Theatre: On the Fringe

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The Independent Culture
the king and i bac, london n killing rasputin bridewell, london n if i were lifted up from earth lincoln's inn, london

ALTHOUGH SUPPLIED with enough happy tunes to keep you whistling for hours, The King and I is not the easiest musical to stage. It requires a display of pomp fit for an autocrat. The king of Siam has to put on a good show, the more robust it appears - the more we are drawn into the process by which Anna, the English schoolteacher brought in to enlighten the royal household, fatally (albeit lovingly) strips away the decorative layers to expose the uncertain masculine ego they sustain.

In 1956, Hollywood could rustle up palatial opulence and a cast of thousands for Rodgers' and Hammerstein's Broadway hit. In 1998, at the BAC, Phil Willmott does his level best to match that cod-Oriental splendour, offering a multi-ethnic cast list as long as the local phone book, more colour and scent than a florist's in May and more glitter than Ratner's. The audience sits under butterfly- and pomander-strewn awnings before a hand- made throne shaped like a double-headed bird.

Rupert Tebb's design is in keeping with the peacockish and polygynous spirit that Anna (an admirably calm and collected Lindsey Danvers) counters with Victorian notions of self-restraint and egalitarianism. Initially, though, it appears that the enterprise will fail in the vainglorious attempt. A harem's worth of garishly clad women rush in from all sides, forming cooing serried ranks in obeisance to their lord. Before long, the small acting area is also thronging with tots. It's only a matter of time, you think, before teacher's hoop skirt sends one of them flying.

But somehow - all credit to the choreographer, Jack Gunn - disaster is averted. If the show isn't quite a triumph, that's partly because of the sound (heavy on the synth and drums) and partly because Willmott seems uncertain as to how to tackle the imperial/ colonial politics. Although Alan Mosley's King has Yul Brynner's hip-holding poise, shaved crown and visibly soft heart, he is performing in an era where the "me Tarzan, you Jane"-style book is less than cute. The children are, however, and their presence infects the enterprise with an innocent, warm-hearted joy that will leave even the coldest curmudgeon feeling like a proud parent at prizegiving.

It took many attempts to kill Rasputin, so the story goes. It has apparently taken five years to get Killing Rasputin into the shape in which it now appears at the Bridewell. Unfortunately, the musical - composed by James McConnel and worded by the credible team of Kit Hesketh-Harvey and Stephen Clark - bears all the signs of a botched job. There are the bare bones of a good idea: that Yusupov, the aristocrat who freed the ruling Romanovs from the mystic's grip just before the Revolution, was erotically in thrall to this peasant upstart; the murder was a statement of self-liberation.

As Yusupov, Hal Fowler has a confident singing voice that satisfyingly belies the character's riven sexuality, while Jerome Pradon fits the bill as a bearded figure of malevolent intensity. But though Ian Brown's production (beautifully lit by Simon Mills) seems sure of itself, the journey by which the two men fall in and out of affection gets mired in flummery- filled numbers ("Evil nourishes good, young man" sounds like Harry Enfield, not wisdom) and the rigmarole of historical inevitability. Russia's greatest love machine does get a brief orgy. Perhaps if they upped the body count, the writers might have a hit.

AandBC Theatre Company's resurrection play If I were Lifted Up from Earth is more than well intentioned, boasting a musicality far removed from the excesses of Jesus Christ Superstar. In the early-17th-century Lincoln's Inn Chapel, this remarkable production derives its powerful rhythms from William Tyndale's 1534 translation of the New Testament.

"No Tyndale, no Shakespeare" is the slogan here, but the resonances are as much Gavin Bryars as the Bard: a group of Fifties-dressed, barefoot disciples dart about, their words inwardly intoned or thrown across the congregation in exhilarating antiphons, forcing heads to turn in the shoulder- high pews. Catch it before it disappears as fast as Elliot Levey's hip and hypnotic Jesus.

`The King and I', BAC, London SW11 (0171-223 2223) to 10 Jan; `Killing Rasputin', The Bridewell, EC4 (0171-936 3456) to 16 Jan; `If I Were Lifted Up from Earth' Lincoln's Inn Chapel, WC2, 8pm, tonight only (0870 8701023)

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