Sunday, 1 July 2012

Kiss Me Kate - Chichester Festival Theatre - Saturday 30 June *****

A birthday treat for me, a trip to Chichester to see one of my favourite leading ladies, Hannah Waddingham, in a Cole Porter musical that I had never seen, but which I was reliably informed was a not to be missed classic.

Along the way we took in the new Peter Blake exhibition at the fabulous Pallant House Gallery. For such a sleepy little slice of middle England, Chichester really boxes above its’ weight when it comes to the arts and the Peter Blake show, celebrating the great man’s 80th birthday, was just the start of what turned out to be a fantastic day.

Kiss Me Kate, with a book by husband and wife team Sam and Bella Spewack, is a virtually real-time look at the out of town opening of a musical version of the Taming of the Shrew. Trevor Nunn directs Alex Bourne and Hannah Waddingham ann Has Fred Graham, who is directing “The Shrew” and taking the role of Petruchio, and his ex-wife and movie star Lilli Vanessi, who is playing the tempestuous Katharine. Echoing their on-stage relationship Fred and Lilli constantly bicker but, despite having new partners, this bickering transforms itself into renewed passion as the evening progresses. With various sub-plots involving two gangsters mistakenly chasing Fred for a supposed $10,000 debt, a general with political ambitions wanting to whisk Lilli away to Washington and a fame hungry ingénue courting Fred for stardom rather than love, there really is only one possible trajectory to the story.

Alex Bourne and Hannah Waddingham are electrifying in the lead roles, both imposing figures with sensational delivery of the contemporary dialogue, Shakespeare and the glorious Cole Porter songs. Waddingham’s solo of I Hate Men, her voice by turns snarling and soaring is an early highlight. An incredible company grab their opportunities during the many ensemble numbers, including Another Opening Another Show and We Open in Venice. The second act opener of Too Darn’ Hot featuring Jason Pennycooke was one of the most thrilling I have ever seen. Pennycooke, slight and sensuous, positively sizzles during his five minutes in the spotlight. A brass filled orchestra keeps the score plump and pumping.

Comic relief is provided to splendid effect by David Burt and Clive Rowe as bumbling gangsters who,  marooned on stage during The Shrew, cover their tracks with a magnificent and hysterical Brush Up Your Shakespeare.

Chichester’s infamous thrust strange is always a challenge for designers, but here Robert Jones has come up with the igneous idea of using simple white fabric etched in black which rises up on poles or pulleys, so that Petruchio’s house or a magnificent verdant tree appear in an instant from a small box. Echoing this, gorgeous, monochrome costumes reveal primary coloured accessories.

This show has already announced a transfer to the Old Vic and it really is no wonder, it is the ideal Christmas treat, an intelligent, witty, musical full of spectacular set pieces and superb individual performances. A Cole Porter musical with Shakespeare, starring the goddess that is Hannah Waddingham, what’s not to like?

Booking until 1 September 2012 at Chichester - Kiss Me Kate Chichester and at The Old Vic from 20 November 2012 to 2 March 2013 - Kiss Me Kate London

Peter Blake and Pop Music at the Pallant House Gallery until 7 October 2012 - Pallant House Gallery

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