Kiss Me, Kate by Cole Porter – review

“The humour is sharp and plentiful, delivered with impeccable timing by a first-rate cast”.

Barbican Theatre
Review by: Mark Arbouine
afridiziak ratings
Published: Wednesday 19 June 2024, 10:30pm

The company of Kiss Me Kate. Photo by Johan Persson
The company of Kiss Me Kate. Photo by Johan Persson

The passage of time and changes in tastes often relegates classic musicals to dusty shelves of theatrical history but Cole Porter‘s Kiss Me, Kate seems to defy the years and retains its power to enthral audiences three quarters of a century after it was originally staged.

The current production at the Barbican Theatre in London is a testament to its enduring magic. Its plot of the backstage shenanigans set against the backdrop of a troubled onstage production of The Taming of the Shrew, still lacks the depth and layers of the Shakespearean drama it’s based around but the show more than compensates for this with its humour, infectious energy and songs that sparkle with timeless melodies.

Director Bartlett Sher expertly navigates the show’s frivolity, ensuring the production never descends into pure farce. The humour is sharp and plentiful, delivered with impeccable timing by a first-rate cast.  The funny script is packed with clever jokes and Cole Porter‘s lyrics are a masterclass in wit, full of sharp puns and smart wordplay and this all results in a genuinely funny, laugh out loud production.

At the heart of the story are Fred Graham, an actor and director played by Adrian Dunbar and his fiery ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi, played by Broadway star Stephanie J. Block. When they are forced to work together on a new production of The Taming of the Shrew, the tensions and romantic sparks between them are reawakened.

The onstage drama between Petruchio (Fred’s character) and Kate (Lilli’s character) mirrors the offstage strain in the relationship of the couple, blurring the lines between reality and performance. Block commands the stage with a captivating presence, playing Lilli with a potent mix of vulnerability and strength.  Her rendition of I Hate Men is a real showstopper, turning the song into a hilarious stand out performance.  Her vocal range is impressive, effortlessly navigating the demands of Cole Porter’s music with power and precision.

Dunbar brings a charmingly gruff demeanour to his role, perfectly capturing Fred’s bluster and underlying insecurities.  While his singing may not quite reach the soaring heights of Block’s, it is pretty good for an actor better known for his dramatic performance as Superintendent Ted Hastings in the BBC’s Line of Duty than for his singing prowess. I wasn’t initially convinced by the chemistry between Block and Dunbar but it blossomed as the show progressed and culminated in a pleasing and believable reconciliation between their characters.

The supporting cast is impressive.  Charlie Stemp shines as the gambling addicted Bill and he particularly stands out in the dance numbers in which he excels. Georgina Onuorah brings a delightful energy to Bianca and her rendition of Always True to You in My Fashion is a vocal highlight in the show. 

The subplot of a romance between these two characters could have been fleshed out a bit more and seemed only to serve the purpose of introducing other characters into the mix. These included a pair of menacing gangsters chasing a gambling debt, a brilliant comic partnership between Hammed Animashaun and Nigel Lindsay who have one of the most memorable and funny scenes in the play when they sing Brush Up Your Shakespeare. The ensemble deserves high praise as well, injecting infectious vigour into the numerous ensemble numbers with their high-octane performances. Anthony Van Laast‘s choreography is an entertaining blend of classic Broadway styles and contemporary flair.

The revolving stage design by Michael Yeargan ingeniously switches between the onstage performance of The Taming of The Shrew, the comings and goings in the dressing rooms of the two lead actors and the backstage actions and reactions of the cast. This constant shift between locations plays into the blurring the lines between the Shakespearean drama and the reality of the play. A shout out also for Catherine Zuber’s costumes which are a vibrant tapestry of colour and texture, capturing the essence of Kiss Me, Kate’s 1940s setting and the Elizabethan fashions for the onstage scenes.

Kiss Me, Kate is a successful revival that celebrates the enduring appeal of Cole Porter’s play. It is laugh-out-loud funny, visually stunning and musically rich production.  Whether you’re a musical theatre lover or simply looking for a night of good old-fashioned entertainment, this production is well worth seeing, just be prepared to leave the theatre with a smile on your face and a melody stuck in your head.

Need to know: Kiss Me, Kate plays at the Barbican Theatre until 14 Sept 2024