Half A Sixpence
Book by Julian Fellowes
New music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Original songs by David Heneker
Co-Creator Cameron Mackintosh
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh
Designer Paul Brown
Choreographer Andrew Wright
Orchestrator William David Brohn
Musical Supervisor & conductor Graham Hurman
Dance and vocal arrangements George Stiles
Based on Kipps: The story of A Simple Soul by H.G. Wells and the original musical by Beverley Cross & David Heneker
Chichester Festival Theatre,
Saturday 23rd July 2016, 14.30
Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps
Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann Pornick, childhood sweetheart
Ian Bartholomew as Harry Chitterlow, actor and playwright
Emma Williams as Helen Walsingham
Vivian Parry as Mrs Walsingham
Gerard Carey – James Walsingham / Photographer
James Paterson – Uncle Bert
Annie Wesack- Aunt Susan
John Conroy – Mr Shalford, owner of Drapery store, Butler
Sam O’Rourke – Buggins
Bethany Huckle – Flo
Callum Tain – Pierce
Alex Hope – Sidney
Jane How- Lady Punnet
Kimberley Blake – ensemble, Mrs Bindo-Botting
Nick Butcher – ensemble, head waiter
Matthew Dale – ensemble, Hayes – a student
Jaye Juliette Elster- ensemble, Mrs Wace
Tim Hodges – ensemble, Mr Wace
Rebecca Jayne-Davies – ensemble, Mary (Sid’s fiancé)
Jennifer Louise Jones – ensemble, Miss Ross, a student
Philip Marriot- ensemble, policeman
Harry Morrison -ensemble, Carshott, Maxwell – an architect
Lauren Varnham – ensemble, Mildred (a maid)
A Star is Indeed Born: Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps
We’re seeing this very soon after Mary Poppins by the same team … created by Cameron Mackintosh, with book by Julian “Downton” Fellowes and new music, added to well known originals, by Stiles and Drewe. The 1963 original was written as a vehicle for cheerful lovable cockney Tommy Steele (“Britain’s first homegrown rock star”), with a young Marti Webb as Ann. That went to Broadway, and John Cleese played James Walsingham.
We saw Tommy Steele in the late 1970s or early 1980s at Bournemouth Pavilion. I had thought it was a touring Half A Sixpence but in retrospect I think it was just a Tommy Steele show, but he certainly did Flash Bang Wallop and Half A Sixpence. I’m not sure now why we went to see Tommy Steele, but as a child Little White Bull was a favourite, and Tommy The Toreador was an early film I went to see with friends rather than parents, along with The Duke Wore Jeans. I do remember finding that live Tommy Steele show excruciating with Flash Bang Wallop adjacent to a cockney medley of some kind. I think years of doing lights on summer variety shows made me groan at any knees-upping thumbs-in-braces Cockney capering. I saw far too much of it. I’d been hoping for more like Singing The Blues, I guess.
However, years later my older grandson loved Little White Bull and Flash, Bang Wallop on the in car kids playlist and had both repeated many times on the school run. The other favourites were all by Rolf Harris, who unfortunately had to be deleted from that kids’ playlist with extreme prejudice. Maximilian Mouse was something of A Little White Bull remake anyway.
