The Christmas musical at Sheffield’s Crucible has had many highlights over the years: from a revival of Company in 2011 which ludicrously resulted in the then Artistic Director Daniel Evans receiving hate mail, to Carly Bawden managing to outshine Dominic West in My Fair Lady and Debbie Kurup dancing up a storm in Anything Goes.
So it seems natural that Kiss Me, Kate is the latest festive crowd-pleaser – featuring a flawless selection of Cole Porter classics, bickering lovestruck couples. mistaken identity and some comedy gangsters, it’s a show that’s almost guaranteed to raise the roof. Yet, in the present day, its misogynistic elements are undoubtedly problematic.
Those problems (Kiss Me, Kate is based on The Taming Of The Shrew and very much rooted in the gender politics of its time) don’t seem to impact as much on this production, though. Although Foster hasn’t reframed the play as a feminist treatise, there’s been some subtle changes to the more infamous scenes: so, when Lilli is spanked now, she fights back and gives as good as she gets. Lilli’s fiancé Harrison Howell, a man who believes that violence against women is perfectly acceptable only within a relationship, is played as a bullying buffoon, leaving no doubt that when Lock belts out ‘I Hate Men’, there’s a reason for that passion.
On a similar note, the notorious show-closer ‘I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple’, is played with a self-deprecating nod to Lilli’s choices, rather than a sideswipe at all women “who offer war when they should kneel for peace”.
It helps, of course, that Porter’s plot uses the framing device of a play within a play. We’re introduced to the travelling theatre company who have arrived in Baltimore to stage The Taming Of The Shrew, who then launch into an enormously impressive ‘Another Opening Another Show’. It’s a spectacular start, brilliantly choreographed by Strictly Come Dancing’s Matt Flint, and is only topped by an utterly exhilarating, 11 minute long rendition of ‘Too Darn Hot’ at the start of the second half.
Foster’s ensemble cast are a delight – Rebecca Lock already has a stellar reputation for musical theatre following her turn in Heathers The Musical earlier this year, and she’s nothing short of astonishing as Lilli here. Whether it be that aforementioned raucous rendition of ‘I Hate Men’, or the gorgeous swoon of ‘So In Love’, her voice has the potential to induce chills.
She doesn’t overshadow the rest of the cast though – in fact, each main star has a showcase of their own: Amy Ellen Richardson contributes a wonderful version of ‘Tom Dick And Harry’, while Delroy Atkinson and Joel Montague almost steal the show with their seemingly never-ending rendition of ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’. Best of all is the future star of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Layton Williams, who leads the ensemble in Too Darn Hot which produces applause almost as long as that which greets the final curtain.
It’s the sort of production where every element – from James McKeon’s terrific band to Janet Bird’s almost cartoon-like stage design – come together to produce something very special.