Tuesday, July 16

Kiss Me, Kate – Barbican

What rhymes with Coriolanus? Kiss Me, Kate is one of Cole Porter’s musical and lyrical triumphs with each melody seeming catchier than the last and every turn of phrase pushing the envelope further. Although its source material, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew is hardly considered radical, Porter’s daring sense of humour and lecherous joy in lewd lyricism give this show an undeniable boldness.

Its characters are imperfect. Not only are their love lives tempestuous, but every aspect of their personal lives is magnificently messy. Director Bartlett Sher in this production attempts some half-hearted tidying of the grand imbroglio that is this play within a musical within a musical but achieves much the same effect as using a dab of Purell to clean up mud-caked hands.

Adrian Dunbar is particularly restrained as leading man Fred Graham, a cad in his personal life and a pig in his portrayal of Petruchio in the show’s play within a play. This production skates over his fiery frustration with co-star and ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (Stephanie J. Block) and keeps his role as the beleaguered leader of an unruly theatrical company at the forefront of this interpretation. Block is a powerhouse and suffers in her performance for the lack of resistance she encounters. She rails and wails but with Fred neutered the result is that more than a woman unsteadily standing up for herself in a man’s world, she seems the unreasonable hysteric that the patriarchy repeatedly tries to paint her as. She throws punches for comedic effect while Fred struts about the stage spewing misogyny all the more disturbing for his complete disinvestment in it. Resultantly, the friction between them never gets a chance to develop into any actual chemistry and the circles they run around each other are more exhausting than exhilarating.

Photo: Johan Persson

The company’s Lucentio and Bianca, inveterate gambler Bill Calhoun (Charlie Stemp) and licentious showgirl Lois Lane (Georgina Onuorah) are similarly desexed and kept at an improbably ridiculous distance from each other even while singing about their very cravings for the other. This chaste reimagining of a musical with songs such as “Tom, Dick or Harry” and “Too Darn Hot” ends up making light of the very problematic elements it attempts to skirt around. Although consistently hilarious, without any element of dramatic tension, pure comedic intervals like Hammed Animashaun and Nigel Lindsay’s “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” feel less like a delightful respite and more like untempered icing on an already too sweet cake. The technical prowess of each performer is well displayed, particularly in the case of Jack Butterworth as Paul dancing to Anthony Van Laast’s dizzying choreography in the Act 2 opener, “Too Darn Hot” which is tremendously impressive but also bizarrely unsexy.

A musical that much like its leads is ultimately irredeemable but remains loveable despite its flaws, Kiss Me, Kate, is going to take some work to win over modern audiences. Brash, bold, and badly behaved at its best but jolly good fun in any case, this is a musical worth recklessly reviving.

Playing until 14th September, https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2024/event/kiss-me-kate

Reviewer: Kira Daniels

Reviewed: 18th June 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.