BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 3 December, 1998

Hitherto I have been underwhelmed by director Phil Willmott's productions of classic musicals, but it surprised me to find that it has been three years since last I saw one; most conspicuously, I missed his revival of The Sound Of Music, which broke house records at BAC this time last year. Its 1998 successor, The King And I, has already garnered rave reviews elsewhere, although it may not quite climb every box office mountain.

The usual raked, end-on seating of the main BAC space has been dispensed with; the audience sits on three sides under mock-Siamese canopies, with an enormous and imposing Peacock Throne dominating the fourth side. Rupert Tebb's design once again demonstrates that lack of budget need be no hindrance to ambition. Likewise with casting: almost a score of Royal wives are augmented by a similar phalanx of local children as the young princes and princesses. Of course Willmott plays the winsome card with these youngsters, but the show itself is clearly fashioned for just such a strategy.

Alan Mosley's King may be brusquely imperious much of the time, but his underlying personal uncertainty is always endearingly visible; looks of insecurity and doubt fleet over his face even as he seems to be at his most intransigent. This is a King trying to hold on to what he has always believed to be certainties at the same time as modernising his state, and failing to come to terms with the process of flux which he has set in train on both a monarchical and a personal level. His death in the show's closing moment is, in Mosley's characterisation, an understandable development rather than a mere plot device it is simply a rather more definitive form of abdication.

Lindsey Danvers is poised yet friendly as Anna, although she shows a slight tendency, on being confronted with one of the show's big numbers, to drop her characterisation and go for broke in standard musicalese, professing in "Whistle A Happy Tune" that "I'm nard afraid" and following a rebuke to her royal class about the necessity of correct pronunciation with a rousing rendition of a song which appears to be called "Gettn To Know You". (Similarly, how can the King learn his verbal tic of a crisply enunciated "etcetera, etcetera, etcetera" from a Victorian English teacher who says "ekcetra"?)

Overall, however, Willmott's production remains an inexpensively sumptuous delight which, in its discreet way, makes some surprisingly Buddhist points about the necessity of accepting transition and impermanence.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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