‘Kiss Me, Kate’ by Opera North
Theatre Royal, Newcastle: 6-7th November 2015
Review by Miriam Atkinson
Kiss Me, Kate is a musical comedy that can trace its origins to December 1948 in New York. Set in 1940s Baltimore, the play follows a group of theatre actors as they prepare for and perform their opening night of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Complications arise when backstage issues of love, anger, and gambling debts are brought on stage and the cast start to wonder if they will ever successfully finish the play.
The musical features songs such as the crowd pleasing ‘Too Darn Hot’, the cleverly witty ‘Brush up your Shakespeare’, and the cheekily flirtatious ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’. The vocals and dance routines of the entire cast were faultless and the brilliant orchestra was on-point the whole night – certainly Kiss Me, Kate would not have worked without both elements complimenting each other so well.
The idea of the play seems simple at first but actually gets more complex the longer you think about it. For some moments of Kiss Me, Kate as an audience member you are watching a stage play of people watching a stage play that is simultaneously being performed on the same stage. It is then an impressive feat that at no point was the audience left in confusion about what was happening and where. The clarity of the play was indebted to the simple idea of using revolving screens to indicate if the action was happening on stage or backstage. The black side of the screen was shown whenever the characters were performing The Taming of the Shrew, with the reverse wooden side for the behind-the-scenes sections.
In a brilliant move the performance occasionally placed the characters among the audience and had them address the remaining characters on-stage. A particular highlight was when the two antagonists burst out of one of boxes in the grand circle to applaud the play – giving the illusion that they had been enjoying the performance along with us, the real audience. The effect was that it completely brought the audience in and made me feel as though I actually was part of the play.
My only criticism is that Kiss Me, Kate seemed to over repeat certain points in order to win over the audience. Several songs technically had three endings, with the character leaving the stage to applause only to reappear for another verse of song, leave and then reappear once more. While it is possible that this was done to poke fun at the idea that some theatre actors enjoy milking all the applause they can get, it would have made more sense to only have one character refuse to end a song (perhaps with other characters trying to usher them offstage) to create a contrast. Instead it merely seemed as though the show was trying to have too much of a good thing.
Additionally the final scene of Act 1 ended with a fun gag involving an accidental gunshot and the unfortunately demise of a pigeon hiding in the rafters but then, despite the events of the play occurring in real-time, at the start of Act 2 the moment was repeated apparently just to get another laugh from the audience. I felt this was unnecessary as the performance was already naturally comedic and it did not need to resort to this tactic to extract extra laughter.
All in all a great show full of comedy, hi-jinx and drama. It is a shame Opera North’s touring performance only came to Newcastle for two days.
*This review was originally published in the online magazine ‘Cuckoo Review’ in November 2015*