© Johan Persson

The Barbican’s annual summer musical rarely misses the mark. Directed by Bartlett Sher, and starring Adrian Dunbar (Line of Duty) and Stephanie J. Block (not known in the UK, but she is Broadway royalty), Kiss Me, Kate offers a blend of Shakespearean wit and classic Cole Porter/Broadway charm​.

The story, a meta-theatrical take on The Taming of the Shrew, unfolds as a chaotic backstage comedy where real-life romantic entanglements mirror those of Shakespeare’s play. The plot revolves around two elderly, once-married actors now reluctantly reunited for a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. Their offstage conflicts and onstage roles as Petruchio and Katherine create a dynamic interplay of art imitating life. This dual narrative is peppered with mistaken identities, slapstick comedy, and Chicago gangsters​ balancing their job enforcing unpaid debts with their secret love of musical theatre.

Adrian Dunbar makes a commendable transition to the stage. His portrayal of Fred Graham is commanding and humorous, showcasing his versatility as he navigates singing and acting with ease. Stephanie J. Block brings a powerful presence to Lilli Vanessi. Her vocal prowess and stage presence are standout elements of the production.

And they’re not the only musical superstars. Charlie Stemp and Georgina Onuorah, both actors who have dominated the West End stage in leading roles in their own right, deliver energetic performances as Bill Calhoun and Lois Lane. Their chemistry and comedic timing enhance the lighter, more whimsical aspects of the show. Nigel Lindsay and Peter Davison (yes, Tristan Farnon and Dr Who. Don’t worry – he doesn’t sing) provide strong supporting roles, adding depth to the ensemble. There are no lightweights anywhere in this incredibly talented cast.

Bartlett Sher’s direction brings a lavish, golden-age Hollywood feel to the production. The set design by Michael Yeargan and costume design by Catherine Zuber are stunning, evoking the glamour of mid-20th-century theatre. The use of a large turntable on the Barbican’s spacious stage allows for clever, fluid scene transitions and adds a dynamic element to the storytelling​.

Anthony Van Laast’s choreography is another highlight, particularly in the show-stopping number ‘Too Darn Hot’. This ensemble piece is a whirlwind of energy and precision, with tap-led choreography that captivates the audience. The physical comedy and dance routines throughout the show are meticulous.

Cole Porter’s score remains timeless, with hits like ‘Wunderbar’, ‘So in Love’, and ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ retaining their charm and wit. If you’ve never heard/seen ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, go and watch the 2014 Royal Albert Hall Proms performance on YouTube. It is very clever and very funny, featuring the two gangsters singing about how to seduce women using lines from Shakespeare. (‘If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ‘er | Tell her what Tony told Cleopatterer | If she fights when her clothes you are mussing | What are clothes? Much ado about nussing’). Okay, it might not have aged well, but you can appreciate the creative genius that went into the lyrics.

The production doesn’t shy away from the problematic gender politics of The Taming of the Shrew, instead choosing to engage with them thoughtfully. Kiss Me, Kate is a vibrant, nostalgic production that bridges the gap between its mid-20th-century origins and today’s theatrical landscape. 

Kiss Me, Kate is playing at the Barbican Theatre until 14 September 2024.