The reason we booked Half A Sixpence was Chichester’s recent run of musicals, with Gypsy, A Damsel in Distress and Mack and Mabel. It was “if it’s Chichester it has to be good.’ Rachel Kavanaugh is a notable director. We booked Travels With My Aunt earlier this season for the same reason (and because that was directed by Christopher Luscombe … we follow directors). That had music by Stiles and Drewe too – which I thought was “too many eggs in one musical basket” for Chichester this year. I was unimpressed by the music in that, and in Mary Poppins, the annoyingly catchy original Sherman brothers songs stood out above the additions. Not here though …
The set up is similar to Mary Poppins Take a popular musical based on a story, cherry-pick the best and much loved songs from the original, but rewrite both story and dialogue, using Julian Fellowes. Add new songs. This involves complex rights issues, which Cameron Mackintosh has the expertise to deal with. Tellingly, he says in the programme that they had the idea in 2008, but Julian Fellowes was too heavily involved with Downton Abbey. He says Unfortunately we then found out the rights weren’t available so had to wait until the summer of 2015 to start writing the show. As I write and edit simplified versions of classic stories, let me explain that sentence. H.G. Wells died in 1946. That means copyright on his novels expires after 70 years, i.e. in 2016. They would no longer need permission, and if this goes on for years … which it certainly will (a pointer to my rating at the end) … I assume they will not have to pay royalty to the H.G. Wells Estate. If they had done a version of Kipps in 2014, they might have reset the clock on the title. So this is first performed in 2016.
The other background question is why Chichester? Cameron Mackintosh theatres are all over the West End. Chichester has a great reputation for originating productions of musicals. It’s very large, full in the summer, and above all it has the semi-circular stage, so the audience cover more than 180 degrees surrounding the action. It has been utilised to good effect. The central bandstand is also a screen and a surface for projection. It opens to reveal an inner revolving stage which has richly detailed sets for the draper’s shop, and for the Hope and Anchor Pub as well as the grand house of Lady Punnet. The projections echo the park in Mary Poppins as they are like impressionist paintings … seascapes, skies, streets, the planned grand house Mrs Walsingham wants Kipps to build. They’re a beautiful piece of set design.
As well as the inner revolve, there are two narrower outer revolving circles (which can do both directions). So for example, they can have seven or eight pairs of ensemble, sitting at pub tables, doing things, and instead of focussing on the pairs near you, all the pairs are seen as the revolve slowly moves round during the scene. People can walk against the moving stage, so stay in position while apparently moving.
In other words, Chichester is the perfect stage. When this production moves, as it surely must to reappear in the West End and Broadway, it will be a shame if it’s all squeezed back on a proscenium stage. They may have plans.
H.G. Wells novel was semi-sutobiographical. I must have seen the ancient TV series of Kipps and the H.G. Wells book was a favourite of my mother. She loved it … she left Wales in the depression aged 15 to work as a chambermaid (Ann), worked hard to become a 1930s shop assistant in a snobby shop (Kipps), enthusiastically voted Labour all her life (Sid, H.G. Wells), felt uncomfortable in expensive restaurants or hotels (Kipps).
Kipps takes place on the coast of Kent and East Sussex, not within the sound of Bow Bells, so the stage cockney was introduced into the 1963 musical to fit Tommy Steele. As the programme tells us, this starts in New Romney in 1904 (a five minute pre-story) then in 1911 in Folkestone. They proudly announce that the bandstand set motif is a replica of the Folkestone bandstand. This means no stage cockney! Relief! Arthur Kipps has a general South-East accent.
New Romney 1904: Anne (Devon-Elise Johnson) is 13. Exchanging half a sixpence
The story. Arthur Kipps lives with his aunt and uncle in New Romney. He is off to start work at a draper’s shop in Folkestone. He gives Ann, his childhood sweetheart, half a sixpence as a token of his love. He keeps the other half. We jump seven years to the morning line-up in Shalford’s draper’s store. Shalford says that Kipps has been there seven years. (A minor quibble: if you hadn’t read the programme this was a bit blink … or rather elderly coughing fit behind you … and you miss it). The assistants, Pierce, Sidney, Flo and the unfortunate Buggins are Kipps’ posse. Enter the wealthy, snotty Mrs Walsingham (Vivian Parry) with her lovely daughter Helen (Emma Williams). Kipps fancies Helen, and she invites him to the wood carving class she teaches. That’s H.G. Wells … this was written in the era of the arts and craft movement and workers’ education, so not as odd as it may seem. Anyway they admire each other from afar.
