Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Kiss Me, Kate review – the gangsters rule in the Barbican’s summer show

18 June - 14 September 2024

Cole Porter’s 1948 classic takes centre stage in London.

Kiss Me, Kate

Kiss Me, Kate (Photo: Johan Persson)

When Anything Goes appeared at the Barbican in 2021, it proved that Cole Porter musicals can make for the perfect summer treat by virtue of their catchy tunes and the dance routines these inspire. This year’s offering Kiss Me, Kate, directed by Bartlett Sher and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, feels a little more uneven, but when it is good it completely hits the mark. If there are both highs and lows along the way, the highs increasingly dominate as the evening progresses so that by Act II we are undoubtedly swept along by all of the fun and exuberance. 

Michael Yeargan’s set reveals a depiction of Padua for the staging of The Taming of the Shrew, a backstage area, and Fred and Lilli’s dressing rooms. As it rotates, it consequently allows us to view the situation from multiple angles so that we see Lilli raging backstage at Fred’s philandering ways while the play they are presenting continues to be performed. The set’s layout also emphasises the relationships between certain characters so that having Fred and Lilli’s dressing rooms adjacent to each other, merely separated by one door, makes the pair feel so close and yet so far from each other as they stare into their respective mirrors on opposite sides of it.

“…it completely hits the mark”

Kiss Me, Kate

Peter Davison & Stephanie J. Block (Photo: Johan Persson)

Many of the routines are highly dynamic, but those that begin the show feel more prosaic as they take us nowhere that we would not expect to go. The problem is compounded by the fact that insufficient attention initially seems to be attached to the orchestra, conducted by Stephen Ridley, as it feels like a supporting tool rather than a fundamental component. It is never going to be the same size as the 60 strong ensemble that accompanied Opera North’s production at the Coliseum in 2018 over a much shorter run. However, it is a mistake to cut the Overture short, with the character of Fred commenting on the fact, because it is so exuberant in its own right, and absolutely crucial to setting the work in motion. Later on Fred makes further gestures to try to stop the orchestra playing, but although these are designed to contribute to the entertainment, they still give the impression that insufficient importance is being attached to the music in the musical. It is only later when the performance as a whole feels stronger that other characters’ interactions with the orchestra genuinely add something to the experience. 

As Fred Graham, some of Adrian Dunbar’s vocal lines are quite smooth, but overall his voice is neither strong nor consistent enough to set his songs alight. Nevertheless, his performance is still engaging as his interactions with the other characters are excellent. In fact, this production is at its best when the performers really bounce off each other to build up the pace and elicit the laughs. Dunbar’s various spars with the two Gangsters are particularly successful, and Nigel Lindsay and Hammed Animashaun nearly steal the show in these roles. Their skilful delivery of the lines brings out all of the humour inherent in this hard pair appreciating the finer things in life, and ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ is an undoubted highlight of the evening. As they deliver the full complement of encores, they also insert the joke that Lindsay begins by taking the lead in the song before Animashaun really gets carried away with the moves. 

Peter Davison provides a pleasing ‘cameo’ as General Harrison Howell while, as Paul, Jack Butterworth gets the second half off to a tremendous start as he leads ‘Too Darn Hot’. As Lois Lane, Georgina Onuorah gives a splendid performance of ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’ as she varies how she delivers each verse, while still ensuring that the song enjoys an overall progression to grow ever more outrageous. Having taken the lead in such shows as Half A Sixpence and Crazy For You, the role of Bill Calhoun is a relatively small one for Charlie Stemp, but his class still shows and he displays some accomplished dancing in ‘Bianca’ and elsewhere. Finally, Stephanie J. Block gives a superb all round performance as Lilli Vanessi, and ‘I Hate Men’ has just the right element of breaking the fourth wall as she delivers it simultaneously as Lilli, Katharine (the character Lilli is playing) and indeed Stephanie as she positively invites us to laugh with her during her most delicious rendering of the song.

Kiss Me, Kate runs at the Barbican Theatre until 14 September 2024. 

• For details of all upcoming events at the Barbican visit its website.  

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Kiss Me, Kate review – the gangsters rule in the Barbican’s summer show