Venue: Old Vic Theatre
Director: Trevor Nunn
Musical Director: Gareth Valentine
Perhaps when you look down the synopsis of The Old Vic’s Kiss Me Kate you think you’ve seen it all before: a musical set in a Boston theatre, a high-class female protagonist, a dim-witted leading lady who’s dating the main man, some twangy accents, and a couple of slightly comical gangsters… But you’d be wrong. The play delivered something entirely different to what the poster promised, a rampaging musical taking the best of farce and panto to keep the audience laughing all the way through.
The play is set on opening night at a theatre in Boston. We’re introduced to the first of many faddish twists from the ill-anticipated script, when we find that our high class lead, Lily Vanessie (Hannah Waddingham), is the ex-husband of the tall and stage-dominating Fred (Alex Bourne). Their sparring takes centre-stage throughout the performance both ‘on-stage’ (of their production) and in the dressing room. Against this backdrop humour was cleverly constructed, with numerous jokes about objectionable men, and the pros and cons of marriage (mostly cons, naturally) – preaching to the choir as regards the mostly late middle-aged audience. It took a number of forms, including Waddingham’s marvellous second act song ‘I Hate Men’, which brought out the strength of her vocals as well as her flexibility, with rasping and screaming parts of the song.
Jokes made by the ‘American’ cast struck gold with the English audience. Their performance of Taming of the Shrew as a musical brought out a snobbish laugh, but then the usual jokes about Hitler and anatomy (not in the same sentence, thank goodness) also struck home. Physical humour was also used skilfully with farcical elements, for example Baptista Minola walking in on Fred doing little less than dogging the feisty Katherina (Lily).
Dancing was well-choreographed and the singing strong; the opener for Act 2, ‘Too Darn Hot’ brought the recurrent humour surrounding sexual tension to the fore. Bianca’s love song included a tap routine and demonstrated the flexibility of the small cast.
The musical did unfortunately suffer from a winding script, and meant that in a number of scenes the laughs were few and far between. Act 1 finished with the audience in hysterics as the two ‘Bwoston’ heavies donned the ruffs of early modern Padua and forced themselves upon the victimous show. But Act 2 never reached the same heights and ultimately tails away to an uninspiring finale. However, this doesn’t detract from the rompous fun that dominates the performance. Little brings back the giggling mess of rows A to H better than the line from the infamous ‘Brush Up on Your Shakespeare’ – “If she says your behaviour is heinous/ Kick her right in the Coriolanus”. The wry tenderness of the production leaves you with the warmth of the on-stage relationships. And just remember if you “brush up on your Othella, she’s think you’re one hellava fella”. Sound advice for us all I feel.