stage in quieter scenes deafening.
The real star on top of the tree in this production is the second act’s ballet sequence, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, encapsulating drama, energy, opulence and parody in all the right measures for a Rodgers and Hammerstein production. One just can’t help but yearn for a few more of those decadent moments over the straight-laced drama in the rest of the production.
Run ends January 7