Now a regular feature at the BBC Proms, the John Wilson Orchestra was met with a capacity audience for this year's outing. In 2012, the Orchestra put on a spectacular and well-received performance of My Fair Lady; this year, in the same vein, it was a semi-staged Kiss Me, Kate that was put on at the Royal Albert Hall.

Alexandra Silber (Lilli Vanessi/ Katharine) © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Alexandra Silber (Lilli Vanessi/ Katharine)
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Semi-staged is really an understatement: this 1948 version of Cole Porter's Broadway hit was fully and fabulously costumed (think classic 1950s/Tudor dresses with a hint of late-90s living room feature wall), props were more than minimally supplied, and even the music hall-sized John Wilson Orchestra acted the part of the band for the show within the show, a new, musical version of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew (on which Kiss Me, Kate is also based, of course). The garish LED display round the stage was a moderately successful, if very pixelated, scene-setter. There was singing, there was dancing; for a couple of hours we were transported to the West End whence several members of cast had come.

The enthusiasm of conductor John Wilson evident in the programme foreword to this Prom was relentlessly relayed on stage. From the very beginning of the overture, it was abundantly clear that he and his orchestra were in their element: rhythms were snappy, there was palpable exuberance from each and every musician, and there was more than one moment of playing in which tongue was firmly placed in cheek. The arena Prommers seemed to be making plenty of use of the floorspace to dance along, much to the envy of those in the surrounding seats. 

The pace didn't slow down when the singers entered the fray. Louise Marshall, as Hattie, provided an assured and exciting beginning to “Another op'nin', another show”, and the chorus duly followed suit. West End star Louise Dearman, playing Lois Lane, conveyed an effective reprimanding tone in “Why can't you behave?”, in which she castigates her boyfriend Bill Calhoun for having signed a $10,000 gambling IOU note in the name of the show director, Fred Graham (Ben Davis). Later on in the show, her “Always true to you in my fashion” was sung with puppy-eyed innocence (cough).

Alexandra Silber (Lilli Vanessi/ Katharine) and Ben Davis (Fred Graham/ Petruchio) © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Alexandra Silber (Lilli Vanessi/ Katharine) and Ben Davis (Fred Graham/ Petruchio)
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

“Wunderbar”, a duet between the scarlet-suited, fur-clad Lilli Vanessi (Alexandra Silber) and Fred Graham, her ex-husband, was a mildly disappointing opening for the pair, who both excelled in later solo numbers. In particular, Vanessi's “I hate men” was hilariously enraged; Silber threw herself around the stage, screaming as though possessed with hatred. The comic timing of Graham/Petruchio's “Where is the life that late I led?” was absolutely spot on, and Davis drew out the highly dubious rhyming couplets ('Rebecca, my Becki-Weckio...Ponte Vecchio' truly being the worst of them all) to warm appreciation from the audience. But the comedy award of the evening surely had to go to James Docherty and Michael Jibson as the two gunmen for “Brush up your Shakespeare”In some ways, it's a pity this comes at the end of the show, as its slapstick humour leaves some of the other, more subtle numbers straggling in its wake.

Underpinning some seriously exciting musicianship from cast and orchestra was some excellent stage direction by Shaun Kerrison, who made a relatively small stage seem vast and allowed Alistair David's outstanding choreography to be realised to its fullest potential. Singling out particular numbers does not do justice to the dancers' skills, but “It's too darn hot”, ably led by Paul (Jason Pennycooke) was a heady, sweaty highlight in that respect.

Once again, the John Wilson Orchestra and its West End friends put on a real spectacle, a complete show in which the only serious weakness was on the technical side – on occasion, individual microphones were not turned on soon enough, and, in the case of Alexandra Silber's, some brash distortion could be heard in her fortissimo passages. That said, the hype surrounding the concert was, happily, entirely justified, and I look forward to discovering what they have in store for next time.