Bristol24-7 spoke to two of the younger members of the cast – Samantha Boardman, Tuptim, and Will Ferris who plays Lun Tha – who explained what the Bristol Light Opera Club is all about…
You cannot fault the Bristol Light Opera Club for ambition, enthusiasm and effort. For an amateur company to stage the Rogers and Hammerstein classic The King and I as their current annual production at The Bristol Hippodrome is a big undertaking.
This musical might be popular and well known (thanks in part to the Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner movie version of 1966) and it might include some of the most instantly memorable songs from the R and H canon (Getting to Know You, Shall We Dance?, Hello Young Lovers and Whistle a Happy Tune) but that simply raises the audience’s expectations of a spectacular night out.
To perform The King and I with any sort of aplomb it needs colourful, exotic sets and flamboyant costumes, it needs a stage full of winsome dimpled children (ideally from the local area to appeal to the “school photograph” market), it needs a full orchestra and, most of all, it needs confident singers who can also act.
The King and I is what Americans call “an adult portion”. It’s a definite handful, with many difficult and awkward moments that demand a lot from a modern audience. Yes, some of the musical numbers are great, but others are virtually impossible to sing. (The musical gymnastics required by Shall I Tell You What I Think of You? near the end of Act One is a case in point; it’s a real stinker for any singer).
Famously, R and H were reluctant to write it in the first place. It was commissioned in 1950 as a Broadway vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence (always a prima donna but now well past her best years and with a singing voice that left a lot to be desired) and they struggled to find an actor as charismatic as Yul Brynner to play opposite to her. They were worried about how they were going to represent eastern music without alienating a western audience. They were concerned that this story of an unspoken love between two very prickly characters like Anna and the King might end up so unspoken as to be incomprehensible. They had to invent the sub plot of the “young lovers” Tuptim and Lun Tha in order to give the musical more of a satisfying emotional heart. Pretty much they were worried about everything.
So The King and I is not – and never has been – easy. The genius of Rogers and Hammerstein finally made it work (despite all their traumas it was an immediate and massive hit), and so too – for the most part – have BLOC. The stage sets and costumes are so lavish and exotic, the musical numbers so professionally staged, that it is almost impossible to believe all this has been achieved by an amateur company relying on donations for their finances.
Right at the centre of the Hippodrome show is a really standout performance as Anna from Lucy Pope. She’s a BLOC stalwart having first appeared as Gretl in their 1970 production of The Sound of Music when she was just 7. Here, heavily made-up to look far older than her actual years, she plays the feisty widow school-teacher brought to Siam to educate the children of the King (Simon Vardakis) as part of his determination to modernise his country. She sings beautifully, as well as any professional, and acts with great confidence and style, but it’s a part that requires her to be almost permanently on the offensive (the Getting to Know You sequence surrounded by the royal children being a rare and charming exception).
A lot of these verbal or musical sparring matches are supposed to be funny (as many are based on linguistic and cultural misunderstandings), but on this first night the laughs took a long time coming. If the audience seemed unresponsive, the cast’s first night nerves probably also played a part here. Nevertheless, the show’s humour did gradually gain in confidence, as did the scene transitions. Marked by some uncomfortably long pauses early on (first night bedding down again I suspect) they got smoother and slicker throughout the evening.
More special mentions are well deserved by cast members Maureen Wycherley (Fierce Head Wife Lady Thiang who later reveals a heart of gold) and Samantha Boardman and Will Ferris (those all important sub-plot Young Lovers).
The show also contains some very accomplished musical set pieces – and one rather extraordinary piece of choreography.
March of the Royal Siamese Children is the memorable instrumental piece used to introduce the King’s children (“I have only 66” he boasts, although he ups that later to 77) and is easily Rodgers’ grandest and most successful attempt to blend eastern and western musical styles. It is beautifully realised by BLOC, the stage finally packed with tiny children dressed in glorious golden robes (maybe this is a bit schmaltzy, but R and H obviously knew when they were on to a good thing, and it goes on working theatrically).
The oddest part of the show is The Small House of Uncle Thomas. It’s right there in the Rodgers and Hammerstein original so can’t be ignored, but what we’ve got here is a Broadway version of a Siamese interpretation of the American anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, now being performed through the medium of dance byBristolschool-children. It’s not offensive – indeed it’s rather beautifully done – but it is distinctly odd.
The King and I runs at The Bristol Hippodrome until this coming Saturday and I suspect every performance will be easily packed out by hugely partisan crowds of the cast’s friends and relatives. There’s lot to enjoy, but if you do have any criticisms it might just be sensible to keep your voice down.