The King and Andrea Montgomery
The Thailand-raised theatre director brings a touch of authenticity to Northern Ireland's first large-scale production of The King and I
While, on this side of the Irish Sea, our brief glimpse of an Indian summer may be over, the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey is pulling out all the stops to bring a touch of Eastern promise to these chilly autumn days.
The theatre – which, in its short life, has built up a huge and loyal following from the local area and beyond – is behind Northern Ireland's first-ever professional production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I.
Director Andrea Montgomery is no stranger to the Theatre at the Mill, having directed its opening production, the Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd, as well as a number of other popular shows. But it was not mere familiarity that prompted Artistic Director, Bernard Clarkson to issue an invitation for Montgomery to take charge of this latest large-scale production.
Canadian national Montgomery was raised in the Far East and very much considers Thailand – or Siam, as it was formerly known – as her spiritual home. There is an obvious connection between her own background and that of the musical.
The inspiration for The King and I was Margaret Landon's book Anna and the King of Siam, which, in turn, was based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, the English governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the 1880s. This combination of cultural perspectives is one to which Montgomery feels an instinctive connection.
'Bernard approached me about directing the next big musical for the theatre,' she explains. 'At that stage, we didn't have a title in mind. We talked and talked for around 10 months, and we would ring each other and make suggestions. Nothing was springing to mind. Then he called me up and said, "What about The King and I?".
'It was one of those moments when, after you've been searching for something for a long time, it suddenly clicks. We started to laugh because, given my background, it was such an obvious choice, yet you often don't see the thing that's sitting there looking you right in the face.'
Montgomery's late father was a Canadian diplomat. His first posting was to India, where she was born. Then he was moved to Thailand, and from there back to Canada and on to Switzerland. Andrea's nanny was a young Thai woman, whom the family helped through university in Canada. She met and married a diplomat, who was appointed the Thai ambassador to Romania at the same time that Montgomery's father was posted to Jakarta.
'I go back to Thailand whenever I can,' she Montgomery. 'In fact, when the run is finished, I'm taking my new husband (singer-songwriter Anthony Toner) to meet the people I think of as my Thai family. I was very clear from the start that I wanted the production to be as authentic as possible.
'The mission of my own company Terra Nova is to collaborate with people of different cultures. We currently have projects and productions in Macau, Hong Kong and Tehran. We are developing work with colleagues in London, Hong Kong, Greenland and Hyderabad, and we hold workshops with the Polish, Bangladeshi, Mandarin and Cantonese communities in Northern Ireland.'
In an effort to keep the production home-grown, Montgomery scoured Northern Ireland for actors with family roots in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and China, only to discover that they just weren't there.
'We put out a call, took out ads and talked to my friends at Yellow Earth. We auditioned in London and found some wonderful actors, but nobody who could play the king. Then in walked Ashley Alymann, a really interesting man of Malaysian/Thai extraction.
'Up until then, I'd seen plenty of people, but they just weren't right. Ashley was the last person to audition and he turned out to be perfect. Just as well, as I was starting to get a bit twitchy because I was going off to get married the next day!'
When the cast was assembled, one of the first things they did as a group was to come together for an evening and tell ghost stories. Belfast's Colette Lennon, who plays Anna, supplied the Irish dimension. Joanna Henry, who plays Lady Thiang, brought to the table her own exotic ethnic mix of stories from Jamaica, England and the Far East. Montgomery describes it as a thrilling experience.
'When I heard some of the Thai stories I thought, "This is what I grew up with". It was amazing being around people from a completely other culture, and hearing common themes and myths emerging.
'From there, we were able to identify what we believe to be the central theme of The King and I: which is to open your heart and accept other people's differences. It's so relevant to where we are today in Northern Ireland.
'What is interesting about the original story is the sense of us looking at Thai culture and the Thai people looking back at us. Whatever colour glasses you wear – green tinted, blue tinted, red tinted – you will always respond with your own individual connections.
'But at base level, the common thread is the emotional response. This is such a romantic piece. I haven't directed anything so romantic in a long time. When the gorgeous music kicks in, there have been many tears among the cast and the production team.'
That team includes a handful of seasoned professionals like Musical Director, Wilson Shields and designer Niall Rea, who has recently done some stunning work at the new Lyric Theatre. His and Montgomery's shared vision of the piece as a cultural and emotional puzzle has inspired the design concept of a large gold and laquered puzzle box, which opens up to reveal the action.
Two casts of local children, including some of Asian origin, make up the cosmopoliitan company of over 60 performers. And the background noise from the rehearsal room gives off echoes of an all-round happy experience, something Montgomery values highly in her work.
'The King and I is a lovely traditional musical,' she says. 'But it feels like a really happy place to go to find artistic enjoyment.'