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Kiss Me, Kate at Barbican Theatre | Review

How do you put on a production of Kiss Me, Kate in 2024? After all, doesn’t the leading lady get spanked? The reason for this is because there’s a play within the play – or, technically, a musical within the musical, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in which, like the Bard’s play, it’s asserted that women ought to be submissive to men, and if they aren’t, they ought to be ‘tamed’, and if that meant resorting to physical force, so be it. Of course, that – quite rightly – wouldn’t go down well in this day and age, so Stephanie J. Block’s Lilli Vanessi is spared, even if it’s a bit odd that in a late scene she declares, “I am ashamed that women are so simple”.

Stephanie J Block and Adrian Dunbar in Kiss Me, Kate. Photo by Johan Persson.
Stephanie J Block and Adrian Dunbar in Kiss Me, Kate. Photo by Johan Persson.

What really happens is that Vanessi channels her fury and energy, most if not all of it directed at Fred Graham (Adrian Dunbar), her ex, in such a way that her character in Taming practically fires venom, at least partly because Graham is seeing another woman. As Graham’s Petruchio attempts to woo Vanessi’s Katharine (hence the title, Kiss Me, Kate), the dramatic tension goes into the stratosphere. Her solo number, ‘I Hate Men’, was self-explanatory and very, very believable. In this production at least, it isn’t all one-sided, with both leads possessing a degree of convincing theatrical flair and pomp.

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll be blunt – there are better singers than Adrian Dunbar. Some of them are in this very cast: take, for instance, the sustained applause on press night given to Georgina Onuorah’s Lois Lane after ‘Always True To You in My Fashion’ in the second half, or that given to Hammed Aminashaun and Nigel Lindsay after ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’. I wouldn’t imagine there are many opportunities out there to rhyme ‘heinous’ with ‘Coriolanus’. But Dunbar more than holds his own in other departments – his acting and comic timing are very much on point, and he does eight shows a week, which isn’t always the case for someone placed in a theatrical leading role with only prior film and television credits to their name in the show’s programme. ‘Wunderbar’, as one of the musical numbers is titled. He also somewhat redeems himself through a direct address to the audience, in which his Petruchio forthrightly acknowledges the misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew.

The jewel in the crown is Stephanie J. Block, who hits the high notes and has such a natural stage presence. I’m sure she works hard on stage, but she made it look effortless. Michael Yeargan’s set design is functional and relies on a stage revolve. While it’s sufficiently impressive it’s the sort of thing the National Theatre does regularly – in other words, it’s nothing neither your reviewer nor any regular London theatre patron won’t have seen before. Cole Porter’s intricate and witty lyrics shine in a production where Adam Fisher’s sound design ensures every line is heard. Occasionally, I failed to grasp the meaning of a word or two – I had to look up what ‘kow-tow’ (pronounced ‘kau-tau’) meant, for instance, but it’s hardly the production’s fault if I needed to brush up a bit more than just my Shakespeare.

It’s a team effort, really – Jack Butterworth leads with pizazz and enthusiasm in the second half’s opening number ‘Too Darn Hot’, which doesn’t ordinarily feature Bill Calhoun, but when you’re watching a production that has Charlie Stemp playing Calhoun, it would have been a far greater anomaly to have left him out completely of possibly the biggest song and dance number of the evening. The Butterworth/Stemp dance-off was a sight to behold.

There is one oddity – why is musical director Stephen Ridley (who ably leads an orchestra of sixteen musicians) positioned in a cut-out section of the stage? The cast end up further away from the audience than was strictly necessary, and watching the show the night after Sir Ian McKellen sustained an injury forcing the cancellation of performances of Player Kings, seeing a giant hole on stage did make me a tad apprehensive. It’s an enthusiastic and enjoyable production, one of those musicals with a substantial feelgood factor.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

CAST
Fred Graham/Petruchio – Adrian Dunbar
Lilli Vanessi/Katharine – Stephanie J. Block
Bill Calhoun/Lucentio – Charlie Stemp
Lois Lane/Bianca – Georgina Onuorah
Gangsters – Hammed Animashaun, Nigel Lindsay
General Harrison Howell – Peter Davison
Hattie – Josie Benson
Paul – Jack Butterworth
Harry Trevor/Baptista – Jude Owusu
Hortensio/Ensemble – Carl Au
Gremio/Ensemble – Jordan Crouch
Ralph/Ensemble – Gary Milner
Pops/Ensemble – James Hume
Ensemble –Shani Cantor, Alisha Capon, Maya de Faria, Jacqui Jameson, Anna McGarahan, Amelia Kinu Muus, Lucas Koch, Alex Lodge, Neil Martin, John Stacey, Harrison Wilde
Swings – Barry Drummond, Emily Goodenough, Maddie Harper, Robin Kent

CREATIVE TEAM
Director – Bartlett Sher
Choreographer – Anthony Van Laast
Musical Supervisor and Musical Director – Stephen Ridley
Set Designer – Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer – Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer – Donald Holder
Sound Designer – Adam Fisher
Wigs, Hair and Make Up Designer – Sam Cox

With backstage shenanigans, Shakespearean sonnets and singing gangsters – not to mention a romance that’s just too darn hot – and a full-scale orchestra performing the Cole Porter classics Brush Up Your Shakespeare, Too Darn Hot, Always True To You (In My Fashion) and Tom, Dick or Harry, this might be another op’nin’, but it certainly ain’t just another show!

Howard Panter for Trafalgar Theatre Productions, Richard Batchelder / Brady Brim-DeForest, The Dodgers, HoriPro, Kevin Ryan / Dennis Trunfio, udnFunLife Co, The Shubert Organization, Carlos Candal, New Frame Productions and David Lazar in association with Scenario Company, ACT Productions and the Barbican present
KISS ME, KATE
4 June to 14 September 2024
Theatre, Barbican Centre

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