All dressed up but going nowhere

The King and I| London Palladium Normal | The Bush, London
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If only there were a CD-Rom for actors and roles that operated along the lines of Roget's Thesaurus. You could look up the name of the character "Leonowens, Anna", the governess in The King and I, and find that the words associated with that role were "poise", "self-assurance", "Victorian", "lady", "steel" and "sweetness". Then you could look up the name of "Paige, Elaine" and find that the adjectives associated with that actress were "gutsy", "dynamic", "modern", "staunch". If you did a search where you typed in both these names together my guess is that the computer would quickly respond with the words "No matches".

Needless to say, the new production of The King and I that opened at the Palladium last week stars Elaine Paige as Anna. This production first opened in Australia in 1991. It then went to Broadway in 1996 - where it won four Tonys with Donna Murphy in the lead - and nine years later arrives in London. There was a high turnout of B-list celebrities on the first night to ensure that The King and I received a rapturous welcome. If that audience was right in its response - many of whom may have been applauding their own investments - my own reaction is 100 per cent wrong.

In The King and I Anna arrives as the governess to the children of the King of Siam, and the story centres on the clash of two personalities and two sets of values. First played by Gertrude Lawrence on stage, then by Deborah Kerr in the film, Anna's toughness comes from her sense of who she is. This is a fight between two naturally regal people. When the British ambassador visits the court of Siam, it turns out that Sir Edward Ramsey and Anna are old friends. Paige is many things - she sings the songs extremely well - but she's not a bit of posh. It may well be impossible to be a success as Evita and a success as Anna. The two roles draw on opposite types of personalities. That other Eva Peron, Madonna, would make a hash of Anna too.

Christopher Renshaw's old-fashioned revival has many lavish visual attractions. It's as if a generously funded museum is offering The Rodgers and Hammerstein Experience. It doesn't boldly reinterpret a well-known musical, as Trevor Nunn did with Oklahoma! at the National. Nor is it better than the movie. But in the quality of its designs, costumes and lighting it is first rate. Brian Thomson's splendid sets conjure up a gilt-edged oriental world of saffron and sequins that sparkles and glitters like the show's backdrop of a starry night. Huge red cut-out profiles of the front of elephants line either side of the stage. I'd loved this production very much when I saw it in New York four years ago, with Donna Murphy playing Anna, and what I remember most was the way she used her dress.

There can be few roles that rely quite so heavily on the drama of their own costume. Anna wears voluminous dresses that billow and swish and undulate around the stage. In New York, Donna Murphy would sink to the ground and her enormous satin dress would collapse around her like a parachute touching the ground. When Murphy turned, the bottom of her dress would circle in waves. This effect finds its climax when Anna and the King swirl round the stage in "Shall We Dance". In London, Elaine Paige looked trapped inside these period dresses.

As the King, Jason Scott Lee has an engaging square-jawed naïveté and an emphatic rapid delivery that was matched by his bouncing eyebrows. He often seemed like a Siamese version of Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear. He also needed a stronger dose of poise and regality. The real pleasure in the cast was Taewon Yi Kim as Lady Thiang, who made an immediate impact with "Something Wonderful", bringing a force, candour and dramatic intensity, in a soaring operatic voice, that felt as if they came from within the period and the genre. Something wonderful - that was missing elsewhere.

Helen Blakeman's first play, Caravan, was set in and around a caravan and displayed a lively gift for dramatising family disputes and representing young people's sex lives with a good-humoured frankness. A young wife knew that her husband was having an affair when she noticed him doing press-ups. It won her the George Devine award. Her new play, Normal, also presented at the Bush, is tougher going.

Blakeman takes us into painful territory, with a backstory that involves two children who died in childbirth and the impact that has on the mother and daughter who survived. The scenes move between Kate's monologues (delivered with tortured hesitancy by Lisa Ellis) as she speaks in a police station and the scenes that lead up to the climax of the play: the event that has brought her to the police station.

The best scene comes when the upfront blonde Holly (a brash Emma Pike) decides she wants even more up front and visits an "aesthetic" surgeon (a neat Sam Graham), who has to squeeze her naked breasts to judge what kind of implant would be suitable. His cool professional handling of her breasts is the least intimate of the relationships that he has with the three women in the play. Mike Bradwell directs a good cast in a stark clinical setting. But Blakeman's talent for unlikely scenes is largely on hold.

'The King and I': London Palladium, W1 (0870 89 555 89); 'Normal': Bush, W6 (020-8743 3388) to 27 May