The Taming of the Shrew
Theatre Royal Plymouth and Thelma Holt, on tour at Nottingham Theatre Royal
The local newspaper headline said it all: "Ross Kemp takes on Shakespeare". This reviewer has to admit having initial thoughts that the Bard would lose hands down; it would be a technical knockout, with the playwright suffering more indignity than Kate does when she resists Petruchio's attempts to break her spirit.
But after Kemp has been on stage for a few minutes your opinion starts to change. He's not the vicious bully you think he's going to be; he's not Grant Mitchell from EastEnders, nor is he the SAS man Henno from Ultimate Force. Cynics might have thought that he'd been chosen for the part merely because he could play another hard man and he wouldn't need to do a lot of acting in his first Shakespearian role.
The truth is that Kemp is good. Dressed like a country squire, he commands the stage, understands the meaning of his lines and brings out the comedy in the part. His voice sounds different from that used in his television roles and his accent is consistent throughout.
At one point in the second half he whacks a servant on the face only to mouth an apology seconds later when Kate's back is turned. Kemp gives the impression that taming his wife is a game, although it's a game he needs to win.
However, Nichola McAuliffe is far less successful as Kate. Her anger is too restrained and she's not fiery enough. She doesn't show sufficient spite nor jealousy towards her younger sister Bianca even though she has suitors queuing up at her door.
McAuliffe improves enormously once she has arrived at Petruchio's house, looking bedraggled and downtrodden after a nightmarish journey. She almost resigns herself to her fate - but overall she is more of a lively canary than a wild falcon. And there is no ironic look when she finally submits to her husband. You wonder why Petruchio would go to all the trouble to tame her.
The Shrew is the second in a series of Shakespeare plays produced by the Theatre Royal Plymouth. It was awarded the first touring franchise by the Arts Council, a programme to take high-quality drama to regional theatres around the country. The first production, The Tempest starring Richard Briers, played last year to 42,000 people in seven theatres.
The Shrew seems more popular than it's ever been, even though its chauvinistic content seems to be misplaced in these days of political correctness and equality for all. This is the third major production I've seen in Nottingham in the past three years as well as the version which has just finished in Stratford.
Yet Mark Rosenblatt's direction, setting the action in Italy in 1962, gives it freshness, vitality and charm.
Hortensio, played magnificently by Nicholas Boulton, appears in a Beatles-style jacket and wig when he disguises himself as a musician while trying to win Bianca's hand. Michael Matus is a camp, star-struck Tranio who asks for the singer's autograph at the wedding feast and Nick Cavaliere also gets plenty of laughs as Biondello.
Olivia Darnley wails too much in the first half as Bianca but recovers her composure once she is out of the clutches of her elder sister.
On the whole it's a splendidly entertaining piece. I can hardly wait to see what the same production company do with Hamlet next autumn.
"The Taming of the Shrew" runs until November 22nd
Reviewer: Steve Orme