The search for a classy, festive show – rather than another bleeding pantomime – is a tricky one. But Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate ticks all the boxes with one heck of a flourish. This is undoubtedly a silly musical. It doesn’t pretend to be anything otherwise. But based as it is around a musical interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew, it also allows the audience to chuckle, knowingly, at Bard-flavoured jokes. What more could the snazzy, ever so slightly smug Old Vic audience desire?
Trevor Nunn is back on form here, following his lukewarm take on Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval. He should stick to musicals; their boldness, magnitude and pocketed charm suit Nunn perfectly. Yes, this production sometimes feels a little old fashioned; we meet all the characters in a carefully choreographed intro routine and the stage is lit up in ‘red’ to indicate, err, heat. But it really doesn’t matter. What matters here is bold performances, a disciplined chorus and oodles of wit, all of which are resplendent in this confidently cheeky production.
The show has transferred from Chichester and it feels well-oiled. Everything – the acting, lighting, punchlines and choreography – is snappy and clean. There’s no point in hanging around with a Cole Porter musical. He wasn’t interested in narrative, although that genre was in vogue when Kiss Me, Kate came out in 1948. Cole was interested in dazzling. Dazzling and laughter.
The wit on show here is something else. It isn’t just evident in Cole’s champagne lyrics. This is a man who could rhyme with orange, if a good punchline was in the offing. What’s truly impressive, is that the laughs are also so cleverly wrapped up in the music. The musicians become comedians, at Cole’s bidding.
The best instance of this is when hammy actor Fred Graham (Alex Bourne) – playing Petruchio on stage and, to a certain extent, off stage – laments his lost single life with the song, ‘Where is the Life that I Led?’ It’s a brilliant comic number, in which Petruchio woefully recalls his ex-lovers. The music adapts brilliantly to the lyrics, painting each lover – from around the globe – with precise flourishes. Fiddles, banjos or the macho frustration of a marching band don’t just underscore the jokes – they are the joke.
It’s the silliest numbers that bring this show to life (those – and the exceptionally infectious ‘It’s Too Darn Hot’, performed with audaciously laid back flair by Jason Pennycooke). Lilli Vanessi (Hannah Waddingham) – our Katherine for the evening – blasts out the venomous ‘I Hate Men’ with little spittle to spare. It’s almost an ugly song and doesn’t do Waddingham’s mellow voice great credit – but it should be brutal and the occasional screeches don’t feel out of place. ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’ is an absurd number but impossible not to love. Almost every line ends with the chorus screaming out ‘Dick’. The joke just doesn’t get old. The song is embellished by a generous turn from Holly Dale Spencer (playing Bianca), who bounces around the stage, wide eyed and wonderfully stupid.
‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ – performed by two burly gangsters - is the funniest of the lot. So funny it barely requires music. There’s the simplest strain of a tune but it’s all about the one-liners. You can see them coming a mile off but that doesn’t make them any less clever. A huge number of Shakespeare plays are lampooned – lovingly – in this number. And this affection is what prevents Kiss Me, Kate from becoming merely a deft display of wit. There’s a whole lot of love here. Yes, it’s there in the central love story between ‘Katherine’ and ‘Petruchio’ but this musical isn’t really about the love between a man and a woman. It’s about Cole’s love for theatre. As the two gangsters find their groove, their eyes light up. And, when the applause comes, they take endless encores. Even the baddies can’t help but fall in love with theatre.