Kiss Me Kate is a musical that I have admired ever since seeing the 1987 Old Vic production directed by Adrian Noble and starring Nichola McAuliffe and Paul Jones as Lilli and Fred with the gangsters played by Emil Wolk and John Bardon. The show won two 1987 Olivier Award for Outstanding Performance of the Year in a Musical. So, it was with some anticipation I ventured down to the Watermill for the first ever actor/musician version of the show after seeing their four-star versions of Sweet Charity and Amelie.
Paul Hart again directs a cast of twelve actor musicians in the intimate Watermill Theatre with set design by Frankie Bradshaw (who did excellent sets for Jerusalem there and for Sweat at Donmar) but on this occasion they fall short of my expectations. The set is unimaginative, an old paint frame and a red front cloth to denote whether we are backstage or on stage in the production of the Taming of the Shrew and the direction seems to encourage overacting and rather obvious stagey laughs. When you are trying to play a bad actor, the character must convey belief that they are a good actor otherwise it just comes across as false and hammy.
The two central roles of Lilli/Kate and Fred/Petruchio are here played by Rebecca Trehearn and David Ricardo-Pearce but from their first appearance their love-hate relationship is unconvincing and the twists in their relationship are overplayed. The chemistry between them never emerges and Fred is trying too hard for laughs.
The result is that the show progresses in fits and starts and does not flow. The opening number “Another op’nin, another show” is excellent with Chioma Uma leading the vocals and on violin; it is a great scene setter and gets the toe tapping early on. Equally “We open in Venice” is a wonderful ensemble celebration of old-fashioned cheap variety hall entertainment and “Tom, Dick and Harry “a fun and lively routine with Kimmy Edwards as Lois lane choosing between three suitors.
Oti Mabuse’s choreography (which was consistently wonderful in the recent “Ain’t MIsbehavin’” at Southwark Playhouse) is at its very best in the opening of Act 2, with the fabulous “Too darn hot” lead by Andre Fabien Francis and the ensemble and given an extra twist by referencing the segregation of black audiences at the Ford Theatre in the 1950’s. Then “Always true to you in my fashion” builds to a lively climax as Cole Porter’s delightful music fills the venue. At other times I found the band a bit disjointed creating a cacophony as if lacking a musical director.
Of course the show stopping highlight of the show is always “Brush up your Shakespeare”, here performed with great energy and clarity by Sheldon Greenland and Robert Jackson and getting the most from the multitude of puns on the bard’s titles and characters like “If she says your behaviour is heinous , kick her right up the Coriolanus”.
There are some great tunes in this Cole Porter classic musical although it feels a bit dated in its story for today, but the use of actor musicians failed to add to the show (presumably saved on budget!) and inhibited the performances and choreography. After the success of Sweet Charity and Amelie it may be time to give the format a rest.
Review by Nick Wayne
Seat: Stalls Row F | Price of Ticket: £28