Kiss Me, Kate review: A supremely silly evening of summer escapism

Adrian Dunbar in ‘Kiss Me, Kate' (Johan Persson)
Adrian Dunbar in ‘Kiss Me, Kate' (Johan Persson)

It’s becoming something of a formula: Cole Porter musical plus a couple of big stars, plus lavish set, equals lovely bit of summer escapism at the Barbican. They did it with Anything Goes in 2021 and 2022, a perfect revival which enticed audiences back after Covid and reminded us all of the nice things: showtunes, comedy gangsters, Sutton Foster.

Now it’s the turn of Kiss Me, Kate, directed by Bartlett Sher, now the go-to man for reviving large-scale golden age musicals (recently My Fair Lady and The King and I). Even if it doesn’t hit the same highs as Anything Goes – that was a better production of a better show – this is still a supremely lovely, supremely silly way to spend a summer evening.

In a setup that gives you an idea of the kind of daft comedy level we’re working at, the show follows a group of actors putting on an awful musical production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Adrian Dunbar – Superintendent Hastings from Line of Duty – plays leading man and director Fred Graham, who’s playing Petruchio. Broadway legend Stephanie J Block is his ex-wife Lilli, who’s playing Kate. We flick between the antics on stage and off; behind-the-scenes drama spills out, and gangsters start toting guns.

The musical-within-a-musical structure allows everyone to have a bit of fun: Anthony Van Laast gets to stick in some joyfully anachronistic choreography, Catherine Zuber barely stops short of the kitchen sink with her cod-Elizabethan costumes, puffs and ruffs and sexy low-cut doublets and corsets. Michael Yeargan goes similarly to town with the set, a towering three-sided revolve that spins us between stage and dressing rooms, with loads of doors ready for slamming in full farce style.

And the cast gets to ham it up as much as they want. Block plays Lilli/Kate with a staunchness and gives-as-good-as-she-gets gutsiness that is absolutely necessary for a role that could otherwise make the gender dynamics even dodgier than they already are. Every time she gets a solo she brings the house down: “So In Love” and “I Hate Men” are models in how to control your voice, invest emotionally in a song and knock the roof off.

Charlie Stemp and Georgina Onuorah play the other couple, gambler Bill and ingenue Lois Lane, but while Onuorah gets to blast the classic “Always True to You in My Fashion” – alone on the huge stage, filling it with her powerful voice – it feels like Stemp is underused, a bit of tap and a somersault aside.

Nigel Lindsay and Hammed Animashaun are perfect as the gangsters, Lindsay with his Don Corleone-lite thin moustache and stuffed lip, Animashaun quiet and brooding until he delivers some daft line with precision-tooled timing.

Then there’s Dunbar. He’s not really done musical theatre before and, to be honest, it shows. He can hold a tune, but there’s a tight, buzzing bee quality to his voice that you really notice next to the soaring talent of Block and the rest. To be fair, his stiffness and impassive face do feed into the idea of Fred as a suave, slightly conceited stage star, and Dunbar does loosen up as things go on. He’s not bad, but he does have “TV celeb cast as the baddy in a panto” vibes: determined to give and have a good time, rather than a performance for the ages.

The company of 'Kiss Me, Kate’ (Johan Persson)
The company of 'Kiss Me, Kate’ (Johan Persson)

Part of the problem with Kiss Me, Kate is that Porter has written a load of bad songs that are part of the show-within-the-show. A director’s got to make sure those numbers – “We Open in Venice”, “I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily in Padua” – feel not only qualitatively different from the actual good ones (“Too Darn Hot”, “So In Love”), but make them entertaining rather than pointless filler. Sher only partly succeeds. The whole production is so exaggerated that it doesn’t give the cast much headroom to make the in-show songs sound different. When we’re watching the cast yell “a-dick-a-dick, a-dick-a-dick” over and over again during “Tom, Dick or Harry” it does feel more like we’re enduring, rather than enjoying.

Nevertheless, there’s something about the combo of sparkly old Cole Porter showtunes in the blank brutal concrete of the Barbican that just works. Even with the flaws of the show, and the occasional lacunae in Sher’s direction – static moments that lose momentum – it’s all just so much fun. No doubt we’ll be back next year for, what, High Society? Can’t wait.

Barbican Centre, until 14 September