I like to think that I have a fairly highly calibrated monitor for detecting sexism and class snobbery in the theatre. But when esteemed colleagues started deriding this reboot of the 1963 Tommy Steele star-vehicle musical as "patronising piffle," I was taken aback. Had they never seen Pygmalion? What I'd witnessed at Chichester Festival Theatre – the country's premium purveyor of quality musicals bound for a West End transfer – was a tale of social mobility and find-your-own happiness, wrapped up in some of the most delightful musical numbers to have graced our stages, and ears, for a long time.
The mastermind behind this reworking of Beverley Cross and David Heneker's original, based on the H.G Wells novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, is Cameron Mackintosh, a man who knows musical hit potential when he sees it. He reunites the crack team that he had working for him on the fine stage version of Mary Poppins, and what a triumphant combination they prove. There's Julian Fellowes, most recently of Downton Abbey fame, on the book and George Stiles and Anthony Drewe on music and lyrics. As the disastrous musical version of Travels with My Aunt at Chichester earlier this season proved, Stiles and Drewe can come unstuck when left to their own devices, but give them a piece to re-shape and re-graft and they're unsurpassed. Even so, Heneker still wins top prize for the infectiously hummable hymn to photography "Flash, Bang, Wallop," with its wonderful catchphrase, "Stick it in your family album."
From the very beginning, Rachel Kavanaugh's confident production emits a joyous sense that everything is going to go very right, and mercifully it never wavers from this. Arthur Kipps (Charlie Stemp) is a put-upon but cheerful apprentice in a draper's shop who suddenly inherits a large fortune through his grandfather's will. (The script doesn't dwell overlong on some of the finer plot points. There's also a highly improbable woodworking class run by a fine young lady to get to grips with). He's going to buy himself a banjo – ring-a-ding-a-ring-a-linger – for sure, but what else? Should he swoop up childhood sweetheart Ann (nicely fierce Devon-Elise Johnson), to whom he long ago gave the eponymous love token, or take up with upper-middle-class woodworker (ahem) Helen (Emma Williams, doing her best with a pretty thankless role) and her snobby, money-grubbing family? Common sense, or the oppressive nature of the British class system – take your pick – slowly sets to work.
Stemp has cheeky-chappy charm to burn in the central role, and there's irrepressibly energetic ensemble singing and dancing, most notably in Stiles and Drewe's fine new number "Pick Out a Simple Tune." Andrew Wright, who worked on those other recent Chichester hit musicals Guys and Dolls and Singin' in the Rain, provides top-notch choreography that is a constant delight, as the cast weaves around the attractive metalwork bandstand frame that dominates the stage. I've seen ample patronising piffle in my time – but none of it here.