'Kiss Me, Kate' review — Adrian Dunbar and Stephanie J Block deliver big time in this rip-roaring revival

Read our review of Cole Porter's Golden Age musical Kiss Me, Kate, now in performances at the Barbican to 14 September.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Adrian Dunbar gets the entrance applause but Stephanie J Block gets the last bow. That’s the situation at the rip-roaring new revival of Kiss Me, Kate, and it seems, to my mind, absolutely right.

UK audiences in particular will be drawn by the prospect of a notable Irish TV name, Line of Duty star Dunbar, making an unexpected musical theatre debut, and in one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire no less. At the same time, visitors from Broadway will thrill to the debut this side of the pond (leaving aside one-off concerts) of Tony-winner Block, who is new to these shores and delivers – big time.

Kiss Me, Kate itself isn’t especially new: I’ve come across it at regular intervals over the past decade (anyone else remember Hannah Waddingham as Kate?), but I’ve never before seen a production that so fully foregrounds its women. It’s tempting to think of that as justice being served, in light of a 1948 Cole Porter musical that draws inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew: no chance of the female talent on view here being tamed, thank heavens.

That fact surely honours the attentiveness of the director, Bart Sher, who has form with musicals from Broadway’s Golden Age and here brings to this tale of a warring theatrical couple the same affection and stage knowhow that he has brought previously to South Pacific and The King and I.

We’re in Baltimore for out-of-town tryouts of the show-within-the-show, and barely has Block’s feisty Lilli Vanessi laid eyes on her ex-husband, and current leading man, Fred Graham (Dunbar) before she is the one delivering a blow to his pelvis.

Kiss Me Kate - LT - 1200

Reeling from their divorce but hypothetically ripe for a rematch, Lilli thrills at a bouquet delivered to her dressing room. So she’s not best pleased to discover that it’s actually intended for Fred’s latest (much younger) flame, Lois Lane (Georgina Onuorah), who has her own heart set on a reckless fellow performer, Bill Calhoun (Charlie Stemp).

The erotic geometry of the piece is one thing, its ravishing score another, and Onuorah sets the pulse racing early on with her come-to-heel plea to Bill, “Why Can’t You Behave”, which may well leave some wondering when this wonderful performer will get a show she can call her own.

Block soon after sends the rapturous “So in Love” liltingly to the skies, and tears into her solo “I Hate Men” with showstopping brio. Dunbar isn’t in her vocal league but he’s a game and genial participant throughout and gets a laugh early on with his reference to a theatre so empty that “deer are running around the balcony”.

No chance of that here. The production benefits from a turntable set by Michael Yeargan that marks out the different locations of the piece with ease and boasts a supporting cast to die for. Their ranks include Jack Butterworth raising the roof (with Stemp along for the ride) on “Too Darn Hot”, and Nigel Lindsay and Hammed Animashaun as gangsters with a decided flair for the follow spot.

Lest Shakespeare's sexual politics seem too tricky for the modern day, we even get a second-act address from Fred to the audience to explain the differences between then and now. To which I would only add: catch Block’s presence in town while you can – there before you is the true stage definition of, as Cole Porter himself puts it in the show, “wunderbar”.

Kiss Me, Kate is at the Barbican through 14 September. Book Kiss Me, Kate tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Kiss Me, Kate (Photos by Johan Persson)

Originally published on

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