The Taming of the Shrew is a play that has had a checkered history. Declaimed by the emerging women's movement, it's probably even more uncomfortable for modern audiences than The Merchant of Venice. What's often forgotten, though, is that, at heart, this is a love story. Toby Frow's new production captures its madcap humour excellently while highlighting the central relationship.
It starts explosively with a drunken Christopher Sly emerging from the audience with security staff and stewards in tow – there must have been several people thinking that the play really was going to be halted. It's an arresting opening and Frow ensures that the action doesn't let up for a moment.
Simon Paisley Day is slightly too old to be playing Petruchio – although even this serves as cue for a couple of gags – but there's an almost youthful enthusiasm in his pursuit of Katherina. His wooing is even more unhinged than usual, appearing at the wedding semi-naked flaunting a giant codpiece.
But there's a tenderness there too. His final “why there's a wench” is not the usual clarion of triumph, but is spoken with a sense of wonder as if not crediting the full extent of Katherina’s transformation. Samantha Spiro’s Katharine is an excellent foil for him. Spiro manages to draw out the comedy of the part while hinting that here’s a woman looking for love. Their first meeting is adroitly handled, hinting at mutual attraction despite the war of words.
The relationship between Katherina and Sarah MacRae's Bianca is excellently played. This Bianca is a nasty piece of work – sly, malicious and violent as Katharine but managing to avoid detection. It places Katherina's reputation for violence in context and also serves as a reminder that both sisters are equally stubborn and willful – as demonstrated in the final scene.
Frow doesn’t let the comedy let up for too long – this is certainly a crowd-pleasing production. Pearce Quigley's hangdog Grumio and Jamie Beamish’s quick-thinking Tranio are the source of most of the laughs. Plaudits too for Richard Hammarton's; music; switching fluently from Renaissance melodies to the tuneful raucousness of an Italian street band.