This is a revival of Opera North’s magnificent production of Cole Porter’s Shakespearian parody Kiss me, Kate, staged by the company in 2015. Then, my review described it as a ‘belter’, high praise indeed in this critic’s lexicon. If anything, that performance has been improved upon to a level which I can only describe as ‘uberbelter’.
The story is of a love-torn, divorced theatrical couple, Fred Graham (Quirijin de Lang) and Lilli Vanessi (Stephanie Corley), thrown together in a touring production of the Bard’s Taming of the Shrew. It’s that awkward child of the theatre, notoriously difficult to control and forever throwing tantrums, the play within a play. It is said that Porter married the on-stage Shrew and the backstage shenanigans by composing an ‘operetta’ and a ‘musical comedy’ to distinguish one from the other but make them musically one. To this he added another love story in the guise of Lois Lane (Zoe Rainey) and Bill Calhoun (Alan Burkitt). All the main characters double as the on stage leads in Shrew, Petruchio, the titular Kate, Bianca and Lucentio.
The show opens with the hustle and bustle of Aother Op’nin, Another Show. The constant moving of the set and the interaction of a large ensemble, singing and dancing with gusto, are a testament to directors Jo Davies and Ed Goggin as well as choreographers, Will Tuckett and David James Hulston (Goggin and Hulston for the revival) for keeping the whole thing swinging. The complexity of the characters and their relation to the narrative are quickly fixed in a series of beautifully staged duos between Bill and Lois in Why Can’t You Behave and Lilli and Fred’s mournfully nostalgic Wunderbar. Cole’s talent for undermining the prevailing post war conservative sexual mores comes to the fore in the carry-on knockabout of Tom, Dick or Harry. You can guess which one the ever-forward Bianca/Lois ends up with, although she is always true to you in her fashion.
For me, the ensemble highlight was the steamy, sassy and sexy rendition of Too Darn Hot. Backstage hand Paul (Stephane Anelli) laments that he can’t be with his baby, Hattie (Aiesha Pease), tonight because it’s too darn hot. It was a sweaty dance off with Anelli’s swing moves to the fore as the cast ripped their way through the best known of Kate’s score. Mention must also be made of Alan Burkitt’s mesmerising tap-dancing skills during his performance of Bianca.
I will end with a high and a small caveat. The high was the comic Brush Up Your Shakespeare by First Gunman (Joseph Shovelton) and Second Gunman (Savournin) who returned from the first staging in 2015 to repeat their command performance of this forgotten Cole classic. Their timing was perfect, and the audience lapped it up. The small caveat was the finale of Kate’s admonishment to her gender I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple as she surrenders to Petruchio to prove that all’s well that ends well. After her rip-roaring feminist hymn to the #MeToo movement I Hate Men, it felt like a defeat to the status quo. Though it was written in the cultural context of Rosie the Riveter being banished back to hearth and home and perhaps, understandable for all that.
It was a joyful evening and a worthwhile revival, improved and, as ever from Opera North, inspiring.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent
(Main image: Kiss Me Kate, ©Tristram Kenton)