On the way home, Kipps is run over by a cycling actor, Harry Chipperlow. They go off to the pub together, get drunk, and Kipps gets the sack the next day. But Chipperlow has seen a newspaper advert seeking Arthur Kipps. His grandfather has died and left him a rich man … Kipps was illegimate, and his dad died. He never knew his grandfather.
Lady Putten (Jane How) and Mrs Walsingham (Vivian Parry)
The vultures assemble. Harry gets him to invest in the play he’s writing, The Right Horse. (Our other minor quibble- the plot point could be clearer here. Kipps signs a “contract” but money isn’t specific). Mrs Walsingham now approves of a match with her daughter, and her creepy son, James, is a financial advisor. James will look after Kipps’ money. Mrs Walsingham introduces him to her friend, Lady Putten (Jane How). But the lowly housemaid at Lady Putten’s house turns out to be Anne (Devon-Elise Johnson), his childhood sweetheart. The first half ends with the delivery of a tiny package to Kipps, and a burst of rain. They have a good rain machine at Chichester and they like to use it.
The marriage to Helen is set up, the Walsinghams plan a huge new house for the happy couple. But Kipps feels out of place in the upper middle class world. He is forced to go to a musical evening at Lady Putten’s. This results in one of the highlights of the play. See below.
James Walsingham (Gerard Carey) and Arthur Kipps at dinner
James Walsingham lived in a world where investment bankers, sorry financial advisors, actually went to prison when they were caught defrauding people of millions. Yes, that’s what used to happen in the old days. Incredible, isn’t it? James has had all Kipps’ money and is in jail. Kipps is relieved … he can leave this snotty lot behind and marry Anne instead. It’s a tad sad actually, as the Walsingham’s are on their uppers, and their furniture is being repossessed. Kipps dumps Helen … she could become a teacher, he suggests. Helen’s (Emma Williams) reactive expressions in this are a delight. Finale – the wedding. Chipperlow arrives late (no plot spoilers) with surprising news about his play. Flash, Bang Wallop!
Charlie Stemp as Kipps
Casting is superb. They eschewed the obvious major star vehicle, and cast a 22-year old unknown, Charlie Stemp, as Kipps. Good decision – if they’re going to tour for years, they can’t rely on a single star name. More, his talent, looks and his youth are major pluses. His biodata in the programme is brief. Eddie in the international tour of Mamma Mia. Ensemble in Wicked. Period. It’s apparent that his wide toothy smile helped … it undoubtedly reminds you of Tommy Steele. My companion (who studied dance) assures me that Charlie Kemp is a much better dancer. She said you can see Tommy Steele had natural talent and movement, but he came to dancing later and had not had the rigorous and lengthy training that produces a dancer of Charlie Kemps’ ability. Charlie Kemp also a superb lead singer, and while keeping an “off” Estuary accent, avoids the extremities of Tommy Steele’s trademark gor luv a duck, guvnor, I ‘ad to climb the apples and pears to answer the dog ‘n’ bone. It was me trouble n’ strife, ain’t that the truth accent.
Devon-Elise Johnson plays Anne. We hadn’t realized until we watched the YouTube footage of the 1967 film that as a couple, with his smile and her face, they definitely channel the film versions, without being lookalikes.
L to R: Flo (Bethany Huckle), Buggins (Sam O’Rourke), Harry Chitterlow (Ian Bartholomew)
Ian Bartholomew plays Harry Chitterlow, the eccentric thespian. The applause as he took his bows recognized what a great comic turn … and singing … he gave us. With his red hair, loud jacket, yellow waistcoat and knickerbockers, he reminded me of an ex-impresario we worked with in the 1970s to a remarkable degree.
Gerard Carey was the crooked James Walsingham, and also a delightfully precious and camp photographer in Flash Bag Wallop. Both notable comic roles.
The drapers’ assistants were a good team. Buggins (Sam O’Rourke) is the comic loser, and Flo as the only girl (with a mild crush on Kipps) – Bethany Huckle made her particularly perky and engaging.
