One of the albums from my childhood was the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s Music for Pleasure record of Des O’Connor singing songs from Half a Sixpence, the 1963 musical by David Heneker and Beverley Cross, originally written for Tommy Steele. Despite – rather than because of – this recording, I’d always wanted to see the show, and we finally got the opportunity back in 2007 when we saw Gary Wilmot as Arthur Kipps in Bill Kenwright’s production at the Birmingham Hippodrome. I remember thinking at the time that the show itself was quite tame, but that it was an excellent production and I couldn’t imagine anyone better in the cheeky chappie main role than the irrepressible and brilliant song and dance man Mr Wilmot.
Things change, then change again. Fast forward nine years, and, remembering its rather mundane plot, when we made our selections from this summer’s Chichester Festival offering, neither of us particularly wanted to see this new production. Honestly, have we not learned our lesson? Over the past few years we’ve seen cracking good shows like Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, Mack and Mabel and Kiss Me Kate, so why wouldn’t the new Half a Sixpence – now transferred to the West End – be up there with the greats? (Spoiler – it is.)
To be honest, I still find the show itself a little underwhelming, with its somewhat dated subject matter of comedy juxtaposition between the upper and the working class, and its message that you should always marry someone of your own kind. However, Julian Fellowes’ new book and some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have given it a well-deserved kick up the backside and created a much more entertaining and better structured show. I think one of the problems with the original version is the relative dearth of musical numbers in comparison with the length of the show. Today your average musical-goer simply expects more – a legacy of the Lloyd Webber approach, where, after curtain up, the orchestra basically never stops till going home time. I must agree with other comments I’ve read though that it is an enormous shame that they chose to do away with the original song All In The Cause of Economy, which a) is a great tune, b) is a very funny lyric and c) perfectly encapsulates the horrendous relationship between the bullying Mr Shelford and his poor troupe of resident drapers. Another problem with the original show is that, as it was specifically fashioned around the amazing talents of Tommy Steele, it’s perhaps just a little too Kippscentric. The new structure, however, is much more balanced – even though, when you look at the list of musical numbers in the programme, of the 22 songs listed, only 2 don’t feature Kipps as one of the singers. He’s at the heart of the original book so it’s no surprise he’s also the heart of the musical.
As I’m sure you know, it’s based on H G Wells’ 1905 novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, which I confess I haven’t read but apparently was Wells’ personal favourite of all the books he wrote. Young Arthur and young Ann share a special friendship, but when Arthur has to move away, they each keep half a sixpence as a token of their young love. When working in the drapery shop he is smitten with the delightful Helen Walsingham, but she is high born and, surely, too far above him to care. But Arthur unexpectedly inherits a great legacy and an annual income of £1200, and can thus transform himself from commoner to toff in one fell swoop. His relationship with Helen blossoms, but then it turns out that Ann (remember her?) is the Walsingham family parlourmaid… And if you don’t know how all that resolves itself, you’ll have to see the show!
No doubt about it, this truly is a fantastic production. Stunning to look at, amazing sets, perfect costumes, a brilliant band and a large cast of superbly talented performers. As a piece of theatrical confectionary, it is the sweetest, tastiest, zingiest show I’ve seen for some time. Andrew Wright’s choreography, particularly in the big set pieces, is overwhelmingly, in-your-face ebullient, and gives you that great to be alive feel that musical theatre can sometimes achieve. Even if you don’t take into account the performances, the visual impact of the staging of the new song Pick out a Simple Tune and the perennial old favourite Flash Bang Wallop are among the most exhilarating experiences on stage at the moment; and the “real rain” in If The Rain’s Got To Fall helps give a charming sense of pathos and drama to the end of the first act.
There’s been a lot of hype about Charlie Stemp, who plays Kipps, a performer plucked from relative obscurity – his programme bio reveals just an international tour of Mamma Mia and ensemble in Wicked. Well, believe it. This is one of those toe-curlingly delightful occasions when you can say “I was there” – I genuinely believe that, with this performance in this production, a star is born. He is the natural successor to the young Michael Crawford, with his engaging stage presence, superb voice and extraordinary dance ability. Hardly off the stage for the entire performance, he invests Kipps with an exuberance that really pushes out into the auditorium. The fact that he is new on the scene is perfect for the role as it reflects the character’s own fish out of water situation – an unknown person in an unknown environment. The production, however, knows he is a winner, subtly (or not so subtly?) lighting him just a little more strongly than everyone else in the ensemble pieces. I had no hesitation in giving him the standing ovation he totally deserved.
But this is no one-man show. He’s surrounded by a fabulous cast, our personal favourite being the wonderful Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann, nobly and touchingly handing over the object of her love to her mistress. Ms Johnson is also spellbinding in the big song and dance numbers and is the perfect energy counterpart to Mr Stemp. I also really liked Emma Williams’ Helen, a classy, elegant performance that reveals the bravery of her character’s ability to climb out of her social class and become entwined with Mr Kipps. Jane How exudes delightful superiority as the sumptuous Lady Punnet, who really believes her musical evenings are the most fun you can have, and who has a brilliant twinkle in her eye whenever she speaks to Arthur; and there’s an enormously fun performance from Vivien Parry as Mrs Walsingham, her eye on the financial prize, never quite becoming the horrendous mother in law from hell, but not far off.
Ian Bartholomew’s Chitterlow is a wonderfully larger than life creation, with more than a touch of Dickens’ Vincent Crummles about him; one of those few characters who is nothing but decent through and through. Mr Bartholomew brings out the humour of his songs – notably Back The Right Horse and The One Who’s Run Away – with great style. John Conroy, always masterful in authoritarian roles, is chillingly unpleasant as Mr Shalford, and Gerard Carey is splendidly slimy as the villainous James Walsingham and genuinely funny as the camp photographer, even if the characterisation is a little more 1963 than 2016. However, all the cast give terrific support and the physical commitment to the performance from one and all is just magnificent.
P. S. A couple of unfortunate examples of bad theatre etiquette couldn’t erase what a wonderful show it was. But why must people be so grumpy and unhelpful when it comes to letting others past to get to their seats? It’s bad enough anyway in the New, I mean Albery, I mean Noel Coward theatre where the front stalls are as tight as a [insert rude simile here] without having to make special negotiations and pleadings to get past. There was also a mother and daughter who constantly nattered all the way through the first act. They were just out of reach for me to tell them to shut it, but maybe someone else did because they behaved like proper theatregoers after the interval. Honestly, some people!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan and Michael Le Poer Trench