Kiss Me, Kate review – glorious music, falderol frivolity and Adrian Dunbar

<span>Showime hysteria … Kiss Me, Kate at the Barbican.</span><span>Photograph: Johan Persson</span>
Showime hysteria … Kiss Me, Kate at the Barbican.Photograph: Johan Persson

Cole Porter’s imperishable 1948 musical-within-a-musical follows the Baltimore tryout of a show based on The Taming of the Shrew. Its stars are Lilli and Fred, wrangling exes rekindling their tarnished romance amid smooching hoofers, a careworn theatre crew and, why not, a brace of gun-toting gangsters. In Bartlett Sher’s plushly enjoyable staging, it delivers glorious music and falderol frivolity.

This is a workplace musical – backstage, people smoke and slouch, scampering in their farthingales and scanties (gemstone costumes and witty hats by Catherine Zuber), while Michael Yeargan’s substantial brick reveals a nicely sketchy set for the Shrew.

Broadway’s Stephanie J Block and Line of Duty’s Adrian Dunbar play the leads. But wonderfully, the ensemble bangers showcase backstage staff. A stentorian Josie Benson kicks off Another Op’nin’, Another Show (“another pain where the ulcers grow”). And the second half ignites the languorously horny Too Darn Hot, sassily choreographed by Anthony Van Laast. Jack Butterworth’s dresser leads a dance of dirty-minded shoulders and hips, until the band rips into the score and Butterworth and Charlie Stemp have a bravura spin-off. Hot in all the good ways.

The original book by Bella and Sam Spewack (like their leads, they too were reluctantly reunited exes) has an acrid crackle, and has been titivated with added smut and a military upgrade for Lilli’s dull fiance. Characters bicker in dialogue but unpack their hearts in song – revealed in all their human complexity. Georgina Onuorah’s ditzy showgirl turns plangent when she sings – or, in her show-stopping Always True to You in My Fashion, lays out her dating strategy with winsome vowels and a growl of pure raunch.

Similarly, Lilli and Fred move in gusts of pique and vanity – but alone in the dressing room, their defences are down. Block’s Lilli, in her raspberry ripple wrap, clutches a bouquet and sings “taunt me and hurt me / deceive me, desert me” – in Porter, true love and erotic torment are always close companions. The show delights in his snappy internal rhymes (“still lifeless is my wifeless family tree”), worldly elegance and commitment to the higher filth.

Dunbar has some dapper moves and a pointed way with a lyric. Vocally he is, shall we say, brave casting for a role often taken by operatic baritones – less than wunderbar against rich-voiced Block. Few could match her pugilistic coloratura or the barn-burning gleam of her solo I Hate Men.

The showtime hysteria is amped up by a pair of hitmen – gravelly Nigel Lindsay and a supremely deadpan Hammed Animashaun – sharking through the theatre in pursuit of a gambling debt. Courteous threats (“I would cry like a baby if I had to do something to such a high-type fella”) become stagestruck wonder, culminating in the puntastic Brush Up Your Shakespeare. No one’s going home until they’ve rhymed heinous with Coriolanus.

There’s no avoiding The Taming of the Shrew’s stark sexual politics, which the Spewacks summarise as “slap your wife around; she’ll thank you for it”. Both play and musical must land in the same awkward place – Block’s sweet-voiced closing number suggests that everyone craves peace after a nerve-jangling opening night. Forsooth that.

At the Barbican, London, until 14 September