Kiss Me, Kate

Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Sam and Bella Spewack
Howard Panter for Trafalgar Theatre Productions in association with the Barbican
Barbican Centre

Listing details and ticket info...

Adrian Dunbar as Fred Graham (centre) and company Credit: Johan Persson
Stephanie J Block as Lillie Vanessi and Adrian Dunbar as Fred Graham Credit: Johan Persson
Charlie Stemp (on table)as Bill Calhoun / Lucentio and Georgina Onuorah (right) as Lois Lane / Bianca Credit: Johan Persson
Nigel Lindsay and Hammed Animashaun as gangsters and Adrian Dunbar as Fred Graham Credit: Johan Persson
Peter Davison as General Harrison Howell and Stephanie J Block as Lilli Vanessi Credit: Johan Persson
The Company Credit: Johan Persson

Having had such success with Anything Goes in 2021 and 2022, the Barbican has again revived a classic Cole Porter musical to play on its main stage right through the summer.

This time it is Kiss Me, Kate, in which actor-manager Fred Graham (Adrian) and his former wife Lilli Vanessi (Stephanie J Block) are about to open as Petruchio and Katherine in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew at a Baltimore theatre. It is a musical within a musical, where we see what is happening both onstage and backstage and, packed with familiar numbers, it puts a light-hearted spin on the sexual bias of Shakespeare’s original. Quite literally, this Petruchio doesn’t have the whip hand.

America director Bartlett Sher begins his production with the Baltimore company assembling for Fred to give notes and rehearse the curtain call as they prepare for “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”, as the first song informs us. Then it launches straight into plot with Bill Calhoun (Charlie Stemp), who plays Shakespeare’s Lucentio, arriving late. He’s a gambler who has just run up a huge debt. His girlfriend Lois (Georgina Onuorah), who plays Bianca, remonstrates with him in “Why Can’t You Behave”, with Don Sebesky’s orchestration like a growl beneath the vocal line.

Soon, gangster heavies will come demanding payment, but Bill signed the IOU as Fred Graham, so it is him they will be after, and the main story shifts to Fred and Lilli, who may reminisce about past success in “Wunderbar” but are soon feuding as fiercely as Petruchio and Katherine with Lilli, who has just got engaged to an army General (Peter Davison) with White House connections, ready to walk out on the show.

Those gangsters (Hammed Animashaun and Nigel Lindsay) get quite involved in the action and give a glorious rendition of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, but there is plenty packed in before the show reaches that point, including a display of some dazzling dancing, especially in act two opener “Too Darn Hot”, brilliantly led by Jack Butterworth (playing Fred’s assistant Paul) and Charlie Stemp.

It is a pity there is not more of Stemp and Onuorah (captivating the audience with “Always True To You in My Fashion”) who are well matched, but Fred and Lilli are the leads here.

Stephanie J Block has many musical theatre successes behind her; Adrian Dunbar is better known for his TV and film work (especially Line of Duty). She has a powerful voice, whether in a romantic number like “So In Love” or turned tigress in a claw-sharpening “I Hate Men”. He has a good voice, but doesn’t connect in the same way. With a grey-haired leading man, this is a realistic older casting than is perhaps usual, Fred and Lilli have a rich shared past to look back on, but while effectively presenting the friction between them, the romance that is also there doesn’t come through. But perhaps their reconciliation isn’t meant to last after the curtain call.

A revolve makes this a smooth-running show as its characters move through the theatre or into the street outside the stage door. Its solid brick-looking theatre walls give place to freely drawn sketches as stage scenery for the onstage Shrew, but as the stage turns, we see the strong shadows of support structure. Are they an ominous reminder of what lies behind things or just underline that this is a show? We don’t have to take it too seriously. But we can just enjoy its tunes, its quirky rhyming and its dancing.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

*Some links, including Amazon,,, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?