Kiss Me, Kate, Lyric Theatre, Belfast, February 6th, 2020
By Conor O’Neill
Photography by Johnny Frazer
The Lyric’s mainstage holds just under 400 people and tonight there wasn’t a seat to be had for love nor money. And so, I believe that runs true for the next few days. But fear not, this co-production by the Lyric and Northern Ireland Opera runs until February 22nd. Plenty of time to get yourself a ticket.
As the theatre fills, we’re greeted by one of life’s most wonderous sounds: that of a real orchestra tuning up in the pit beneath the stage. A mixed-aged audience sits in anticipation. The opening set is reminiscent of a Bauhaus architectural interior: big bold slabs of bright colours, all angular and in your face. The set design sets the tone for the two hours and 20 minutes of the show. If nothing else, Kiss Me, Kate is unashamedly ballsy and brash.
For newcomers, such as myself, the plot runs something like this: director, producer and tonight’s leading man Fred Graham (Norman Bowman) is to play Petruchia in Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew. His ex-wife, who he still holds a bit of a flame for, Lilli Vanessi (Mel Stewart) is to play Katherine – or Kate, to you and me.
Within this play-within-a-play things get undecidedly muddled; from the opening scene where Fred is staring at an ancient box of a tele with Farage, Bojo and Trump ticker-tape news bulletins flashing through its tubes to other strange asides, things seem a touch strange. Fred, who’s obviously stuck in this love/hate tug-of-war with his ex, desires the best of both worlds as his wandering eye soon falls upon the delights of starlet Lois Lane (Jayne Wisener) who is cast as Bianca in the bard’s send-up of outdated marriage arrangements.
Lois’s lover, Bill Calhoun (Jack McCann) while not playing Petruchio, is a lover of the flutter, and not just those of the eyelashes. His flippant disregard for money and the lovable brutes (Marty Maguire and Darren Franklin) who try to collect Calhoun’s gambling debts brings about many belly-crunching moments. Though the trio don’t hold the monopoly on that; Richard Croxford’s General Harrison Howell’s military swagger is worthy of note too as are the main characters and the ensemble.
Let’s not forget that this is a musical. Musical director, Conor Mitchell and his orchestra deliver notes for every and any mood. Stewart has a fine set of vocal chords, operatic to say the least and Bowman and Wisener are none too far behind. Set design and changes are seamless, the costumes brilliant. Choreographer, Jennifer Rooney has the 13 moving in absolute unison; whether it be a duet or the entire company making use of every inch of the stage cannot be complained about.
But, and I think you knew there was one coming. As rousing and entertaining as the show was, on reflection the Benny-Hill-era outright sexism, the Farage, Trump and that other well renowned philanderer Boris Johnson references may have been an attempt by director, Walter Sutcliffe, to make some sort of political statement, but whatever it was, it was certainly lost on me.
Of course, I and the majority laughed; Maguire and Franklin’s Brush Up Your Shakespeare number arguably worth the ticket price alone; I’m no snowflake, I enjoy puns and innuendo as much as the next person, however this version of Kiss Me, Kate left a bitter/sweet taste in my mouth.
A standing ovation earned. The cast and crew delivered. Just a gnawing, niggling and unsettling tone to the show.
But hey, 400 people on their feet must prove something. If high octane entertainment is what you’re after, Kiss Me, Kate is worth a look.
Kiss Me, Kate runs until and including February 22nd.
For booking details visit http://www.lyrictheatre.co.uk or call the box office on 02890 381081