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Making a right royal song and dance

RAMON Tikaram is in a bit of a daze.

THE STAGE IS SET: Taking a large musical on tour has been a dream for a long time of John Stalker, producer of The King and I, which stars Ramon Tikaram.
THE STAGE IS SET: Taking a large musical on tour has been a dream for a long time of John Stalker, producer of The King and I, which stars Ramon Tikaram.

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. At the end of the day in an Edinburgh sports hall, all cosied up in a beanie hat and a big jumper, he 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 EastEnders. Then there was a recent jaunt to Morocco to play a Taliban commander in a new film about kidnapped Channel 4 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 has been thrown in at the deep end. John Stalker is the producer of the show which will open this week at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre, prior to a major UK tour that runs right through until summer 2012. Until recently Stalker was chief executive of the Festival Theatre and its sister theatre, the King's. Since departing earlier this year 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 27 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 which have since gone into partnership with Music and Lyrics to help bring The King and I to the stage, 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 to ensure 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 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, No 1 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 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 the gravitas and 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 looks set to be as refreshed as the production.

"I just do what's on 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 a bit more tenderness to him, because there are moments in the play where Anna's threatening to leave, and he can be incredibly temperamental, and some of his behaviour is absolutist and totalitarian, but there's a vulnerability there as well. People have a lot of preconceptions about The King and I. They think they know it, but often they don't, and we use 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 King's 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 King's 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 49 weeks that aren't the Edinburgh Festival, and you need to concentrate on selling those tickets full-time. By the same token, given the £3 million 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 and 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, Dec 14-Jan 7. Visit www.fctt.org.uk.

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