Every New Year, Mrs Chrisparkle and I treat Lord and Lady Prosecco to a post-Christmas outing: a weekend in Sheffield (bear with me) to stay at the lovely Mercure Hotel, have some scrummy meals and to see both the Crucible’s Christmas musical AND the Lyceum panto – and we’ve not had a duff experience yet. Over the last couple of years, we’ve taken to seeing the panto in the evening – the weight of a few extra wines and a more end-of-term atmosphere always helps. Which left us this matinee with the prospect of seeing Cole Porter’s fantastic, and now grammatically correct, Kiss Me, Kate.
This was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourite musicals and I was brought up on a diet of Always True to You Darling in my Fashion and From This Moment On; not a bad way to be brought up, to be honest. But this is only the third time I’ve seen it; once in 1987 at the Old Vic with the redoubtable Nichola McAuliffe, and at Chichester in 2012 where Hannah Waddingham attempted to rule the roost over Alex Bourne. That London production was great; the Chichester one a little disappointing. But I’m going to throw my hat into the ring and say that this new production at Sheffield by Paul Foster tops them both.
I’m sure you know the story – a touring production of The Taming of the Shrew is the vehicle for an on-and-off love story between the two leads, Fred Graham (playing Petruchio, also the producer of the show) and Miss Lilli Vanessi (playing Katherine, the star attraction). Lilli senses that their romance is back on track (they are already divorced at the beginning of the show) but when she discovers that the flowers she received from Fred were actually meant for cabaret starlet Lois (playing Bianca), she gets into a Katherine-type rage and takes it out on him on stage. He, being not entirely a true gentleman, gives as good as he gets, and she spends most of the rest of the show unable to sit down because – well, because, gentle reader, he gave her a damn good spanking. It happens in Shakespeare, so why the hell not here. Only one way to tame a shrew; women respect it. (That was a joke, by the way.)
Lilli’s plans to abandon the rest of the run are brought to an abrupt halt by the persuasions of two gangsters who (erroneously, as it happens) need the show to be a success so that Fred can pay his dues to their Mr. Big. Her new beau Harrison Howell arrives to take her away – but, will she find true love with him, or with Fred? If you don’t know the answer to that by now, you never will.
It’s true; in the current climate, some aspects of this show have dated to become ever so slightly worrying. The physical animosity between Fred and Lilli does border on domestic violence (even though it’s played entirely for laughs) and the subjugation of women’s will to men’s is still as clear as it was in Shakespeare’s day – you have to feel a cringe coming on when Katherine/Lilli sings I Am Ashamed that Women are So Simple. But this is distinctly a period piece, with no attempts (quite right, I think) to update it to the 21st century. Porter’s showtunes are still as 1940s jazz as they can be; the gangsters are still the same Chicago thickos they always were. Porter’s brilliant lyrics anchor the show in his own era; when one of the funniest lines in any of the songs is “he may have hair upon his chest, but, sister so has Lassie”, there’s just no point trying to update it. Provided there are audience members who remember Lassie, the joke works.
We’ve been used over the years at Sheffield to seeing the big choreography routines by Alistair David, who made such a mark in shows like My Fair Lady and Show Boat. For this show, the choreography is by Matt Flint, and I have to say I’ve not come across his work before. But he’s terrific! His style is much more intimate and involved; he sets up scenes with so many varied things happening in different parts of the stage all at the same time, then brings them all together for a big impact. The second Act opens with his fantastic staging of Too Darn Hot, led with immaculate artistry and precision by Layton Williams as Paul; it’s one of those classic dance sequences when you know you’re seeing something special and you never want it to end. As an aside, our performance was captioned – a great innovation, imho – and it was fascinating to read the lyrics to Too Darn Hot (as well all the other songs) – it’s easy to overlook just exactly what this song is all about!
Elsewhere, the show is peppered with memorable moments, mainly involving the big numbers. Paul Foster has concentrated most of his efforts into getting the maximum entertainment out of the songs, so there is no attempt to shorten any of Cole Porter’s mammoth efforts. I guess a downside to that is that if you don’t like the songs much (then why are you here?) you probably won’t enjoy it much. The show opens with (fittingly) Another Op’nin’ Another Show, at first fronted by Lilli’s dresser Hattie (a beautiful, warm-hearted performance by Cindy Belliot) but then it opens out to a wide-ranging musical examination of all the cast and crew arriving at this new theatre, with all the tensions and excitements that can contain – and it’s an exciting and exhilarating start.
Other highlights include Amy Ellen Richardson’s Lois/Bianca teasing routine with the three suitors for Tom Dick or Harry – one of these, Dex Lee, plays Bill/Lucentio and I always admire his brilliant, acrobatic dancing; Rebecca Lock (a brilliant Katherine/Lilli with a stunning voice) throwing herself around in fits of fury during I Hate Men; Edward Baker-Duly (also brilliant as Fred/Petruchio – I loved his ham, and then even hammier, vocal performance as the stagey actor) ripping through the memories of all those women in Where is the Life that Late I Led; Amy Ellen Richardson’s funny and flirtatious performance of Always True To You Darling in my Fashion; and the simple but oh so effective staging of Brush Up Your Shakespeare by Delroy Atkinson and Joel Montague as the two theatrical gangsters, occupying the spotlights – Mr Atkinson in particular gave a brilliantly expressive physically comic performance. I also appreciated the fact that, for much of the performance, James McKeon’s orchestra was hidden at the back of the set, but for the songs that belonged to Taming of the Shrew, it was on view – a very nice touch, I thought.
The only thing that slightly disappointed me was the staging of one of my favourite songs from the show, From This Moment On. It’s a difficult one. The song was never written for Kiss Me Kate; Porter wrote it for another show from which it was dropped at the last minute, but it was obviously too good to waste, and Cole Porter was an expert musical recycler. From This Moment On appears in the film version of Kiss Me Kate, where it works perfectly as a number between Bianca and her three suitors; but the dramatic usefulness of that has already been taken by Tom Dick or Harry. So nowadays the custom is to have it sung by Harrison Howell and Lilli before he sweeps her away to the magicless life of a military wife – or not. Structurally, it makes perfect sense to have it there; but in practice the characters are too old and the situation too cynical (ouch! Sorry!) for the song to work properly. It’s a young person’s song – a starting out in life song – filled with genuinely great expectations, and I’d prefer to give the song back to Lois and Bill. In characterisation and acting, Dafydd Emyr made an imposing Howell, but, for me, it just didn’t work.
But this is one small quibble in an otherwise excellent show that thrilled us all, and we continued to talk about it later that evening and all through the next. One of those productions to savour and recall with happiness for years to come. It’s on until Saturday 12th January. Would be a crime to miss it!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan