Call the Midwife star Helen George makes a poised return to the West End stage in an otherwise lacklustre production of Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s problematic musical. A fantasy of a white English schoolmistress ‘civilising’ an Asian man-baby monarch (Broadway stalwart Darren Lee) in 1860s Siam, this show somehow feels more offensive today than Carousel or even South Pacific.
Bartlett Sher’s revival of his 2015 US production comes to London after a year-long UK tour: it’s technically competent but stolid and stale. Rather than interrogate the racial stereotyping of the script, the pidgin English and the periodically sing-song score, he gives us the full gamut of orientalism. There’s a seemingly endless parade of sweeping silks and trundling columns: demure, surrendered wives and cutely smiling children. Actors are shunted centre stage to sing their songs then scooped back into the melee.
The big numbers – Shall We Dance, Getting to Know You, Whistle a Happy Tune – all sound like variations on the same theme. Jerome Robbins’ original choreography – in a show that’s short on dance numbers, apart from the interminable play within a play of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the second half – is fetishistically recreated.
As a child I was taken to see one of Yul Brynner’s last London appearances as the King, the role he created on stage in 1951 and on film in 1956 and continued to play until his death in 1985. If Darren Lee didn’t have a top-knot instead of Brynner’s bald pate, I’d have thought I’d fallen into a time warp. This is heritage theatre: a lazy nostalgia trip for the undemanding.
Thank goodness for Helen George, then. Her Anna Leonowens is an assured and spirited proto-feminist who glides across the stage on voluminous crinolines like a stately hovercraft – a million miles from ditzy midwife Trixie. I know, it’s called acting: but the transformation is remarkable.
Although she’s had copious straight theatre experience George also unveils a singing voice here that’s sweet yet commanding and, with its steady vibrato, kind of old fashioned. She’d be great in The Sound of Music, a more wholesome Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.
Lee, meanwhile, throws himself into the comic part of the king with brash gusto. He barks and postures his way through the contradictions of an absurd character torn between the sybaritic trappings of traditional power and a yearning for Western respect.
It’s impossible to believe in the chaste romance that develops between him and Anna. Or for anyone onstage or off to care about the proxy love affair between Burmese concubine Tuptim (Marienella Phillips) and scholar Lun Tha, even when events take a turn for the tragic.
Most of the supporting cast are just required to cower, nod, smile, scream and waggle their heads by turns. But Cezarah Bonner sings beautifully and wrings some dignity from the underwritten role of the King’s number one wife, Lady Thiang. “They feel so sentimental about the oriental,” she trills, side-eying the audience. Well, quite.