This is the second time I've seen Kiss Me Kate live. The first time was a weak touring production in Edinburgh which mainly remains in my mind for my then girlfriend falling asleep during it (in fairness we went shortly after a transatlantic flight, it was also a fair comment on the quality of the performance). Chichester as one has come to expect throws everything at this production, but it is another Trevor Nunn enterprise that just doesn't altogether come off.
Part of the problem is the show itself and of course its source material. Apart from anything else it is just a bit difficult to take Kate/Lilli's submission to Fred/Petruchio seriously at the end since he has hardly been an angel – his sending a copy of their wedding bouquet to his new squeeze in Act 1 is especially low and he more than deserves to be on the receiving end of her temper. The only way I think that a production can really get round this is by convincing the viewer that there is a genuine, if ultimately somewhat irrational, love behind all the punishment the two visit on each other. Both Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne give solid performances but on this crucial point they did not convince me. My heart remained unengaged, at least by them.
The other problem with the material is trying to make the lengthy bits of Shakespeare in the show within a show come off. Here I'm not at all sure there is a solution – it is fundamentally a bit plodding – but I think you've got to try something other than just delivering it straight as here. Make more of the artifical quality of it perhaps, or have a couple of poor performances by the actors playing the roles within roles. Nothing along those lines, or indeed any other, is attempted here and the result is that these scenes drag.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining. The best of this show is to be had from the chorus who sing and dance their hearts out, in Stephen Mear's typically well done choreography. The liveliness and character of the ensemble, and several of the minor performers does however point up the lack of emotional conviction in the four leads. I must particularly commend, among the chorus, Kate Tydman (at least I hope it's Kate Tydman I must commend – I wasn't absolutely positive I'd matched performer with cast list). Anyway, the performer I'm referring to is the one giving choreographic notes to the ensemble during “Another Opnin' Another Show” and elsewhere blessing the ensemble with energy and a wonderfully expressive face. It says everything about the quality of the ensemble that they even made me like that opening number (which I usually detest) and they bring off “Too Damn Hot” magnificently (it is of course another of the show's problems that the title number which closes both Acts is one of the weaker numbers in the show).
I've already discussed the two leads. I had further doubts about the other principal couple – Holly Dale Spencer's Lois Lane and Adam Garcia's Bill Calhoun. They did not convince me as coming from a particularly different milieu to Waddingham and Bourne, nor did I believe in their undying affection for each other. They dance and sing perfectly fine but that spark of specialness that makes a really great musical theatre performer just isn't there.
Fortunately, there are some very good performances among the supporting cast. Jason Pennycooke (Paul) makes an excellent job of his big solo in “Too Damn Hot”, David Burt and Clive Rowe are fun as the two gangsters – I'm not sure if the way they run into “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is in the original directions but it was one of the rare places where one felt a real shaft of light in the direction. Kevin Brewis also puts in some nicely judged character work as one of Bianca's suitors. Overall though one has the curious feeling that Nunn suffers a little from the same problem as Clifford with Heartbreak House. This doesn't feel through directed for all the performers from leads to chorus as it should, but rather like a series of insufficiently connected scenes.
Chichester has got into a bit of a habit of transferring its big musicals to the West End. In this case they appear to have taken the precaution of organising this as a co-production with a transfer thus guaranteed before the show even opened in Chichester - it will appear over the Christmas season at the Old Vic. As with Singin' in the Rain last year plenty of folk around me seemed to be having a good time. It's solidly done, but once again it doesn't bear comparison to Babes in Arms and The Music Man. It should have been so much better than it is.