Theatre Review: Kiss Me, Kate @ The Old Vic

In Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, actors staging a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew find themselves playing out the roles of the central protagonists in their own lives. Bad tempered Lilli Vanessi and egotistic Fred Graham are divorced, but over the course of a single performance work through every aspect of loving and loathing each other, both backstage and in front of the audience. Add in a second couple with a gambling headache, gangsters taking on roles to stop the leading lady leaving the theatre, and a host of toe-tapping tunes, and it is clear why a classic was born in 1948.

Trevor Nunn’s new production, first performed at the Chichester Festival last June, combines dynamic staging with some first rate performances. Not only is every major ensemble number an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza, courtesy of Stephen Mear’s choreography, but the entire evening is kept slick from start to finish. Scene transitions are accompanied by mini routines that see performers dance in hypnotically patterned black and white costumes, every now and then revealing a dash of brilliant colour as they swirl.

Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne excel in the lead roles, especially in the scene in which Lilli plays out her character Katherine’s emotions by appealing to her own antagonistic feelings towards Fred. Waddingham has a voice of exquisite expression and strong technical merit, and her performance combines high comedy with a sensitive portrayal of an ultimately needful lady. Bourne, with his firm, deep voice, exudes a fitting arrogance that, combined with an excellent attention to phrasing, brings out all of the humour in his songs.

Holly Dale Spencer and Adam Garcia are strong as the second couple, Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun, but the real comedy highlight comes from David Burt and Clive Rowe who as gangsters end up performing Brush Up Your Shakespeare in front of a live audience. With the song’s notable lyrics, and the pair’s priceless expressions and footwork, this number receives two encores, and still leaves the audience wanting more.

Until 2 March 2013 at The Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8NB. Tickets (£11-58): 0844 871 7635 or from The Old Vic website.

Londonist received complimentary tickets from Jo Allan PR.

Photo: ‘Too Darn Hot’ is just one of many show-stopping numbers in Trevor Nunn’s Kiss Me, Kate © Catherine Ashmore.

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