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Review: KISS ME, KATE, Barbican Theatre

Classic musical still thrills in curiously uneven production

By: Jun. 18, 2024
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Kiss Me, Kate ImageBartlett Sher has assembled a stellar cast for this new production of Cole Porter’s much loved Kiss Me, Kate, but only one was greeted with a round of applause on his entry to the stage. It was certainly due to Adrian Dunbar’s Line of Duty-inspired superstar status, but I confess I offered a little clapping of my own in recognition of his taking on the male lead in his musical theatre debut, just a few weeks shy of his 66th birthday.

He was not short of talented and experienced support. Stephanie J Block has 21 years experience on Broadway and, appropriately, gave it both barrels as Lilli Vanessi, the divorced wife of Dunbar’s actor-producer Fred Graham, and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, the play that was being put up on the other side of the scenery by our troupe of touring players. Life was soon imitating art, as Lilli rained blows, verbal and physical, on the slithering Fred (Petruchio, natch) - but you kinda knew they were the only people who could stand each others’ presence.

Block sings very well indeed, occasionally letting the full soprano belt fly and having enormous fun with the self-explanatory “I Hate Men”. She also more than holds her own in the comedy stakes with Dunbar, who may be a couple of decades behind her in the technical specifics of musical theatre, but can time a joke like the old pro he is.

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Kiss Me, Kate is a remarkably democratic show, which proves both a strength and weakness. Charlie Stemp (about as big a West End star as has emerged in the last five years) has far too little to do, as does the apple of his eye, Georgina Onuorah, whose “Always True to You in My Fashion” is a genuine showstopper, the writer’s wit and singer’s voice a perfect combination. Truth be told, the gambling scoundrel and the girl with a past are rather more interesting characters than the principals.

The two contrasting crowd pleasing numbers make full use and no use of Michael Yeargan’s imaginative set, a revolve that captures both the shambles of the play and the shambles of the relationships backstage. 

Led by Jack Butterworth and Stemp, the ensemble come to the fore in the second half opener, the steamy, sexy “Too Darn Hot”, choreographed by Anthony Van Laast. It’s such a delight that one wonders why we see so little of the guys and gals, perhaps not at that level of energy, but we do feel a little deprived because they’re bloody good!

Veterans of the show will be waiting for the hitmen, and wannabe producers, to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, Porter’s patter song that riffs and riffs and riffs on the Bard’s canon. Hammed Animashaun and Nigel Lindsay have already endeared themselves to the house and go full vaudeville in what might be classified as a show, within a show, within a show.  

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Catherine Zuber’s costumes underline the impression that this is a big West End show (despite it being at the other end of town) and few will leave feeling short-changed, even at these prices. For those looking to tick off one of the great musicals from their bucket list, they might wonder if the actor ideally suited to the posters all over the Tube, is really best suited to the role. 

Dunbar delivers the splendid “Where is the life that late I led?” but, inevitably if cruelly, one feels compelled to answer, “Television, films, straight plays… but not musicals”. 

Because it does show.

Kiss Me Kate at the Barbican Theatre until 14 September

Photo images: Johann Persson




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