“Kiss Me, Kate” at the Barbican

Mark Shenton in central London
20 June 2024

The biggest and splashiest new production to open in London in the summer of 2021 after the Covid lockdowns that had decimated live theatre was a transfer of a joyous 2011 Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s 1930s musical Anything Goes. It was just the show doctors ordered: a delicious re-affirmation of the dizzy delights of musical theatre at its peak of pleasure, skill, and sheer fun. It was such a success that it returned in a re-cast version for the summer 2022 season, before the Barbican gave us a vivid taste of Broadway’s new sense of post-pandemic adventure with the radical black queer musical A Strange Loop last summer.


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


In some ways it might have been hoped that the Barbican – one of London’s most exciting receiving houses for bold large-scale international work – might have continued to platform similarly bold musical works. But instead they’re playing much safer by returning this year to another musical from Broadway’s golden age: Cole Porter’s only other easily revival-worthy stage musical, Kiss Me, Kate (book by Sam and Bella Spewack), which originally premiered on Broadway in 1948.

A show within a show about an out-of-town try-out in Baltimore of a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, it somewhat belongs on the stage of the Barbican Theatre, which originally opened in 1982 as the London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Indeed, the RSC has itself produced the musical in a revival that transferred from Stratford-upon-Avon to the Old Vic in 1987. The show was last seen in London at the Old Vic, too, in 2012 in a Trevor Nunn directed revival first seen at Chichester Festival Theatre. And in between those two Old Vic outings, the show also had a 1999 Broadway production that transferred to the Victoria Palace in 2001. I saw each of those three productions, so I’m very familiar with the joys – but also some of the longueurs – of this veteran musical.

The director this time is Lincoln Center revival hit-maker Bartlett Sher, from where his previous smashing revivals of forties and fifties classics South Pacific, The King and I, and My Fair Lady have all transferred to London (the first of which came to the Barbican). Now, for the first time, he has made this production for London first (though there’s a raft of US producers above the title that suggests a further life is being planned for it). And he has done a customarily smart and lavish job of it, with his regular creative design associates Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), and Donald Holder (lights).


Charlie Stemp right foreground with ensemble.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


The late forties backstage setting is conjured with revolving sheer brick walls that reveal behind-the-scenes areas, while the onstage show is mostly represented by painted front cloths. To be honest, it doesn’t look much different to any other of those revivals, but maybe there’s only so much you can do with backstage scenery.

But it’s the casting that can create the energy and surprise, and in this regard a luxury company (casting by Serena Hill) pull out all the stops and more.

While Broadway leading lady Stephanie J. Block doesn’t exactly deliver subtlety in her acting performance as leading lady Lilli Vanessi, her singing is better modulated between the brassy and intimate requirements of the score. Opposite her, Adrian Dunbar (best known as a telly actor, most notably for Line of Duty) is a solid presence as Fred Graham, Lilli’s former husband and now director and co-star Fred Graham. His singing is perfectly serviceable, particularly in his solos, though when he is called to join Block, some of his limitations are exposed.

But there’s sublime support from Charlie Stemp and Georgina Onuorah as the two lead supporting actors, with Stemp providing several show-stopping moments of extremely athletic dance (thrillingly choreographed by Mamma Mia’s Anthony Van Laast) and Onuorah dazzling in her own solo number.

Also show-stopping as ever are the Shakespeare-quoting pair of gangsters, brilliantly played by Hammed Animashaun and Nigel Lindsay, whose “Brush up your Shakespeare” is, like “Sit down you’re rocking the boat” from Guys and Dolls, invariably a reliable crowd-pleaser, and delivers as expected.

Though it may lack the sizzle of Anything Goes, this is a highly entertaining summer show.