From the publicity flier
Flash Bang Wallop: The wedding photo
Flash Bang Wallop is the major issue. It was always the key song. When they were making the 1967 film, the producers deemed it should be cut ‘as American audiences won’t understand it.’ This inane comment ignored its then recent long successful stage run on Broadway. Tommy Steele said it was a deal breaker. No song, no him. He won. The producers in 2016 say it appeared too early in the original stage version, and that anything after the song’s impact was a downward move, so they sensibly shifted it to the end. They based their version musically on the 1967 film (which is on YouTube) with a long and hectic dancing lead out … it runs to 7 minutes on film, compared to 3 m 46s on the original musical soundtrack. I don’t know if it was longer on stage, as I never saw it. I’ve watched the YouTube film version a few times. The new stage version improves it. The choreography is far better, the 13 piece band really rocks out at the end and as throughout, the stage costumes are excellent. They add a lot of comedy (especially from the photographer). If you’re interested, Tommy Steele performing it on the 1963 Royal Variety Performance is also on YouTube.
Pick Out A Simple Tune” Kipps on banjo
The major new song designed to take its place early in the second half is Pick Out A Simple Tune. And yes, Stiles and Drewe have written a song strong enough to be an earworm, and carry a major scene and compete with Flash Bang Wallop. It’s the musical evening at Lady Punnet’s house. Kipps turns up with his banjo- a running theme. We hear a bassoon recital by a lady, then James Walshingham does a horror film finale virtuoso piece on organ. Kipps starts his easy little banjo piece and it builds and builds until the whole cast are kicking up their heels, flourishing skirts, swinging from chandeliers, jumping on tables. It’s brilliant musical theatre, enlivened by James’ jealous attempts to bring that organ recital back in.
The encores are multi-layered … first a reprise of Flash, Bang Wallop, then the entire cast appear with banjos and pick out a tune together … and yes, everybody is really playing. Finally we have Kipps and Ann with a final kiss. Cue massive applause.
I am guessing by those involved that this Chichester run is supposed to be the prelude to long tours. It’s an easy bet for massive success. And in Charlie Stemp they have created a new star rather than relied on an old one. I did wonder about the lights … we were in Row B, and he has a lot of very vigorous work but we could see he was sweating profusely. The blue lights on the bandstand looked like cold LED lights, but I wondered if the whites were old fashioned spots … which generate a great amount of heat. I’ve heard rock singers say that cold LED lights mean they can now sing for two hours rather than the 90 minutes which exhausted them under old hot spots. Mind you, Kipps is on stage most of the time, and it’s just over two and a half hours. Without a single dull moment. We thought it even better than Chichester’s recent major musicals.
RATING: * * * * *
The range is wide. The anti-brigade dislike Fellowes’ script and complain that the characters (especially the women) are sketchy, not developed. It’s a musical. I don’t regard it in the same way as Chekhov. I never expected well-rounded characters. Though the musical style is contrary to my taste, he vigour and quality of dancing and singing make it highly enjoyable.
Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph: * * * * *
Fiona Mountfield, Evening Standard, * * * * *
Quentin Letts, Daily Mail * * * *
Sam Marlowe, The Times * * * *
Clare Brennan, The Observer * * *
Michael Arditti, Daily Express * * *
Mark Shenton, The Stage * * *
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times, * * *
Lyn Gardner, Guardian * *
Christopher Hart, Sunday Times, * * (following directly from his 2 star review of Fracked! so one suspects he doesn’t like Chichester.)
OTHER LINKS ON THIS BLOG:
Shakespeare in Love by Lee Hall, after Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard, West End (Lord Chamberlain)
The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar, 1706, Sailsbury Playhouse
Separate Tables by Terence Rattigan, Salisbury Playhouse
A Damsel in Distress, Jeremy Sams & Robert Hudson, after P.G. Wodehouse / The Gershwins, Chichester 2015