1948 was before the 1960s, wasn't it? In the time when sex was something you didn’t talk about, girls were nice, boys were honourable and marriage was for life? Cole Porter must have missed the memo. His lyrics for Kiss me Kate sizzle with innuendo, spiced up by rhymes which force the English language past breaking point. Porter is so impishly good-humoured that he can get away with anything, so exuberant in his wordsmithery and his smash-and-grab appropriation of a dozen musical styles that Kiss me Kate can hardly fail to entertain. Jo Davies' 2015 production for Opera North, co-produced with Welsh National Opera and casting the same two leading men from WNO’s 2016 run, is straightforward, stylish and tonnes of fun.

Quirijn de Lang (Petruchio), Stephanie Corley (Kate) © Tristram Kenton
Quirijn de Lang (Petruchio), Stephanie Corley (Kate)
© Tristram Kenton

The best moments come from our four leads – all very different, all top class. Quirijn de Lang showed off what an operatic voice can do in musical theatre; “Where is the life that late I led” was earnestly sung with warmth and strength. De Lang is improbably watchable on stage even in the coddest of cod Shakespearean costumes, and the sparks flew in his exchanges with Stephanie Corley, whether on the stage of The Taming of the Shrew (as Petruchio and Kate) or off-stage (as Fred and Lilli). The real-life shrew-taming scene comes when Fred gently points out what Lilli’s life will be with the somnolent millionaire Harrison Howell. De Lang showed that he can do subtle comedy just as well as the raucous stuff – he even produced more-than-decent Shakespearean delivery in his various sets of original Shakespeare lines. As you’d hope from an untamed shrew, Corley gives as good as she gets, always bossy and sharp-witted, and with the basic power of voice to be firmly in charge. She delivered a splendid “I Hate Men”, later demonstrating her own operatic chops with a bit of high wire coloratura for “Never” (her answer to the question “when shall we be married”).

Alan Burkitt (Bill Calhoun), Zoë Rainey (Lois Lane) © Tristram Kenton
Alan Burkitt (Bill Calhoun), Zoë Rainey (Lois Lane)
© Tristram Kenton

Bill/Lucentio doesn’t get as much singing to do, but Alan Burkitt lit up the stage with his dancing, dazzling in his second half tap routine. Zoë Rainey was the perfect dumb blonde as Lois/Bianca, her “Always true to you in my fashion” producing the perfect Cole Porter mix of butter-wouldn’t-melt, your-mum-would-love-her sweetness with bucketloads of decidedly naughty sex appeal.

While pretty much every solo number or duet was pulled off with panache, the ensemble numbers didn’t fare as well. The combination song and dance numbers lacked the last word in crispness: the ensemble were clearly comfortable with the singing and comfortable enough with the dance routines, but not quite there when required to put the two together. In several scenes, the choreography felt routine and occasionally sluggish: at the start of the second half, “Too darn hot” took too darn long for the temperature to rise.

Quirijn de Lang (Petruchio) and ensemble © Tristram Kenton
Quirijn de Lang (Petruchio) and ensemble
© Tristram Kenton

Particularly given that this is a touring production that will have to fit into many different theatres, designer Colin Richmond has done an admirable job of providing watchable scenery that’s continually on the move as we shift between the various different views – on stage, back stage, in front of the curtain. The chorus swirl around the moving scenery, the Shakespearean costumes are a riot of colour to set against the Lady and the Unicorn backdrops, the Broadway backstage is lovingly depicted (including the gentlemen’s toilet), and the pair of little-and-large gangsters are straight out of your favourite Al Capone movies.

Joseph Shovelton (First Gunman), John Savournin (Second Gunman) © Tristram Kenton
Joseph Shovelton (First Gunman), John Savournin (Second Gunman)
© Tristram Kenton

As we move into the last quarter of the show, any pretence of following the plot fades into the distance, and at that point, it’s the two gangsters who get the show’s most enduringly famous number, “Brush up your Shakespeare”. Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin put smiles on our faces with the staging conceit that they’re trapped in the red curtains of the theatre and can’t get out. They navigated their way through the groan-inducing rhymes with gusto, to bring a deliciously escapist evening towards its close with some unique Cole Porter magic. After all, who else would rhyme “the wife of the British Ambassador” with “a crack out of Troilus and Cressida” and “because of your heat she gets huffy” with “Lay on, Macduffy”?

Company of <i>Kiss me Kate</i> © Tristram Kenton
Company of Kiss me Kate
© Tristram Kenton
***11