MUSIC Dancing king, but can he sing?

The King and I Covent Garden Festival
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The Independent Culture
Strange goings-on behind the closed doors of that exotic building just off Great Queen Street, Covent Garden. Stranger than usual, that is. Freemasons' Hall, they call it, a secret world, a world of secrets. But, for this week only, the doors are wide open. The King of Siam is holding court in the splendour of the Grand Temple, where East meets West and the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein are on everyone's lips. With a set like this, who needs high-price designers?

Actually, Alison Cartledge does a nice job with her costumes: exotic silks, exotic colours. It's somehow fitting that the main stage area should more resemble a catwalk than a stage - the audience ranged on either side and up in the balconies. At one end is the orchestra, a good one, and a big one, big enough to be unmiked, thank heavens, and playing what sounds like a synthesis of the show and movie orchestrations: plusher than a pit-band but snappy with it. Conductor Peter Ash is perched precariously to one side, conspicuous enough for all to see what a hellish time he has co-ordinating with performers invariably a long way off with their backs to him. The performers are miked, but it's not an easy acoustic and there are inevitably hairy moments.

But the overture is over, we're reminded of all our favourite tunes - and what tunes - and while temple dancers gyrate at one end of the hall, the great doors at the other open to admit shafts of white light and the figure of a small boy tentatively entering this strange, foreign, unknown world. Close behind comes his mother, our heroine, Anna Leonowens.

It's a great entrance. And one of which director John Gardyne takes full advantage: exotic processions come and go, and in the echoing hallways beyond, temple chants mingle with the voices of small children singing "Home, Sweet Home". Ah, yes, the children, so cute you can all but hear the voice of the casting director - "No, get me a smaller child!"

But what of Anna and the King: two worlds, two cultures, different customs, same conceits - the chemistry of opposites? The show stands or falls on that chemistry. Let's just say that here it tottered. Liz Robertson's Anna was adequate, no more. There has to be more beyond the poise, the superficial charm. The voice is bland, the pitching dubious and how she managed to throw away that magical introduction to "Hello Young Lovers" I'll never know. Sure, she rose to her feisty tirade "Shall I tell you what I think of you", but fail with that lyric and you've no business singing it.

The dancer Irek Mukhamedov was a smart idea as the King - in theory. He has great presence, a powerful physicality. But he's nowhere near the vocal demands, spoken or sung. We can laugh at the ungrammatical, but not the unintelligible. "Shall We Dance?" stopped the show, but then it does, doesn't it?

No, the real stars were to be found in the sub-plot: the "young lovers", Deborah Myers's Tuptim (fragrant voice, rapturous phrasing) and Mario Frangoulis's Lun Tha. And, of course, that set. But you don't come out humming it: the tunes are far too good.

Edward Seckerson