Stephanie J Block and Adrian Dunbar on reviving Cole Porter’s ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ at the Barbican

Broadway star Stephanie J Block and Line of Duty’s Adrian Dunbar are ready for their next challenge: starring in Bartlett Sher’s new production of Kiss Me, Kate.

Olivia Rook
Olivia Rook

For distinguished actors such as Stephanie J Block and Adrian Dunbar, it is rare to come across a project that allows them to do something “new”. Block burst onto the Broadway scene in 2003 when she originated the role of Liza Minnelli in The Boy from Oz, while Dunbar has made a name for himself in gritty screen dramas over the past 40 years, most notably as Superintendent Ted Hastings in the TV crime series Line of Duty. But this summer, they will both need to brush up their Shakespeare, as they make debuts at London’s Barbican Centre in Cole Porter’s classic musical Kiss Me, Kate.

This will be Block’s West End debut, despite roles in some of Broadway’s biggest musicals, including Wicked, Anything Goes, Into the Woods, and The Cher Show, for which she won a Tony Award in 2019.

“I'm thrilled. I'm nervous. I am expectant. And I'm ready,” she says, looking perfectly put together following a photoshoot with Dunbar for the show. “Regardless if it's on a Broadway stage, or regional stage, or the West End stage, the essence is always the same. If you stay true to the storytelling, regardless of where you're at or who your audience is, it's always very potent.”

Pivoting to musical theatre

Dunbar, meanwhile, will be making his musical theatre debut, and says the opportunity is “very, very exciting” and “scary.”

“But everybody's telling me it's gonna be fine,” he says. “So I have to kind of wake up to that and just get on with the work.”

Dunbar says the role “picked me,” after years of wanting to star in a musical. “I've hustled my agents over the years, but they never really took me seriously about it,” he says. He believes that bringing music and song to his role in detective TV drama Ridley helped to show his range in a new light, paving the way for this opportunity. “Sometimes providence is the best producer,” adds Block.

In director Bartlett Sher’s new production of Porter’s metatheatrical backstage musical, which follows a theatre company putting on a performance of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Block will take on the role of leading lady Lilli Vanessi, who plays Katherine (the musical’s titular Kate), opposite Dunbar’s Fred Graham (Lilli’s ex-husband), who plays Petruchio. Still following?

After a string of punchy roles on Broadway, how does Block feel about becoming the musical’s eponymous lead? “She's got a lot of sass. She's got a lot of fire,” Block says. “There is a lot of conflict in her. That sort of anger and crackle doesn't come from nothing. So there's definitely a past to her and she's unsettled for a reason. And I hope to get to the depths of that.”

Identifying with Kate

Block sees some of Kate’s fight and fire in her personality and career. “I have always been a fighter, nothing has ever come easy to me in any way shape or form,” she says. After more than 20 years onstage, Block has faced her fair share of knock-backs: at the beginning of her career, she was replaced by Idina Menzel for the role of Elphaba when Wicked opened on Broadway in 2003.

“My entire career has been rung by rung by rung and then down three rungs and back up one,” she continues. “And there's a bit of that in Kate — she has always had to fight for what is hers. There is a silent scream in her that has to be let out. And we are having to meet her at the point in time where she is letting it out.”

Block also recognises the romantic parallels between Lilli and Fred’s showmance and her own life. She knows better than anyone what it’s like to fall in love with the person you’re starring in a show with, having met her husband Sebastian Arcelus on the first tour of Wicked in 2006 when he played her love interest Fiyero. “My husband and I are going on year 17 of marriage,” she says. “So we understand what the fairytale version of the three hours [on stage] is.”

Full circle moment

The real question on everybody’s lips is whether Dunbar will find a way to keep his iconic Northern Irish accent for the musical. “I will say it's probably going to change for the show,” he says, disappointing Line of Duty fans everywhere. “It kinda needs to change.”

For Dunbar, heading to the Barbican this summer will be a homecoming. He left school at 15 and went to work in a factory, before auditioning for Guildhall School of Music & Drama, which is part of the Barbican complex.

“It's quite an exciting match made in heaven,” he says. “We did the first production of Merrily We Roll Along at the Guildhall [in 1983] — a very good production that transferred to the West End. I wish I'd got a chance to do a bit more of that. And then I kind of forgot about it because I was from Northern Ireland, there was a lot of dark stuff that was happening, a lot of heavy TV, a lot of heavy theatre, so my theatre life went that way. And so I forgot about music and musicals. It's really nice that this is happening at this point in my life.”

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Photo credit: Adrian Dunbar and Stephanie J Block. (Photo courtesy of production)

This article first appeared in the May issue of London Theatre Magazine

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