Half A Sixpence isn’t much in new money but it’s a fortune to Cameron Mackintosh who has bet his bottom dollar on a hit with Chichester Festival Theatre’s big summer musical.
It’s going to the West End – of course it is. Half A Sixpence, co-produced by Chichester and Macintosh is no small change in anyone’s money. Besides which, it is absolutely glorious. A wonderful cornucopia of magnificence, as Arthur Kipps might say.
It will make a star of its leading man, the irrepressible Charlie Stemp; Julian Fellowes can pat himself on the back for coming up with a cracking adaptation of the original HG Wells’ book; Paul Brown deserves an Olivier for his spectacular and inventive sets and magnificent costumes, and choreographer Andrew Wright should be congratulated for big production numbers full of energy.
And then there is the talent behind the new music and lyrics, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. This is no thrupenny song and dance show. It’s minted through and through.
I’m old enough to remember the original Half A Sixpence with Tommy Steele, in the 1960s, and, astonishingly Stemp, who no-one will have heard of, is bang on the money.
There are glimpses of Steele in Stemp’s toothy smile and suggestions of a young Michael Ball (which is probably disconcerting to the real Michael Ball who was in the audience).
He gives a performance brimming with brio and charm, and captures everyone’s hearts. This lad deserves to be a big star.
Stemp plays draper’s assistant Arthur Kipps who inherits a fortune, way back in 1911, and discovers, to his cost, the corrupting influence of money.
The story comes from HG Wells’ book Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul and it touches on social inequality and injustice, the class system, and the plight of the downtrodden poor.
Arthur Kipps is a simple man who loves his childhood sweetheart, Ann, enjoys playing the banjo, and works like a dog – for a pittance and way below the minimum wage – selling gaudy curtain material to the idle rich.
Suddenly remembered in his grandfather’s will he becomes rich and the world is a different place, filled with schemers determined to part the impressionable youth from his fortune.
This is a feelgood musical that will have you tapping your feet to its big set pieces and basking in the glow of its undisputed warmth. Half A Sixpence is pure, unashamed, entertainment and, coming in at nearly three hours (including interval) it’s spectacular value for money.
Stemp is barely off stage. He lights up the theatre with a megawatt smile and an exuberant performance, cartwheeling, somersaulting and leaping off the set, singing, tap dancing, playing the banjo and enchanting both of the women in his life and theatre-goers.
The problem he has with social mobility is that he has his head turned, thinking he loves a well-to-do young lady called Helen Walsingham when his childhood sweetheart, Ann Pornick, now a chambermaid, is shunned by his snooty new-found friends as she is a parlourmaid.
With Julian Fellowes, and the terrifying dowager Lady Grantham, Dame Maggie Smith, in the first night audience, we know that this storyline has an impeccable provenance.
Fellowes is no stranger to the upstairs, downstairs world of English society and it’s clear poor Arthur could do with advice. He’s a fish out of water, floundering in the rich waters of the upper classes when he ought to be swimming with the shoals of the working class masses.
He baulks at eating snails and moules marinière, and turns his nose up at a sweet sherry. He can’t wait to get back down the local with “his own sort” and have a pint with mates.
“My life’s a bit complicated at the moment,” he glumly admits.
Ann (Devon-Elise Johnson) and Emma Williams’ Helen aren’t actually so far apart (and both play their parts to perfection). It’s the family that bear scrutiny.
Helen’s social climbing mother (the splendid Vivien Parry) and her thieving son, James (Gerard Carey) are appalling snobs, out to fleece the naive and innocent Arthur of his every last penny.
Their society friends aren’t much better and show that for all their class they’re not very classy at all.
Surprisingly one of Arthur’s truest friends is the flamboyant theatre impresario Chitterlow (Ian Bartholomew, outstanding, despite being depicted as a caricature theatrical in eccentric garb and awful red wig).
He persuades the newly rich Arthur to back The Right Horse, a show he’s written. You fear the worse.
The musical numbers are all wonderfully presented. Pick Out A Simple Tune in the second act stops the show with the audience almost demanding an encore, while the big finale, Flash Bang Wallop, has a similar effect.
The entire ensemble is sensational and Half A Sixpence proves to be a showcase for a colossal emerging talent. I’d like to bet my last tanner that Charlie Stemp has earned himself top billing in musical theatre.
Half A Sixpence runs at the Chichester Festival Theatre until September 3.
Half A Sixpence
Half A Sixpence is bang on the money, making a star of its lead, Charlie Stemp, and offering a cornucopia of magnificent entertainment. Feelgood and full of charm.