Review: Kiss Me, Kate, Barbican

I’m not sure Jesus, Mary, Joseph or the wee donkey can help us here with Kiss Me, Kate at the Barbican

“If she says your behavior is heinous
Kick her right in the Coriolanus”

I exaggerate a little of course. Whereas it is still a bit of an eyebrow-raising matter, the casting of Adrian Dunbar as the lead male in Kiss Me, Kate does make some sense. He’s a decent crooner and he’s Superintendent Ted Hastings himself (Ridley too if you’re that way inclined) but put him in the middle of a strong musical theatre company, against an actual Broadway leading lady in the form of Stephanie J Block, we inch a little closer to ‘urgent exit required’ territory here.

Kiss Me, Kate is where Cole Porter meets Shakespeare via Broadway – from a golden age for musicals if not for gender politics – last seen in London with Opera North at the Coliseum and prior to that at the Old Vic where Chichester Festival Theatre’s production brought Hannah Waddingham’s last leading role more than a decade ago. A theatre company are putting on a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew but the antagonism between its lead characters Katharine and Petruchio is mirrored by severe ructions between performers Lilli and Fred who used to be married. The Bianca and Lucentio of the piece are Lois and Bill – their own relationship under strain as Fred is pursuing Lois and Bill has just run up some major gambling debt in Fred’s name.

As the company go from rehearsal to performance of the show-within-the-show, the arrival of some gangsters to collect on the debt provides additional shenanigans and for the second half in particular, this is a marvellous shot in the arm for Bartlett Sher’s production. Nigel Lindsay and Hammed Animashaun are huge fun as the hoodlums, nailing the scenery-chomping nature of ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, Georgina Onuoah’s Lois eats up the stage with a stellar ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’ and the act begins with a spectacular ensemble take on ‘Too Darn Hot’, led by Jack Butterworth’s brilliant dancing of Anthony Van Laast’s choreography.

Stephanie J Block is great as well, wild and witty and vibrantly well sung as Lilli. But she’s has to work hard to energise her scenes with Dunbar’s Fred who only intermittently sparks into life and never through song. Without the same musical theatre technique as those around him, he’s just painfully exposed. It doesn’t help that the book is as thin as it is dated, there’s no character depth to speak of and the production starts to tie itself in knots, having him explain away The Taming of the Shrew’s misogyny in a painful moment of direct address, whilst introducing many tweaks to address its own chauvinist leanings.

As main supporting performer, Charlie Stemp sadly has far too little to do for a performer of his calibre (he feels shoehorned into his little bit in ‘Too Darn Hot’. And Peter Davison proves the ultimate in luxury casting in the small role of Lilli’s new fiancé General Howell. Michael Yeargan’s tri-sected revolving set design feels a little unwieldly for the space but the band, under Stephen Ridley’s music supervision sound like a dream. The Barbican are clearly hoping for a reprise of the great success that was 2022’s Anything Goes but even if this had cast a legit musical theatre star as Fred, on this evidence Kiss Me, Kate just isn’t as good as a show to be able to match it.

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