Monday, 10 December 2012

Theatre review: Kiss Me Kate

My patience for the books of musicals is less than legendary, but I've mostly learned to deal with their lackadaisical approach to storytelling by just trying to ignore it in the hope that it'll go away. It doesn't always work though, and despite going in quite optimistic after hearing raves from various sources including my sister, my first experience of Cole Porter's classic musical Kiss Me Kate was a frustrating one. Actor/director Fred Graham (Alex Bourne) is staging a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew with himself as Petruchio opposite his ex-wife Lilli Vannessi (Hannah Waddingham) as Katherina. She still holds a torch for him despite her engagement to a general with political aspirations (Mark Heenehan) and when she discovers the flowers she thought were for her were actually meant for the show's Bianca, Lois (Holly Dale Spencer,) her real anger spills over into the show and derails the performance.

There's some really good Cole Porter songs in the show but the way they're strung together is an unholy mess. The book, written (possibly in their own faeces, on the padded walls of their cell) by Sam and Bella Spewack, can't decide if it wants to simply follow the story of Shakespeare's play or the backstage shenanigans. Having set up the story of the battling leads and the "B" couple of Lois and her gambling-addict boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Adam Garcia,) we then get huge great edited chunks of Shrew with songs added to it, to the extent that Shakespeare really ought to have been given a writing credit. I was a bit bored but at least enjoying the performances in the first half; the second act opener, "Too Darn Hot," is one of the best songs with a great dance sequence but, seeing as it's the stage-hands complaining about the heat (which had been the subject of a throwaway setup line in the previous act) it's quite unashamedly irrelevant to anything else going on in the play either onstage or "off," and really tested my patience in the storytelling or lack thereof.

Garcia (a long-standing favourite of my sister's and probably one of the reasons she enjoyed the show, and especially his big number "Bianca," so much) has more dancing than singing to do, which from past experience is probably for the best. As a pair of gangsters in another plot strand chucked into the soup, Clive Rowe and David Burt get the show's standout song, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," which goes some way to explaining what they were doing in what seemed until then quite thankless roles.

Robert Jones' design for the play-within-a-play is quite a neat idea of a linen chest whose contents get unfolded to turn into the various sets, although the sheets' tendency in tonight's performance to get caught on the wires holding them up did render them somewhat less cool.

I don't think of myself as someone who "doesn't like musicals" because given how many I've loved over the years it's patently not true. But I would say that I'm not someone who'll enjoy watching a loosely strung-together series of song-and-dance routines for three hours, and if the book seems so much like an afterthought I have a lot of trouble accepting a show as a great classic. Perhaps a small-scale studio production of Kiss Me Kate would turn me round on it, as I often seem more forgiving of script flaws there. A zippier production that had the energy of Rowe and Burt's big number throughout would probably have also helped, but with Trevor Nunn directing this was never going to be a production distinguished by its pace. The cast are good, don't get me wrong, and when they occasionally get something funny to play it really works, but the jokes are in shorter supply than they should be and I just found myself liking this less and less as it went on.

Kiss Me Kate by Cole Porter, Sam Spewack and Bella Spewack with additional material by William Shakespeare is booking until the 2nd of March at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.


  1. The Spewacks' book is actually pretty good (though dated) - the trouble is, it's been revised and rewritten so many times over the years that this version is the work of God-knows-how-many authors, and thus is generally a bit of a mess (to put it mildly). Got to say, the Nunn revisions are some of the worst - adding in extra bits of Shrew here and there that completely throw off the pacing. When it's done well Kiss Me Kate is a great show, but you wouldn't guess it from this production. (I saw it in Chichester, no idea what if anything has changed since then.)

    1. That makes sense, and it doesn't surprise me at all that it was Nunn himself needlessly adding more Shrew - if there's a way to make a show last longer than it should, he'll be the man to find it.