Kiss Me Kate, which opens this week, is the ultimate test of whether London's theatreland will emerge from the current slump. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, two West End musicals have had to close and the revenue for some shows has fallen by 15%. Indeed, this version of Kiss Me Kate, which originated on Broadway, was due to close in New York last month and only managed to survive when the cast and crew agreed to a massive pay cut. In order for the backers of the London production to recoup their investment it will have to play to full houses for at least two years.
Judging from the preview I saw on Monday night it deserves to be a hit. This is a back-to-basics, unashamedly lowbrow revival of the Cole Porter musical that scores on virtually every front. Actually, it's so old-fashioned that to call it a "revival" seems inaccurate. Watching it is like being transported back to 1948. In spite of the fact that Kiss Me Kate is a musical about a musical, this production is refreshingly free of post-modernist frippery. It harks back to a more innocent era when comic performers didn't "sample" bits from old vaudeville routines to demonstrate their familiarity with the history of their craft; they were just vaudevillians, pure and simple.
It opens with a big production number--'Another Op'nin' Another Show'--that immediately establishes we're backstage at a Broadway play. This turns out to be The Taming of the Shrew: The Musical and the constant switching back and forth between the play and the play-within-a-play keeps the audience bouncing merrily along. As soon as your eyes have got used to the drab, utilitarian brickwork of the backstage scenery, you're suddenly transported to a Disney cartoon version of 16th Century Padua. Watching this ingenious play unfold, I was reminded of Dickens's famous description of his own technique: "a rapid succession of characters and incidents".
The central characters in Kiss Me Kate are Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham, a couple of old Broadway hams constantly battling for the limelight. They play Kate and Petruchio in the play-within-a-play and, predictably enough, their onstage romance mirrors their offstage relationship. Both characters are played with inexhaustible gusto by Marin Mazzie and Brent Barrett, two American hoofers who, I was delighted to discover, are also gifted physical comedians. For those, like me, who are prone to boredom during the frequent musical interludes there's plenty of crude comic business to keep you entertained. No double-take is considered too hackneyed for these crowd-pleasers.
The real stars of the show, though, are Teddy Kempner and Jack Chissick who play a couple of gangsters straight out of Damon Runyon. You can see the audience sit up in anticipation each time they appear on stage and, sure enough, they enliven almost every scene they're in. Their rendition of 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare', in which they instruct the audience on the art of picking up girls by liberally sprinkling your conversation with references to the bard, is the highlight of the play.
My one complaint is that things started to sag a little towards the end of the first half, particularly in those scenes involving Lois Lane (Nancy Anderson) and Michael Berresse (Bill Calhoun). These two are meant to be younger, sexier versions of the romantic leads but I found them both pretty unappetising. They darted around the stage like over-wound clockwork mice as if they were attempting to make up in momentum what they lacked in vitality. Still, if Kiss Me Kate runs for as long as it deserves to, I expect they'll settle into their roles.
Noël Coward's Star Quality is pretty dismal by comparison. It, too, concerns the backstage shenanigans of a monstrous actress as she battles with her co-star in a play-within-a-play but, unlike Kiss Me Kate, it's almost completely charmless. Penelope Keith makes a decent fist of Lorraine Barrie, though at 60 she's a bit long in the tooth to be playing a sexually alluring actress, and Una Stubbs gets as many laughs as she can out of her role as Marion Blake, a talentless bimbo. But the play itself is so mediocre nothing can redeem it.
The central conflict is between Lorraine Barrie and Ray Malcolm (Russell Boulter), the director of the play-within-a-play, but very little ever seems to be at stake. The actual director, Christopher Luscombe, does his best to conceal the emptiness at the heart of Star Quality by constantly turning up the dramatic volume and Penelope Keith manages to get off a few good zingers at Ray Malcolm's expense. In the end, though, it all signifies so little you wonder why you've bothered to sit through it. The only creature in Star Quality that possesses a modicum of charm is Lorraine Barrie's lapdog, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel. If this dog has an agent I'd advise him to get his client transferred to the lap of Lindsday Duncan, currently appearing in Private Lives, the other Coward play in the West End. That's supposed to be a lot better.
Toby Young's account of the five years he spent in New York, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, has just been published by Little Brown.