Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate is one of the two foremost musical adaptations of Shakespeare - West Side Story is the other – and in a sense this is the more tricky of the two for a youth theatre group like DIY Theatre to take on. The Taming of the Shrew source material is in bad odour these days owing to its subject matter being wholly out of step with contemporary gender politics. The default position is that Petruchio's actions towards Katherine are misogynistic and cruel, and his declared intention to tame her a clear reflection of patriarchy instead. Yet it's been argued that Petruchio’s behaviour is a mirror to Kate's, simply reflecting back her own demeanour, so that in turn she comes to understand how she’s treated others.
DIY Theatre doesn't do things by halves. This elaborate show demanded participation by c. 75 people in acting, production and musical activities, many of them young and all keen to the point of giving it all they'd got. The sheer organisation of the production is super-impressive enough, even before the quality is assessed. For a great deal of this, we must thank Mel Houldershaw, 22 years and counting with the East Oxford Community Choir and a musical organiser for the twinning Oxford Grenoble Association; a wonderfully dynamic presence in Oxfordshire cultural activities.
The story unfolds around Baltimore production of The Taming of the Shrew. Feuding actors Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, recently divorced, are performing together as Messrs. P and K in a Broadway-bound musical version of the play, but the development of the show turns out to lead along a path as speed bump-strewn as are the roads leading to the Amey Theatre at Abingdon School. Can the warring Fred and Lilli, still in love with each other despite Fred’s self-regard and Lilli’s entanglement elsewhere, get their act together before the curtain goes up? Can flighty supporting actor Lois Lane and her gambling beau Bill Calhoun avoid the attentions of a couple of gangsters chasing with menaces Fred for Bill’s unpaid bills?
Kiss Me Kate got off to an ensemble start, with dozens of singers/dancers on stage fronted by Hattie, a company dresser, with a very good Naama Brittenden giving 'Another Op’nin, Another Show' lots of opening oomph. Director Madeleine Purefoy, along with her choreographer Livi Ridley and musical director Dexter Drown, vigorously leading with his baton his excellent 22-piece band, marshalled her forces inventively here and throughout, no doubt conscious of the perils of inertia with so many bodies on stage, and making excellent use of the stage apron to cut down the space for the more intimate scenes. Madeleine's effort was all the more remarkable given that the lead Fred Graham/Petruchio actor had dropped out with 10 days to go to opening night so that she'd had to take on the rôle herself - which she did with commanding aplomb; moving, emoting and singing the tenor part as to the manner born.
She was fortunate, and/or clever, in the casting of her lead colleagues. Katie Ledden's Lilli Vanessi/Katherine is a natural conveyer of emotion on stage, excelling in her 'Wunderbar' duet, burning with scorn in 'I Hate Men' and perfectly hitting her top notes in 'I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple'. Both she and Evie Hardy-Baker as Lois Lane/Bianca sported terrific American accents. Evie moved beautifully on her heels, exuded stage presence and was suitably strident in singing voice (if slightly shaky with the notes at the bottom of the register). As gambling actor Bill Calhoun, Daniel North sang and danced fluently in his big 'Bianca' number.
Of the other actors, Joseph Wakefield and Aidan Lack were versatile gangsters, and while possibly lacking a touch of sheer nastiness, produced a buzzing version of 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare', the lyrics of which are a little masterpiece. Henry Jensen as Paul produced some jazzy tap dancing in 'Too Darn Hot', Margaret Lack's wardrobe lady did well in a small part, and from the chorus I especially noticed Elsie Cheetham's first class reaction acting – maybe in a few years time she's be seen as Lois Lane. The show was inventively costumed, lit with colour, bursting with energy – it's onwards and upwards to the next production.