Kiss Me Kate

Barbican Centre

Buckle up folks, the summer blockbusters are here! Unlike the more democratic European cities that shut down theatres for June and July, here things are just heating up, and in some cases too darn hot indeed.

Cole Porter: master of the musical quip has provided a winning combination for the Barbican already with their 2022 production of Anything Goes. Memories of the incomparable Sutton Foster dazzling the audience swim before me. Director Bartlett Sher equally has had success updating the classic American songbook such as The King and I (2015) and South Pacific (2005). So, will this formula work again?

It would certainly be a more interesting review if I said, eyes downcast in disappointment, fingers carefully typing…sadly no, and proceeded to deconstruct every misdemeanour.

But that wouldn’t be truthful, it absolutely does. Unlike the hulking cruise ship of Anything Goes we have the more intimate but still camp setting of a touring production. Shakespeare’s (utterly despicable) Taming of the Shrew in Baltimore. The play within the play follows Fred Graham (Adrian Dunbar). A quintessentially Porter-ish male, witty, capricious, and hopelessly in love with his ex-wife, fellow actor, the again tempestuous and at times violent Lilli Vanessi (Stephanie J. Block). They clash, cavort, caress and cause calamity for all around them, with delicious carelessness (ok enough alliteration).

Michael Yeargan’s hulking spinning theatre backstage opened outward contrasts with the intentionally crudely painted onstage backdrops of Venice facing inward. Characters are glimpsed in the wings as they fly in and out of dressing rooms, screaming and bickering. Inevitably various love affairs flourish and flounder. Add in the complexity of two gangsters and their unwanted investment in the show’s success and you have a perfect storm of shrieking thespians.

It’s a farce, a constant calamity, with (some) underdeveloped characters thrown to the wayside for the sake of the hit songs, but do we mind? Not a speck my friend, not a speck. Dunbar (Line of Duty) does sensationally considering his minimal musical experience, crafting a rakish, charming manipulator with a heart of gold.

But the real star is J. Block, unsurprising considering her almost two-page resume of musical theatre success across the pond. Her song as the shrew Katherine “I Hate Men” is delivered with such rousing confidence, vocal flitting, phasing between almost operatic legit style, blousy musical hall, and throaty belting. It’s not hard to work out who it is aimed at. Miraculous. This knowing performance combats the inherent issues of Shakespeare’s most sexist play through the lens of Porter’s again restrictive view of femininity. J. Block holds her own, certainly helped by Sher’s direction, upping the physical comedy and violent outbursts on the side of Lilli to even the playing field.

Other boiling performances are almost too numerous to mention, but I’ll try. Georgina Onuorah, fresh from playing a good-time gal in Oklahoma to playing Lois Lane, the ultimate mercenary romantic but with a loyal streak. She brings the same gumption and muscular vocalisation to “Always True to You in My Fashion”. Porter was such a sensation of his period that you will have heard Ella Fitzgerald or Eartha Kit doing a version of many of the hits enclosed in Kiss Me Kate. Yet Onuorah rivals both.

Jack Butterworth: a side character that somehow leaps into a main (almost show-stealing) number “It’s Too Darn Hot” leaves our jaws in the aisle. Bulging out of a tight vest, ensemble swaying around him in their 40’s negligees its’ an…erm…..stimulating experience. Anthony Van Laast’s choreography is demanding (almost cruel); back-to-back high kicks, jumps, vibrating with sexual energy, and well… heat. Collapsing in a puppy pile at the end of the number, the exertion is well worth a twisted ankle or two.

Lastly, for a musical so darn funny, we have the official comic relief. Hammed Animashaun and Nigel Lindsay as the threatening but theatre-obsessed gangsters. Chasing divine dancer, heartthrob, and terrible card player Bill Calhoun’s (Charlie Stemp) gambling debts. A hoot for every second they are on stage, lovable, violent (again), embodying the hidden depths of this on-the-surface “light” musical.

The Play That Goes Wrong, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to name a few and even further back, Shakespeare himself loved putting plays within plays. The enchantment still stands. Scorching cast, searing direction, and sultry staging, never mind the pyroclastic flow of Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack’s acerbic songs/script. The Barbican has done it again, rather annoyingly, if I’m honest.

Playing until September the 14th you have plenty of time to snatch a ticket, although don’t leave it too late, click here!