Half a Sixpence continues at Chichester Festival Theatre until 3 September.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The revival of this 1960s hit musical has not just been given a facelift, but major surgery. Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes has gone back to HG Wells’ original novel and radically reconstructed the show’s book, while George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have written some excellent new songs, as well as adapting the original ones. The new show also has input from Cameron Mackintosh as producer and co-creator.
The show deals with class distinction and the seductive power that newly acquired money has on its hero, Arthur Kipps, a drapery assistant. It gains him entry into a new social world that he is ill at ease with. It causes him to abandon his childhood sweetheart, Ann, through his infatuation with socialite, Helen Walsingham. After agonising over his love for two women (beautifully expressed in ‘In The Middle There is Me’ ), he realises he has no place in the snobbish world that money has taken him into and returns to Ann.
The musical takes a little while to establish itself, but when it does the show becomes a real scorcher, earning repeated standing ovations at the finale.
With a wide toothy grin, newcomer Charlie Stemp steps into the shoes of Tommy Steele, the original Kipps, and endears himself to his audience with a performance that exudes cheeky charm. To his sense of comedy he brings his talents as a singer and exuberant dancer, leaving the audience breathless from just watching.
As the down to earth Ann, Devon-Elise Johnson gives a performance of earnest honesty and sense of place. Her number ‘Long Ago’ is full of wistfulness. This is in stark contrast to her duet with Bethany Huckle, ‘ A Little Touch of Happiness, one of the new songs that turns out to be a trifle risqué with its subtle double entendres.
Helen, the other woman in Arthur’s life, receives sensitive handling from Emma Williams. There is no doubt that this socialite with a social conscience who encourages him to stretch and improve himself – ‘Believe In Yourself’ – is very much in love with Kipps, but her background cannot stop her from trying to change him (‘Just a Few Little Things). These two are good examples of the show’s new numbers.
The entire cast works hard with notable performances coming from Vivien Parry as Helen’s snobbish, ambitious and overbearing mother and Jane How’s Lady Punnet, a true aristocrat with a sense of fun.
Ian Bartholomew follows colleague Emma Williams to Chichester direct from the West End where they both had success with Mrs Henderson Presents. He steals the scenes he appears in as Chitterlow, the larger-than-life actor, playwright and friend to Kipps. He has great fun with ‘Back the Right Horse’ and the reprise of ‘Flash Bang Wallop’.
Of course it is ‘Flash Bang Wallop’ that the audience has been waiting for and its wait is even longer as the number has been moved to serve as the show’s finale. It’s a true showstopper, complete with camp photographer.
Director Rachel Kavanaugh is well served by her creative team. Paul Brown has managed to design a huge ornate bandstand that, thanks to revolves, encompasses the various locations swiftly.
Choreographer Andrew Wright has put together routines that draw on end of pier shows and the music hall. Athletic soft shoe shuffles merge with pub knees-ups. A particular highlight is ‘Pick Out a Simple Tune”, a banjo-led number from Kipps at Lady Punnet’s musical evening. Like ‘The Lambeth Walk’ in Me and My Girl, the upper-classes let their hair down, dance wildly and join in, even beating silver trays and playing the spoons to the music.
Surely another West End transfer beckons.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – George Stiles and Anthony Drewe on a Chichester double and nurturing new writers