Ovation has a distinguished track record for musicals at the Gatehouse. With their last show, ‘Avenue Q’, they played a blinder. It would be pleasant to report that they had hit the jackpot again with ‘Kiss Me Kate’. However this revival of Cole Porter’s evergreen musical falls rather short of Ovation’s own high standards.

The problem is one of casting and chemistry. The plot of ‘Kiss Me Kate’ depends on the story of actor Fred Graham and his ex, Lilli Vanessi, also a performer, running in parallel with Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’. There’s also a subplot, the most dated element of the show, of Graham owing large amounts of money, which necessitates him being dogged by a couple of comedy gangsters.

In order to work coherently, the two leads need to convince us that under their bickering and hostility they are really still desperately in love and only need the trauma of Lilli leaving the show to realise what has been obvious to the audience all along. In the persons of Gavin Keenan and Sabrina Carter this is hard to believe. Keenan’s is a comic presence. From his first appearance he gets giggles. He has comedy legs. Somewhere in the background is lurking the spirit of Oliver Hardy in a parody of ‘The Three Musketeers’. She, on the other hand, has an icy beauty and little sense of comedy, and the perpetual manifestation of shrewishness. In short, it’s hard to believe these two ever cared about each other, or ever could. While Keenan’s performance gets rich laughs in the Shakespeare play-within-a-play, and milks the hamminess for all its worth, the big romantic numbers, ‘Wunderbar’ and ‘So In Love’, ring hollow.

The same mismatch occurs with the other coupling, Bianca and Gremio, where Olivia Holland-Rose is a big belter, all fire, but Robbie Durham is rather puffy and bland.

However, ‘Kiss Me Kate’ delivers on all other levels. The hits and classic American standards keep on coming – ‘Another Op’nin’,Another Show’, ‘I Hate Men’, ‘Too Darn Hot’, ‘Always True to You in my Fashion’, ‘From this Moment On’. No other show in the repertoire delivers so many sing-alongs, not even ‘The Sound of Music’. The first and second openers are extended into exhilarating dance numbers, very inventively choreographed Ryan-Lee Seager and danced by a razor-sharp ensemble.

The audience is on two sides of the theatre, with the action on an aisle in between. Director John Plews uses the space well, and the piece zips along. However, there is a problem of balance. The band is at one end of the stage and for the audience nearest to it the music is over-balanced. Two of the show-stoppers, ‘Always True To You…’ and ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, though capably performed, suffer from some inaudible lyrics.

Christmas shows are everywhere now, and ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is almost the musical equivalent of panto. It is enormously good-humoured, with Cole Porter’s acerbity kept in check and channelled into ‘I Hate Men’. If you’re looking for a seasonal treat, you could do a lot worse.

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

Charing Cross Theatre

Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris

★★★
Jermyn Street Theatre

Return of the Soldier

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

Eye of a Needle

★★★★
Rosemary Branch Theatre

The Trial of the Jew Shylock

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

In The Heights

★★★★

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The Blurb

This exuberant show-within-a-show throws together gun-toting gangsters, sparring actors and romantic entanglements against a musical production of Taming of the Shrew.

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