Half a century ago, good British musicals were rarer than unicorns. Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend hit the elusive jackpot. So did Lionel Bart’s Oliver. Then in 1963, along came Half a Sixpence, which ran for more than 600 performances in the West End, transferred to Broadway for a further 500 performances and made an international star of Tommy Steele, for whom it was written. Steele then starred in the enjoyable 1967 film version.
Though falling some considerable distance from utter perfection, the show, based on H.G. Wells’ 1905 novel "Kipps," had a cartload of charm and a score by the late David Heneker that was full of good things. Its book by Beverley Cross was never its strongest asset, but the simple story of Arthur Kipps – a working-class draper’s assistant whose lonely existence in New Romney changes dramatically when he is bequeathed a fortune by a grandfather he has never met – proved to be a crowd-pleaser.
Romantic interest was supplied by two young women – Arthur’s childhood sweetheart Ann and a society beauty called Helen Walsingham, whose snooty, pretentious mother, fallen on hard-times, encourages her daughter to marry Arthur in order to ensnare his newfound fortune.
Abandoning Ann for Helen, Arthur soon discovers that money is no substitute for happiness and that he is uncomfortable among the toffs of Folkestone, where the Walsinghams live. When Helen’s worthless brother embezzles all of Arthur’s money, Arthur, with Helen’s blessing, returns to Ann and his working-class roots.
The upstairs-downstairs world of the have and have-nots is the perfect subject for Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, who, in producer Cameron Mackintosh’s exuberant revival, has reshaped Beverly Cross’ original book by heavily focusing on the class-driven aspects of Wells’ novel. Apart from the maxim that money is no substitute for happiness, the message – almost to the point of political incorrectness today – is that one must know one’s place, and that it is wrong to aspire to be something or someone you’re not. An old-fashioned notion to be sure, and in this particular day and age when musicals like Wicked, The Lion King, The Book of Mormon and Hamilton are all the rage, hardly state-of-the-art.
Heneker’s catchy score has lost some of its original numbers and, courtesy of George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drewe (lyrics) gained seven new ones – none possessing the durablity of the show’s title number "She’s Too Far Above Me," "If the Rain’s Got to Fall," and most memorable of all, "Flash, Bang, Wallop," which has wisely been moved to the end of the show. That song's energetic choreography (by Andrew Wright, one of Britain’s best choreographers) is somewhat upstaged by having the actor playing the photographer camping outrageously for a couple of cheap laughs.
In general, though, the cast, assembled by the show’s excellent director Rachel Kavanaugh, does a terrific job, with standout work from Ian Bartholomew as actor/playwright Chitterlow, Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann and Vivien Parry as the snooty Mrs. Walsingham.
But no production of Half a Sixpence can succeed without a star turn in the leading role. It’s a bit too soon to tell whether newcomer Charlie Stemp –who plays Arthur Kipps as a cross between Tommy Steele and Michael Crawford –will, in the career that undoubtedly lies ahead of him, have the stellar magnitude of either of those legends. Suffice to say on the evidence of his opening night performance, the potential is there. He sings well, he’s nifty on his feet, looks good and has oodles of charm. Whether he will develop that uniqueness of personality that defines star quality remains to be seen. Right now, though, he’s delivering one of the most engaging performances from a newcomer I’ve seen in years, fully deserving the standing ovation he received. Watch this space.
There is no question that Chichester has another huge hit on its hands. It will be interesting to see whether, away from the provinces, it will fare as well in the uncompromising glare of the West End.