sat 10/12/2022

Half A Sixpence, Chichester Festival Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Half A Sixpence, Chichester Festival Theatre

Half A Sixpence, Chichester Festival Theatre

The Tommy Steele musical gets a triumphant, banjo-rehabilitating refresh

Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps in Chichester Festival Theatre's 'Half A Sixpence'Image: Manuel Harlan

Watching Cameron Mackintosh’s joyful revision of this Sixties musical, it’s possible to believe for a moment that all the world needs now is love sweet love and a shit-ton of banjos. With a new book by Downton Abbey behemoth Julian Fellowes, new numbers by the pair behind hit musical Mary Poppins, and design that delights at every turn of the multi-revolve, Half A Sixpence seems destined to follow a flush of previous Chichester Festival musicals into the West End.

It also puts vintage stars around the previously unknown name of Charlie Stemp.

Charlie Stemp. Isn’t that just the best name? It’s as if the 22-year-old’s parents knew he’d one day take on the memory of Tommy Steele, around whose talents and teeth the original 1963 musical and subsequent film was built. In fact, Stemp first played the role of Arthur Kipps – the cockney lad who inherits, loses and regains a fortune – in a college production three years ago. Favoured CFT choreographer Andrew Wright (Singin’ in the Rain, Guys And Dolls) happened to be in the audience. 

This feels like the end of a hosepipe ban on happiness

We’re in the realm of gleeful coincidence, after all. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by HG Wells, Half A Sixpence is one of those tales in which a young man trips over a fortune while chasing after a girl. Wells, it turns out, has strong local links – the novel and the show draw on his time as an apprentice draper just down the road in Southsea. This, and the 150th anniversary of his birth, all add to a satisfying feeling of rightness about Rachel Kavanaugh's production. Never mind the massive inherent contradiction: that Half A Sixpence is a very big and very expensive argument for the simple life, an exhaustively lavish celebration of larking about.

Designer Paul Brown’s fantastic set centres on an Edwardian bandstand framed by dunes. The mechanism itself is thrilling to watch, as you glimpse the golden instruments of the orchestra like the inside of a pocket watch. The revolving stage suggests Kipps’ uneasily shifting fortunes and serves a gorgeous kaleidoscope of colour: the rich emerald of the drapers, the warm amber of the Hope And Anchor pub, the waspish lime and black of a bitchy high society soirée.

Projected skies bring an emotional tint to the youthful love story. We first meet Kipps and his childhood sweetheart Ann (Devon-Elise Johnson) playing pirates on a beach backed with Aquafresh blue. It’s like Dickens with Instagram filters. The set is also the perfect playground for Stemp’s boyishly handsome Kipps, who swings from pillars, cartwheels across the bar and strums his famous banjo with teeth flashing and dark curls bouncing. He has easy cockney charm and some kind of internal spring. Even his dropped "h"s have a natural lift.

But Fellowes has reconfigured the musical from a vehicle for one man’s fame into a true ensemble piece. Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe have refreshed David Heneker’s original score and written seven new songs that more than earn their keep, especially as they serve the female characters. The pernickety "Just A Few Little Things" takes just the right amount of sheen off Ann’s posh love rival, Helen (Emma Williams). A bawdy pier-side duet between Ann and another Kipps admirer, in which the young women commiserate with each other about their knickerbocker glories still being intact, appeals to modern audiences while tuning into Wells’ own liberal attitude to sex. 

Another new number, "Pick Out a Simple Tune", now gives "Flash, Bang, Wallop" a run for its money as the show-stopping centrepiece. In a very Julian Fellowes-y scene, the stuffy upper class discovers its rhythm when Kipps plucks his banjo at a musical soirée. By the end of the number, the whole hideous lot of them are pulled inexorably into the dance, bashing the family plate and playing the silver spoons (pictured above). Gerard Carey (who recently played Lord Farquaad in Shrek) brings an extra comic flourish to both numbers, as a sozzled wedding photographer and as Helen’s avaricious brother James, who tries to drown out Kipps’ banjo with quiff-quiveringly malevolent bursts on an organ. 

Half A Sixpence is escapism of the highest order, and the summer audience seemed thirsty for it. It feels like the end of a hosepipe ban on happiness. If you can’t get a ticket you could do worse than join the chorus line for the triumphant finale and buy yourself a banjo (ring dang clatter jang-a). Apparently they’re all the rage in Belgravia.


Fellowes has reconfigured the musical from a vehicle for one man’s fame into a true ensemble piece


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Loved the film when I saw it (twice) as a kid, in the days before Tommy Steele became such a turn-off. Julia Foster was enchanting to me then. I still have the booklet.

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