Kiss Me, Kate at the Barbican Theatre – review

A solid new production of the classic does enough to refine the rough edges

Adrian Dunbar and the cast of Kiss Me, Kate, © Johan Persson
Adrian Dunbar and the cast of Kiss Me, Kate, © Johan Persson

Producers Trafalgar Entertainment and the Barbican Theatre mounted one of the biggest hits of 2021 – Anything Goes – and the team seem keen to repeat the trick here with Bartlett Sher’s take on Kiss Me, Kate.

Where Anything Goes had Broadway royalty and British TV legends in the form of Sutton Foster and Robert Lindsay to front their glitzy, post-lockdown revival, this time around we have Tony winner Stephanie J Block, making her UK stage debut, and Adrian Dunbar, he of Line of Duty and “Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey” fame at the helm.

Stephanie J Block and Adrian Dunbar in a scene from Kiss Me, Kate at the Barbican Theatre
Stephanie J Block and Adrian Dunbar in Kiss Me, Kate, © Johan Persson

The results may not sail to the same heights as Anything Goes, but they certainly add up to a scorchingly successful night out. Kiss Me, Kate is fiendish material compared to the nautical wonder that is Anything Goes. Meta-theatrical, anarchic and packed to the brim with zany, humorous skits, Bella and Samuel Spewack’s book is kept afloat by Cole Porter’s raft of top-notch tunes, including the likes of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” (a show-stopping comedic moment to wrap up the night), “Too Darn Hot” (a dance bonanza that rocks the audience coming in from the interval with five minutes of blazingly strong choreography courtesy of Anthony Van Laast) and the whimsically catchy “Tom, Dick or Harry” early in the first act are just three.

The plot serves up an appetising premise: divorced duo Fred Graham (Dunbar) and Lilli Vanessi (Block) reunite to try and save a beleaguered Baltimore production of The Taming of the Shrew with the entire story unfurling over a single night. As their personal lives and roles merge and blend, the venue is besieged by two gun-toting, unexpected scholarly gangsters. All the recipe for hijinks and hoopla, housed on Michael Yeargan’s ever-revolving colossal set.

Reaching almost 80 years in age, the show’s flaws aren’t hard to spot (incessant bouts of sexism seem to rear their heads a fair wad). Much as he did with his lavish productions of My Fair Lady and The King and I, Sher is the perfect man for the job here: adding small interventions to the numbers and blocking to both broaden and deepen Graham and Vanessi’s relationship. It’s subtle, and never feels extravagantly overt, but does make the material far more palatable – even though the “spanking” scene still raises an eyebrow or two.

What really elevates the show, however, is the production’s company (casting by Serena Hill). Alongside Dunbar and Block (he a warm crooner, she an irresistible powerhouse), strong supports come from Georgina Onuorah, who is having an incredible year, and the athletic poise and comedy chops of Charlie Stemp. Hammed Animashaun and Nigel Lindsay have a whale of a time waxing lyrical about the Bard towards the piece’s climax, while Jack Butterworth proves himself a leading man in waiting during the aforementioned “Too Darn Hot” (you can watch some of it above). Wunderbar!

Featured In This Story

Kiss Me, Kate

Final performance: 14 September 2024