Life & Culture

Kiss Me, Kate review: this kissing lark is all in the line of duty


Left-field: Adrian Dunbar and company in Kiss Me, Kate

Barbican | ★★★★✩

You can’t put complexity on a poster. So advertising for this keenly awaited revival of Cole Porter’s 1949 classic musical naturally enough bigs up its leading performers, Broadway royalty Stephanie J. Block and the somewhat left-field casting of Adrian Dunbar from Line of Duty.

They play divorced, and still bitter, stage stars Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, who are appearing in a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Off stage Fred and Lilli hate each other as much as their characters Petruchio and Katherine do.

There is also a fair amount of stardust sprinkled among the supporting roles with song and dance wunderkind Charlie Stemp playing opposite the luxuriously talented Georgina Onuorah who goes from playing the girl who “… Cain’t Say No” in Oklahoma to the equally libidinous Lois here.

Director Bartlett Sher’s latest big production arrives in the wake of his Broadway and West End hits The King and I and his adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird. So it is easy to forget that Sher was also the creative force (along with playwright J.T. Rogers) behind Oslo, the best play ever to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What made that work excellent was that it embraced complexity.

And although the world of musical comedy is a universe away from the secret negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords, it is Sher’s skilful handling of complexity that makes this show, a musical-within-a-musical, soar.

The plot hinges on Lilli thinking her co-star Fred is rekindling their marriage because he has sent her a bouquet.

But the flowers are actually for young Lois. Lilli’s moment of realisation happens backstage just before her cue to go on as Katherine.

The Barbican’s revolving stage allows us to follow her stomping progress from her dressing room to confront Dunbar’s Fred and his Petruchio.

This scene of many moving parts is like watching the planets of an orrery in their orbit until the stars align allowing Lilli and her Kate to give it to Fred and his Petruchio with both barrels, while simultaneously performing Shakespeare’s comedy. Sher’s direction of stage scenery and human traffic is a marvel here. But like the posters suitable space must be found here for the superb Block, who as Kate sings I Hate Men with a sublime wit and voice.

In his West End debut Dunbar’s not in Block’s league vocally, but he makes up for it – almost – with a performance that is brimful of comic timing but which also suggests that Fred is at peace with his cynicism and selfishness. Also worth a mention are the gangsters played with good-hearted threat by Nigel Lindsay and Hammed Animashaun who sing the comedy song-of-songs Brush Up Your Shakespeare. If I were to gripe it would be that the show’s finale follows that number a little too hard on its heels. But I could watch the brilliant end of the first act and the wonderful start of the second, where the chorus and Anthony Van Laast’s choreography come into their own with the number Too Darn Hot, over and over again.

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