Kiss Me, Kate review at London Coliseum – ‘a magnificent and lavish staging’
Cole Porter’s 1948 musical is one of those shows with backstory and baggage.
Supposedly based on wife and husband acting duo Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt as they bickered their way through a production of The Taming of the Shrew, another wife and husband team – Bella and Samuel Spewack – decided to make a musical set backstage at a production of Shrew (itself about wives and husbands).
The intricacies of whether life was imitating art or vice versa, combined with Cole Porter’s unforgettable score, made for one of the all time great hoofer musicals. Opera North’s stunning 2015 revival, directed by Jo Davies and in London for the first time, shows just what a fantastic piece it is.
Essentially there’s the will-they-won’t-they couple Lilli and Fred, playing Kate and Petruchio in Shrew, and the they-already-are couple Lois and Bill as Bianca and Lucentio. And they sing Porter’s brilliant songs, every one of which sounds like a classic, drawing on everything from jazz to madrigal.
It’s a beautifully lavish production, especially in the front stage Shakespeare scenes, with exquisite period costumes and a towering backstage set – exposed lighting rigs and timber flats – by Colin Richmond.
Will Tuckett’s choreography marshals the huge ensembles as magnificently as it does solo dances, creating lines and shapes that burst into frenzies of incredibly organised chaos. It’s completely in sync with the details and textures of the music.
Stephanie Corley gives a wonderfully sour comic performance as Lilli, particularly during the song I Hate Men, and Quirijn de Lang is a (mostly) loveable idiot lothario as Fred, with a wonderful tenor voice.
Even though there are lulls in momentum during Act I, Act II is all high points. The show settles into the complete silliness of the thing, and allows Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt to really strut their stuff as Lois and Bill.
During Lois’ number Always True to You in My Fashion, Rainey flickers through a kaleidoscope of characters, using every aside to bring the thousand strong audience into her confidence. She acts the hell out of the song.
At one point the entire, huge Coliseum stage empties of people and set, and she’s left alone to sing. You’d barely notice, given the way she fills the space so entirely and impressively. Similarly, later on, Burkitt gets a scene-stealing tap number. Like Rainey, he’s left alone on stage and it’s wonderful.
Act II also marks a descent into anarchy, abetted by Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin playing two mobsters who find themselves on stage – and rather enjoying it. Their screwball double act is perfect, particularly during a hilarious front of cloth number about Shakespeare.
The production doesn’t entirely eliminate some of the dodgier gender disparities of the show, or of Shrew, even though Lilli and Fred are more of an equal match here than Kate and Petruchio. But it’s a fantastic revival – or, as one of the mobsters puts it, “entertaining, vivacious, and calculated to please the discriminating theatregoer”.