American Director, Bartlett Sher knows what he’s doing with large scale, golden age Musicals, recent successes including My Fair Lady, The King and I and South Pacific. Building on these spectacular productions his confidence shows in this new production of 'Kiss me, Kate' which opens this week on the vast Barbican stage starring Adrian Dunabar (Line of Duty) and broadway star Stephanie J. Block.

Cole Porter’s Musical within a musical tells the story of a Baltimore theatre troop putting on a musical of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Just as Shakespeare hero tries to tame his wild Shrew, the actor/producer of the show within the show, played by Dunbar, tries to tame his ex-wife and leading lady (Block). If this sounds like a tricky plot to land with contemporary audiences – you’d be right. But Sherr’s production is as sophisticated as it is silly and our leads are more than a match for each other. With some tweaks to the original book by Bella and Sam Spewack that make it even funnier, a direct address to the audience and a powerhouse performance from leading lady Stephanie J Block, there is no sense that we are colluding with a story about female oppression.

Kiss me Kate is structurally more complex than many musicals of its time and could get weighed down with meta-theatrical/pseudo-Shakespearean tedium if it wasn’t so precisely conceived. Michael Yeargan’s vast rotating set does a great deal of the work, with the internal play taking place on quarters of the set that are line drawn and turn with ease to reveal the brickwork of backstage life. Catherine Zuber’s sumptuous costumes dance against the drawings before being stripped off for sweaty back-stage life.

And let’s not forget that almost every number is a show-stopper. In Act 1 Block is divinely romantic singing ‘So in Love’ and then outrageously free with ‘I Hate men’. Her vocal range and control is extraordinary. But the greatest theatrical moment is saved for the opening of the second half with ‘Too darn hot,’ a sizzling company number that had the audience going wild – it was a good few minutes before the show could go on.

Peter Davison makes a wonderfully pompous General Harrison Howell but Georgina Onuorah’s irresistibly cheeky Lois Lane reminds us that the world of theatre is not a man’s world – pretty much everybody is behaving badly regardless of their gender. Her rendition of ‘Always true to you in my fashion’ takes the well-known number to another level. But no review is complete without mentioning Nigel Lindsay and Hammed Animashaun, gun-toting gangsters (with a secret love of theatre) make a glorious comic duo, reluctantly singing ‘Brush Up your Shakespeare’ in vaudeville style to rapturous applause.

I cannot recommend getting down to the Barbican fast enough for a production of 'Kiss me, Kate' that’s sexy, sophisticated and delightfully wicked.

Photo credit: Johan Persson