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Image / Living / Culture

Irish actor Annalene Beechy on her favourite musical and why no two performances are the same


By Sarah Finnan
16th Jun 2023

Johan Persson

Irish actor Annalene Beechy on her favourite musical and why no two performances are the same

The multi-Tony Award-winning production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s timeless classic The King and I will come to the Bord Gáis later this month. We sat down with Irish actor Annalene Beechey to discuss her love of musicals and why performing at the Royal Albert Hall is something she’ll never forget. 

One of the most in-demand performers in musical theatre with over 20 years of experience and countless performances under her belt, Irish actor Annalene Beechey is no stranger to the stage. Landing the role of Anna Leonowens in the West End production of The King and I, Beechey had just hit the road with the show when Covid hit and everything was shut down. 

Reprising her role for the UK and Ireland tour this year, this is a chance to finish what she started. “It’s a privilege,” she tells me over Zoom, thrilled at the prospect of coming to Dublin at the end of this month to play in front of a home crowd. 

A gloriously lavish production, it’s brought to the stage by the internationally renowned creative team under Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher and will feature a world-class company of talented performers and a full-scale orchestra… it’s not to be missed, in other words. 

Set in 1860s Bangkok, The King and I tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the king of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist king, in an imperialistic world, brings to Siam to teach his many wives and children. Theirs is a “fiery” relationship, as Annalene puts it. “They have a lot of very interesting and fun scenes together. It’s quite electric.”

I sat down with Annalene to discuss everything from her favourite musical (Hamilton, currently) to her pre-show ritual and what her career highlight thus far has been.

How did you get into musical theatre? 
Initially, I got into it because we moved from England to Ireland when I was about seven, and my mum wanted to meet new people, so she saw a poster for the local musical society who were looking for new members. She went along and joined the production of Fiddler on the Roof and that was my very first introduction to musical theatre. Further down the line they were looking for children to be in a show and I was like, ‘Please, please, please!’ I joined that show and that kind of sealed the deal for me. I also saw Phantom of the Opera when I was about 11 or 12 and that was it. I was all in.

Were you ever in a show with your mum?
Yeah, we did Annie Get Your Gun with her and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. Oh and The Diary of Anne Frank as well. I was in Annie Get Your Gun with them. And Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. On Frank The Diary of Anne Frank, so it was with them as well.

You’re currently playing the role of Anna Leonowens in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s timeless classic The King and I. For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, how would you describe your character? 
Anna Leonowens is a school teacher who is brought into Thailand which was then called Siam by the king to instruct his children and himself really on the ways of the Western world. It’s the 1860s and the world there’s colonisation happening by the English and the French, and he’s trying to get ahead and understand the Western culture, and the Western world so he can prevent that from happening to his people. So when they meet that it’s a bit of a fiery exchange for one reason and another, and it’s a very fiery relationship and difficult relationship because they’re both very different, but they have a lot in common which infuriates them both in many ways. They have a lot of very interesting and fun scenes together. It’s quite electric on many occasions

The production got shut down just as Covid restrictions were brought in, how does it feel to finally get to tour with the show?
It’s amazing. We were in Liverpool when it got shut down and then to be able to come back into it again with sort of, you know, the universal emotions that Covid thrust on us all… those feelings of isolation, of loss, confusion. It’s a mad experience that we’ve all had. So to come back to a role that I was doing before with these new experiences, and to be able to draw on them in many ways and put them into the role and help me to connect in other ways is a privilege. It’s a challenge in many ways too, but it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to come back and bring this show on the road again. It’s an important time for a show like this, I think.

Do you think people have a renewed appreciation for culture and the arts and theatre after Covid? Because there was such a long period without that?
I think so, I would like to think so for sure. Because I think the time when we needed it most, we couldn’t access it, you know, when we were so isolated and cut off from friends and family and all kinds of normality. Those things that we took for granted – going out to a bar and to a coffee shop and seeing friends – that loss of connection that we all experienced. When you go to the theatre, it’s an incredible connection you have between the actors and performers on stage and the people backstage and an audience. You all connect to create this unique experience. So to have lost that and then to be able to go back into theatre and reconnect to it, I think is very special. People did some amazing things during lockdown to try and keep people entertained, all those wonderful Zoom things that happened, they were so creative and inventive but there is nothing like walking into an auditorium. When you leave that auditorium, that experience that you’ve had, that performance is unique – it will never ever be repeated because the energy will be different, the atmosphere will be different. The actors might be more or less tired, more or less energised. Maybe there will be an understudy on… everything is only in that moment, which is what makes it special.

