Review: Kiss Me Kate

By John Nathan, November 30, 2012
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The Old Vic, London SE1

Performances by Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne are a highlight. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Performances by Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne are a highlight. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

For those who, 10 years ago, saw Michael Blakemore’s wonderful revival of Cole Porter’s 1948 musical, comparisons with this solid but less inspired version directed by Trevor Nunn are hard to resist.

It is the genius of Porter’s writing that sets the benchmark. Based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, this lyrically astounding show demands brilliance. And unlike Blakemore’s production, Nunn’s falls just short of the hoped-for triumph.

The bar is set pretty high by the stellar Jewish writing team Sam and Bella Spewack, whose plot casts a divorced couple as the actors who play the lead in Shakespeare’s comedy.

In the play they are the warring Katherine and Petruchio; off-stage they are ex-husband and wife Lili and Fred.
Both are terrifically played here by Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne, the latter even capturing some of the manful spirit of Howard Keel’s 1953 film version.

There are other fine performances too, not least from David Burt and especially Clive Rowe as the mafia gangsters whose job it is keep Lili in the show she so desperately wants to walk out on.

But Nunn’s production does not crackle with energy. There are exceptions, including the sublimely plotted moment when the ex-spouses have a stand-up marital row while in their Shakespearean characters, but there is a general lack of pace to the evening, as if the show is somehow running low on fuel.

The Old Vic’s cavernous stage does not help much either. It is hard to fill, although Robert Jones’s design of a gilded proscenium arch and the drab bare brick of the Baltimore Playhouse’s back-stage area goes a long way to creating atmosphere in the huge space.

Another failing is that the big, incongruous number, Too Darn Hot, about how the hitherto unmentioned weather has become uncomfortably steamy, gets little help from Nunn’s direction in generating the required heat.
It is down to Stephen Mear’s choreography and his hard-working dancers to do that.

Still, there is much to enjoy here. And Nunn, being a consummate director of Shakespeare and musicals, gets as big a laugh out of the Bard as he does out of the Spewacks’s cracking dialogue.

Amazingly, the reconciliation scene between Petruchio and Katherine is even more moving here because the relationship between Fred and Lili relies on it.

So even for those who were around for Blakemore’s brilliant production, Nunn’s has fair amount to recommend it.
For those who weren’t, it is a good, if not-quite-brilliant introduction to what is a work of genius. (Tel: 0844 8717628)

Last updated: 11:16am, November 30 2012