Kiss Me Kate

Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Sam and Bella Spewack
Ovation
Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Kiss Me Kate
Kiss Me Kate

I’d be surprised if there is any British Theatre Guide reader who doesn’t already know that Kiss Me Kate is a musical about an American theatre company about to open a musical version production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew at their first tour date.

The lead roles of Petruchio and Katherine are played by ex-husband and wife Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi who are not exactly getting on, especially since Lilli has been in pictures since their divorce.

You probably know most of the numbers too for they have all become classic Cole Porter show tunes and here they are delivered with great verve.

It is a bit cheeky of Ovation to have acquired permission for this first fringe production of the show only a year after the lavish Chichester production was on at the Old Vic but, with a fraction of the budget, a cast of twelve and a five piece-band, they demonstrate that with ingenuity and artistry a small-scale version can pack quite a punch and offer considerable gains in the proximity of director John Plew’s traverse-staged production.

Plews goes full tilt for comedy and scores. He leaves no time to worry about the contrivances of the plot and the implausibility of some parts of it: you are carried on a wave of great songs and laughter. Even Fi Russell’s costumes designs are funny and Plews makes the rapid and cleverly choreographed scene changes almost a running joke in their slick execution by the cast.

Gavin Keenan’s Fred Graham is a camply English thespian, his Petruchio all floating finger-ends but he flourishes them with finish. His ex-wife’s tart remarks about his talent all-too-accurate. He’s one of those theatre folk whose queer as a coot exterior hides a hetero Lothario and he can give as good as he gets. Sabrina Carter is a stunning Lilli Vanessi with a great stage presence and a smashing voice. She can deliver a number with vocal polish and dramatic directness.

There is another excellent pairing in Olivia Holland-Rose and Robbie Durham as Lois Lane (Bianca) and her boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Lucentio). They deliver “Why Can’t You Behave” and “Always True to You in My Fashion” with wit and style. It is Bill’s gambling IOU in Graham’s name that brings Dominic Quinn and Martin Steven Carlton’s pair of gangsters into the story with another dose of comic capers and a splendid rendering of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” that gets a varied repertoire of dance styles in a single number.

Phillip Arran, doubling the actor playing Katherine’s father Baptista and Vanessi's husband-to-be General Harrison Howell, and the rest of the strong ensemble make up a company that drives the show with snazzy dancing choreographed by Ryan-Lee Seager, cunningly fitted into this traverse staging, and great singing from that great opening number “Another Openin’ Another Show” to the lushness of “Wunderbar”, the romance of “So in Love”, the eroticism of “Too Darn Hot” or the brutal force of Vanessi’s “I Hate Men”.

There’s excellent playing too from the band under musical director Simon Burrows, though just occasionally percussion gets too loud, drowning out a few lines (unless a singers mic went down momentarily).

Upstairs at the Gatehouse seems to have a way with musicals and have done it again with a show for Christmastide that is packed with favourite Cole Porter songs.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton