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The King and I - A New Consortium

Ramon Tikaram is in a bit of a daze. The actor who first came to
prominence in 1990s generation-defining TV drama This Life has been
doing the polka all week as part of his preparation for the title role
in a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, the King and
I, and, at the end of the day in an Edinburgh sports hall all cosied up
in beanie and big jumper, is worn out.

This is all a long way from Albert Square, where Tikaram was recently
filming his latest stint as Amira Shah in BBC soap, East Enders. Then
there was a recent jaunt to Morocco to play a Taliban commander in a
new film about kidnapped Channel Four reporter Sean Langan. It's been
eight years since Tikaram did a musical, when he appeared in Bollywood
Dreams. Where that show was effectively a large-scale ensemble piece,
The King and I is a virtual two-hander between Tikaram and his co-star,
regular West End leading lady Josefina Gabrielle

But Tikaram isn't the only one involved in The King and I who's been
thrown into the deep end. John Stalker is the producer if The King and
I, which will open this week at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre prior to
a major UK tour that runs right through until summer 2012. Up until
recently Stalker was Chief executive of the Festival Theatre and its
sister theatre the Kings. Since departing earlier this year, however to
form Music and Lyrics Limited, the organisation behind this production
of The King and I, Stalker has been discovering the joys of being a
one-man band.

For the last twenty-seven years in charge of major theatres in
Edinburgh, Liverpool and Birmingham, Stalker has had a secretary to
look after his organisations' everyday administration. When he made his
first approaches to many of the theatres who've since gone into
partnership with Music and Lyrics to help bring The King and I to the
stage, however, he was licking his own stamps, and only belatedly
discovered the new postal charges for different-sized envelopes.

The afternoon we meet, Stalker is also about to double up as impromptu
company photographer in order to ensure that the cast of local children
who appear in the production are kept in the frame. While this isn't a
task one could readily imagine west end giants Andrew Lloyd-Webber and
Cameron Mackintosh getting their hands dirty with, without the bricks
and mortar upkeep of two very demanding buildings to worry about,
Stalker is clearly relishing his new-found freedom.

“It's been a passion and a dream of mine,” he says of his new venture.
“The notion of taking large-scale musicals on tour is a very costly and
a very risky business. On the top shelf you've got Danton, Oliver, Les
Miserable and others that can clearly pay their way and which I assume
are a very profitable enterprise. But there are other venues that would
love to get a big, large-scale, number one Broadway-style musical on
their stages, but their just aren't that many around that are touring.
A number of theatre managers, and I used to be one of them, used to sit
in a room moaning about this, so I said, well, let's get together, and
if that's what we want, let's make it happen.”

Stalker had already done something similar with Dance Consortium, and
when he saw Paul Kerryson's production of The King and I for
Leicester's Curve Theatre in 2010, Music and Lyrics was born. The model
is effectively another consortium, whereby each venue shares the show's
production costs. The result of such co-operation means that the
subsequent box office returns are – if all goes well – far greater for
each partner than for a stand-alone production.

Casting Tikaram in a role still associated with Yul Brynner's iconic
turn in the 1956 film version following his appearance on Broadway in
the original production is inspired. Tikaram not only has the dashing
good looks required for the role. He also possesses a gravitas and a
sense of authority that has seen him previously cast as Judas Iscariot
in Jesus Christ Superstar. Tikaram also played the title role in
Gaddafi, English National Opera's collaboration with Asian Dub
Foundation. His take on the King, however, looks set to be as refreshed
as the production.

“I just do what's in the page,” says Tikaram. “I'm obviously aware of
Yul Brynner's template, but I'm also aware of what we're doing
differently. I'm trying to bring as bit more tenderness to him, because
there are moments in the play where Anna's threatening to leave, and he
can be incredibly tempermental, and some of his behaviour is absolutist
and totalitarian, but there's a vulnerability there as well. People
have a lot of pre-conceptions about The King and I. They think they
know it, but quite often they don't, and we can use that that to our
advantage.”

It's not difficult to join the dots along Stalker's road to founding
his own production company. It was something he'd been slowly working
towards within the bounds of the Kings and Festival Theatres for
several years, when in-house productions of The Corstorphine Road
Nativity, The Secret Garden and Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle's play, The
Hardman, were seen in seasons previously the exclusive domain of
visiting companies. Given that history, why didn't Stalker stay at the
Kings and Festival Theatres to produce The King and I?

“It's too big a job,” he states flatly, “and the challenges of running
a building are such that you need to concentrate on that. The unique
thing about the Festival Theatre is that in any other town you wouldn't
have built it. With the Playhouse up the road in a town slightly bigger
than greater Ipswich, you've got far too many tickets on sale during
the forty-nine weeks that aren't the Edinburgh Festival, and you need
to concentrate on selling those tickets full-time. By the same token,
given the three million pound that's being spent on The King and I, I
owe it to my shareholders to concentrate on that full-time, and I'm not
missing leaking roofs, leaking taps and all the paraphernalia of
running a building.

Things for Music and Lyrics look promising. Box office for The King and
I thus far is “sensational” according to Stalker, with next May's dates
at Birmingham already two thirds sold out. Arts Council England has
provided funding for an audience development programme – something
unprecedented for an otherwise commercial musical – and there are none
of the pressures the subsidised sector in Scotland is up against in
terms of cross-border touring.

“If you're not dependent on subsidy you can do what the hell you like,”
Stalker enthuses. “We have a very poor track record of commercial
theatre producing in Scotland, and we want to change that.
The ambition we've got is to create one or two musicals a year. The
importance of a musical at the centre of a theatre programme can't be
understated. It has a higher yield than drama, and that can help venues
invest in a piece of new writing or something else in their programme.
What Music asnd Lyrics is about is putting great art made on a large
scale in front of bigger audiences more often.”

The King and I, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, December 14th-January 7th
2012
http://www.fctt.org.uk

The Herald, December 12th 2011

ends

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