sat 20/07/2024

Kiss Me, Kate, Barbican review - an entertaining, high-octane Cole Porter revival | reviews, news & interviews

Kiss Me, Kate, Barbican review - an entertaining, high-octane Cole Porter revival

Kiss Me, Kate, Barbican review - an entertaining, high-octane Cole Porter revival

'Brush Up Your Shakespeare' brings the house down in a strongly cast lineup

Darn hot: the company, led by Jack Butterworth, centre, in Anthony Van Laast's choreographyJohan Persson

Lincoln Center’s Bartlett Sher is back in town to direct the Barbican’s latest summer blockbuster, Cole Porter’s classic Kiss Me, Kate. It’s an energetic, largely intelligent production of what is at base a screwball comedy with great songs. 

With a book by Samuel and Bella Spewack, the main focus of this 1948 piece is a backstage will-they-won’t-they?, as a one-year-divorced couple, company boss / male lead Fred Graham (Adrian Dunbar, pictured below with Block) and his leading lady, Lilli Vanessi (Stephanie J Block), confront each other in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. Why Lilli has agreed to appear in a production by the despised ex she recently divorced isn’t really clear, unless you take it on trust from the start that she is still secretly in love with him. He blames their split on her temper; she, his ego. 

This relationship bleeds into a teasing appraisal of the sexual politics of the Shakespeare play itself, scenes from which the company attempt to perform while the couple are tearing each other to shreds. Will Lilli kowtow as Kate does? At one point, Fred, speaking as if suddenly in the present day, mocks the way the musical he’s in presented male/female equality in 1948 as “modern”. It is perhaps too meta a move, an attempt to soften the play’s 16th century notions about female duty for audiences today.

Stephanie J Block and Adrian Dunbar in Kiss Me, KateMostly, though, Sher is a thoughtful hand on the tiller. He meshes the internal Shrew musical and the piece it’s in with clever uses of the Barbican’s revolve, which in the most chaotic sequences whiz us from a scene in the company’s performance of Shrew to dramas simultaneously building up backstage, and back again. This allows Fred and Lilli’s incandescent wrangles to colour directly the enmity between the characters they are playing, Kate and Petruchio.

The ensemble, with secondary roles for current musicals whizkid Charlie Stemp as bad boy Bill Calhoun/Lucentio and Georgina Onuorah as Lois Lane/Bianca, is hard-working and impressive. Musical director Stephen Ridley, his head just visible through an open strip in the understage pit, has given the orchestration of “Too Darn Hot” a Bernstein cool jazziness, which the choreography by Anthony Van Laast picks up on in a high-octane dance routine worthy of the Jets and Sharks. And Sher has tweaked the piece to give it local and topical content – Lilli, for example, taunts Fred that the “London” appearance in Peer Gynt he likes to boast about is a fraud: it was actually in Croydon (big laugh). 

Dunbar, naturally, got an obligatory round of applause just for coming onstage, There was an element of, could Ted off Line of Duty actually get away with this role (ignoring his training in musical theatre, his singing in ITV's Ridley)? And the answer is, just about. He acquits himself well as the amusingly canny Fred, his sharp comic timing casually delivering zingers to maximum effect. As a singer he is more a lounge-bar crooner than a resounding baritone, his technique not quite up to one of Porter’s finest numbers, “So in Love”. But he is an amiably mischievous presence, if not quite the slightly pompous theatrical ham of other productions, whose comeuppance we are hoping for. 

As a counterbalance, his Lilli Vanessi/Kate is a grande dame with a soprano voice that can outsing the orchestra. Block, a Tony-winning Broadway stalwart, positively gorges on the role, delivering “I Hate Men” with a gusto dripping with toxicity that she invites the audience to sing along with. (On press night, some did.) She even has a decent coloratura, sashaying at one point into one of the Queen of the Night’s arias from The Magic Flute. It’s a bravura performance, befitting Lilli’s status as a Big Star. 

Elsewhere, the vocals are more standard-musical, though Onuorah has a ball, bumping and grinding and even adding some scat singing, her embonpoint threatening a wardrobe malfunction. And Charlie Stemp is given a flashy dance solo to beef up his role as bad-boy Bill Calhoun/Lucentio, which he executes with his usual cheerful brilliance. 

Hammed Animashaun, Nigel Lindsay and Adrian Dunbar in Kiss Me, KateThis is a company achievement, though, a troupe clearly having huge fun. Not least the two actors playing the Gangsters who arrive to collect the “10 Gs” on an IOU ostensibly signed by Fred, whose signature has been forged by Bill Calhoun. Much comic mileage is made of their credentials as forceful types (they have guns) who get things done – had they considered becoming directors, Lilli asks? The Gangsters are a barely recognisable Nigel Lindsay (pictured above, with Hammed Animashuan and Dunbar) swathed in a huge overcoat and a Don Corleone embouchure, and Hammed Animashaun, the Bridge’s fine Bottom. They are a delight as two theatre-mad men who have spent “eight to 12 years” genning up on all things theatrical, and happily don costumes to appear with the company, leaving – nice touch  their two-tone brogues and suspendered socks. Their “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” routine almost eclipses what went before it. 

The resolution of the plot seems rushed here. Lilli’s lover, General Harrison Howell (Peter Davison), appears with great fanfare and a squad of secret agents, then disappears with no fanfare at all. So the happy ending almost skitters on with no obvious buildup except for Lilli overhearing Fred singing of his love for her. I missed the shading of their relationship that was such a draw in the Broadway production by Michael Blakemore that came to London in 2001. But it’s a cheery, entertaining way to spend an evening, with the wit of Porter’s lyrics and his terrific melodies to send you home happy, 

  •  Kiss Me, Kate at the Barbican until September 14
  • More theatre reviews on theartsdesk
Could Ted off Line of Duty actually get away with this role? Just about


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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