Kiss Me, Kate at the Barbican review: solid, serviceable – but lacks fizz and verve

Stephanie J Block and Adrian Dunbar in Kiss Me, Kate (Johan Persson)
Stephanie J Block and Adrian Dunbar in Kiss Me, Kate (Johan Persson)

Call it magic or call it pizazz, the mystery ingredient that makes a show truly sing is missing from Bartlett Sher’s revival of Cole Porter’s classic.

A musical about a warring couple mounting a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (itself a play within a play about a warring couple), this self-referential love letter to showbiz is structurally complex but should feel fizzy and light.

Here it’s solid, serviceable, but unexciting, thanks partly to the lack of chemistry between the leads, Broadway veteran Stephanie J Block and Line of Duty star Adrian Dunbar.

The lack of verve means you notice that the first-half songs mostly service the tricksy wordplay of Sam and Bella Spewack’s lyrics while all the best numbers (Too Darn Hot, Always True to You in My Fashion, Brush Up Your Shakespeare) and big laughs are loaded into the second.

The thinly drawn secondary love interests, Bill and Lois, are mostly a waste of the prodigious talents of Charlie Stemp and Georgina Onuorah.

Anthony van Laast’s choreography is brisk and forceful, but the sketchy sets of Michael Yeargan look cheap. Thank goodness for Hammed Animashaun and Nigel Lindsay, who turn their un-named, mutt-like gangsters into a comic double-act for the ages.

 (Johan Persson)
(Johan Persson)

Dunbar makes his musical theatre debut as actor-impresario Fred Graham. He sings better than I had hoped but seems uncomfortable and off the pace throughout, often clutching at the fringes trailing from the doublet he wears as the Shrew’s Petruchio.

Block is more secure on the trills and high notes as Fred’s ex-wife and current leading lady, Lilli Vanessi, and gives a sterling comic rendition of I Hate Men. But the vanity and self-interest of both characters needs a balancing charm to stop the whole thing looking as misogynist as Shakespeare’s play. And these two don’t have it.

The production is clearly, calculatedly designed to emulate the success of Anything Goes, another gossamer-light Porter musical that brought life, joy and cash back to the Barbican – and by extension to all London theatre – just after lockdown.

That show, effervescently directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, paired a British stalwart (Robert Lindsay) with a Broadway star little-known in London (Sutton Foster) and a supporting cast of appealing newcomers and stalwart character-actors.

Sher, a resident director at New York’s Lincoln Center who’s had both hits (To Kill a Mockingbird) and misses (The King and I) in London, here tries to recreate that alchemy but doesn’t quite get there.

Don’t get me wrong. There are enough ably performed hits to make any fan of classic musicals happy. The Spewacks’ lyrics are delicious in their elaborate, syntax-mangling contrivance: I’d sit through a worse production to hear “heinous” rhymed with “Coriolanus”.

Stemp and Onuorah are great when briefly allowed to shine. But with all the talent attached, it should have been so much better.

The Barbican, to Sept 14;