Saturday, 2 March 2013

Kiss Me, Kate - review

Written by: Wendy Haines (@Wendyfer1)

Old Vic Theatre, London

Kate doesn’t want to be kissed, but things just aren’t that simple. Trevor Nunn has achieved a winning, albeit comfortable staging of Cole Porter’s meta-musical Kiss Me Kate: a hectic, jazzy escapade following the leads in a Taming of The Shrew musical both on and off stage.

Nunn has an extensive back catalogue of directing both musicals and Shakespeare, at one point directing the RSC itself. His versions of Cats and Les Miserables delighted critics; this production at the Old Vic is an exemplary showstopper, but stops short of breaking the mould. All the West End clichés are there: over-eccentric characters, non-figurative lyrics, fluorescent smiles, hammy solos and total milking of the bows. The traditional musical structure remains with an ensemble ditty to open each act and reprises to end them, dramatic pauses in abundance and tableaus to conclude each number.

That being said, Kiss Me Kate establishes ideal situations for raucous comedy that redeem it. Written and set in the late 40s, divorcees Fred Graham (Alex Bourne) and Lilli Vanessi  (Hannah Waddingham) are performing as Katherina and Petruchio, but a misunderstanding before opening night leaves Lilli fuming and threatens the entire show’s future.

The difficult task of this piece is juggling backstage action with performances from the Shrew musical. The characters are perfectly paralleled, with Vanessi channelling Katherina even when she isn’t playing her. The costume, music (skilfully orchestrated for a jazz band by Chris Egan) and Stephen Mear’s choreography help make the two worlds consistent with each other - it does not feel as if you’re watching two different plays and any scene changes are covered well by the dancers.

The meta-musical is the most entertaining part of this performance. Priceless puns emerge from Shakespeare’s lines accidentally reflecting the backstage plot, and the hidden conflict between Fred and Lilli is simply brilliant. The cast do a fantastic job with their character’s acting, with hilarious results from talentless Lois Lane as Shakespeare’s Bianca (Holy Dale Spencer). Spencer’s token over-eccentric character is irritating in dialogue scenes, but her singing is a pleasure in Why Can’t You Behave - even if stylised.

I Hate Men is Vanessi’s terrifying and hilarious solo, which summarises Katherina’s indiscriminate misandry, performed with raw enthusiasm by Hannah Waddingham. She pulls off melodrama like a rocket, flaring so viciously that the stage quivers. Dramatic irony is indulged, as the audience know that Lilli will echo Kate’s views only too soon. A discovery is made and Lilli begins wreaking havoc on the performance, hacking at the script and ignoring the blocking. Spotlights are used to show where she’s supposed to be standing – a smart and funny little trick. Despite the need for persistent rage, Waddingham is still able to showcase her vocal delicacy in So in Love.

Another highlight in the score is the second act opening, Too Damn Hot. Rife with sensuality, the almost burlesque composition displays astonishing talent in the chorus of dancers, notably Jason Pennycooke who carries the primary vocals while doing the splits. Otherwise, the score wasn’t memorable; nice enough in the moment, but only two out of twenty songs stuck.

The choreography was excellent at times, but giving tap shoes to an entire ensemble was a mistake. It’s a brave risk, but unless the dancers are faultless it’s always going to sound messy. My only other criticism is that Lilli’s sudden change of heart at the end felt forced. If you’re after an evening of jolly jazz-hands, Kiss Me Kate is a good choice. Though lacking subtlety, the cringe-factor is fairly low. It’s a safe place to start on the musical theatre avenue, unless of course you warrant Kate’s rage. 

This production runs until 2 March 2013. 

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