Johan Persson

You trained at the Bull Alley Theatre Company in Dublin, is it exciting to play in front of a home crowd later this month? 
Yeah, always. I love being in Dublin, I really really do. It’s a special city for me but also for everyone else in the show. Anyone in the show or any of the shows that I’ve done that have been in Dublin before, everyone has always said that they can’t wait to come to Ireland – and they genuinely mean it. It’s partly because the Bord Gáis is so gorgeous, but also because Dublin is a wonderful city. It’s so accessible, it’s fun, it’s vivacious, there’s a history here. It’s a wonderful place to be and it’s a very exciting place.

You’ve played many different roles throughout your career – from Cosette in Les Misérables to Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – do you have a favourite? 
It’s hard to say really because very often when I get asked this question, it tends to be the part I’m playing at the time. I think that perhaps as I’ve gotten older, I have a deeper appreciation for the jobs that I’m doing and the characters that I’m playing. There’s so much in the character of Anna Leonowens. She has so much about her that I just truly admire, and she’s a real person. Her character is based on the diaries of the real Anna Leonowens who did this. She travelled to Siam when it was not colonised it was not under the British flag, so it was very much an unknown world and she took herself and her young son to this country, completely unaware of what she’d meet on the other side. I mean, the courage that that would have taken. Even doing it now would be difficult but back then, she had no concept of what she was about to get off the boat to see and to experience. So I just think it’s extraordinary. I just deeply admire her passion and her courage.

Do you have a pre-show ritual to help you get in the zone?
Well, we always have our company warmups, which are always good. My wig has to be put on at a certain time, well it doesn’t have to be but I don’t like to be rushed. That’s my thing, I guess. I like to have time. I get there early, I boil the kettle and get my humidifier on and get my wig done so that I can sit there and if there are any last-minute things, I’m not rushing. It’s just having time, I guess.

I imagine being on the road can kind of be a little bit taxing at times. How do you look after yourself when you’re touring?
I think, again, it’s the structure. I will have certain things that I do on certain days. I like to know a good route to wherever I’m staying from the theatre, eating certain foods at certain times because I’m in a corset so I can’t eat a lot of food too close to the show, otherwise, it’s just extremely uncomfortable. I will have a massage and physio at some point because my body gets really beaten about in this show. So yeah, I guess it’s just about structure. That’s the main thing for me and knowing that I can get home to see my family.

Being in musicals is your job, does that ever take away from your love of them outside of that? Or do you still like watching them in your free time too? 
No, I love watching them! I just took my husband and my children to see Hamilton last week. They became obsessed with the live recording of the show over Easter and I said, ‘Right, ok. We’re gonna go and see it’. I think it’s just absolutely bang-on. It’s a great show.

Johan Persson

And finally – what has been your career highlight to date?
I did a stage concert version of My Fair Lady playing Eliza Doolittle at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, and it was an extraordinary experience. I will never forget it. I was standing there singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” with this orchestra – I think it was about a 100-piece orchestra or something like that – and John Wilson conducting behind me. Standing in that auditorium, in that space, singing the song was, I can only describe as like a wave of sound all around me. That was a moment when I just thought, ‘this is it. I can die happy. I’m here.’ My son was only four months old at the time, so I was living on very little sleep at the time. I was very tired and quite emotional, but it was just one of those really extraordinary experiences. I was working with such a wonderful cast, it was an incredible experience. Anthony Andrews was playing Professor Higgins, Julian Ovenden, Alan Armstrong. It was a wonderful cast, and I just felt like I was just walking on air. It was an incredible experience. You know, I was just looking around at those actors around me going, ‘Am I really here?’, because it was incredible.

The King and I will run at the Bord Gáis Theatre from 27 June – 01 July 2023. Tickets are priced from €31.50 are on sale now through Ticketmaster