Flash, Bang, Wallop…three words that encapsulate the Cameron Mackintosh/Chichester Festival Theatre revival/revision of Half A Sixpence. The production is flash (fabulous costumes, choreography and casting (mostly)), the score goes off with a bang (expert playing and singing ensures the augmented score sparkles with effervescence as new and old songs fizz in a seamless musical cocktail) and text revisions ensure the audience gets a collective comic wallop over the head. It might not be subtle or profound but Half A Sixpence is stuff and nonsense of the easily enjoyable kind. What a picture!
It is difficult to think of a recent production of a musical which so squarely raises the question of what modern audiences want and expect from musical theatre than the re-invented Half A Sixpence now playing at the Chichester Festival Theatre. It has no serious message, no moral undertow, no especially bold or confrontational subject matter, no established film/television star in a lead role and no rock or pop sensibility. Its about as far away from Hamilton, Rent or Wicked as one might imagine.
This Half A Sixpence is a good old-fashioned musical, with its roots very firmly in vaudeville and music hall. It’s unpretentious, simple and charming. Great and good tunes, energetic and bouncy choreography, risqué jokes, a soppy love story (several really), silly situations, a risible villain, an eccentric comic figure and trite upper-class/lower-class caricatures: it’s almost a surefire, boiler-plate smilefest. Only the most cynical would not find plenty to enjoy.
Originally written as a star vehicle for the banjo-playing, toe-tapping Tommy Steele, Half A Sixpence was all about Steele. Beverley Cross and David Heneker wrote the original version, loosely based on H.G.Wells’ semi-autobiographical novel, Kipps, which was a big hit for Steele but which has laid silent, like a theatrical corpse, since that first burst of success in the 1960s. The dogged persistence of Cameron Mackintosh, who was certain that life could be restored to the corpse, and the combined surgical (cosmetic and serious) skills of Julian Fellowes (Book), George Stiles, Anthony Drewe (Music and Lyrics) and orchestrator William David Brohn has resulted in a new version of Half A Sixpence which, much like Dr Frankenstein’s monster, can be easily misunderstood.
Mackintosh knows what he likes and expects what he likes to succeed. The reversion of Half A Sixpence shamelessly evokes other successful musicals: My Fair Lady‘s Ascot Scene is reflected in Lady Punnet’s musical evening (as, indeed, is the whole notion of Kipps being gentrified); Kipps actually sings in the rain, handy lamp post nearby, in If The Rain’s Got To Fall; the pub scenes, culminating in Flash, Bang, Wallop, have the boisterous freedom of Oliver‘s Oom Pah Pah; a fiend playing on an organ even momentarily evokes The Phantom Of The Opera. One kept wondering if a barricade would come into play. The plot is obvious, the caricatures, rather than characters, trite and the “upper-class” bashing predictable. The overall effect, then, is slightly formulaic and very pot-pourri.
But…it still works. Extremely well.
Taken as exactly what it sets out to be, crowd pleasing gossamer light entertainment, it is a triumph. If you expect it to offer answers to the mysteries of life or profound insights into anything, you will probably be disappointed. But if all you want is a thoroughly pleasant couple of hours of musical flummery, Half A Sixpence is the ticket you want.
There is no doubt that Fellowes’ revisions to the text allow the show to work more fluidly, but his stock stereotypes and bland dialogue are not responsible for any special pleasure. There is too much black and white in his writing here when the complexity of grey is much more appropriate. Curiously, given his Downton Abbey track record, Fellowes is not very good at suggesting any sympathy for the upper-class characters. At the same time, he does little to imbue the working-class characters with much warmth. Fellowes seems ruthlessly indifferent to all of the characters.
Stiles and Drewe take a very different approach. Their tunes and lyrics seamlessly reflect Heneker’s original songs and each of their original contributions brings understanding, empathy and clarity to characters and situation. Believe In Yourself, Back The Right Horse, Just A Few Little Things, A Little Touch Of Happiness, Pick Out A Simple Tune and In The Middle There’s Me – apart from Flash, Bang, Wallop, If The Rain’s Got To Fall and the title song, these new Stiles and Drewe songs are the ones that you will be humming and remembering after you have left the theatre. Pick Out A Simple Tune is truly fabulous.
Brohn’s orchestrations are vital and alive and Hurman ensures that the 12 piece band provides powerful and glistening support to the singers. The balance is terrific and although the band plays at full belt when necessary, the vocal lines are not drowned out and the voices of the cast sail above the superb orchestral colour brightly and freely. When this band swings, it really swings. The sounds Hurman generates are irresistible.
Designer Paul Brown has provided excellent costumes which root the action firmly in the period before the First World War. The detail and colour in the costumes is sufficient enough reason to see this show. A bandstand, an exact copy of the one on The Leas in Folkestone, is the main set, augmented by a revolve which transforms that space, with the help of Luke Halls’ video projections and Paule Constable’s faultless lighting design, into spaces as variable as the cosy interior of the Hope and Anchor pub, Mr Shalford’s haberdashery shop and the interior of Lady Punnet’s grand home. Rarefied atmosphere, carefree atmosphere, the atmosphere found on the Kent coastline – all are here evoked with ease. Brown’s set looks dull and odd when unlit, when the performance is not in swing, but when it is, Brown’s set (and costumes) dazzle with ingenuity.
Rachel Kavanaugh directs proceedings and she is no stranger to musicals from yesteryear, having presided over revivals of Oklahoma!, The Music Man, The Sound Of Music and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. With her customary attention to detail and generosity of spirit, Kavanaugh ensures Half A Sixpence moves at a cracking pace and that energy levels are consistently high. One doubts that, with Mackintosh as co-creator, Kavanaugh has had a completely free directorial hand here but the sense of happy camaraderie that washes from the stage suggests a directorial vision of warm intensity.
What is most interesting here is how the smaller characters are given life and interest. The focus of the show has shifted from being entirely about putting Tommy Steele into the best possible light to being the story of Arthur Kipps’ unexpected inheritance, the consequential jettison into “upper-crust” life that follows, his Captain von Trapp decision of the heart between the aristocratic Helen and the parlour maid Ann, and the colourful characters he encounters along the way. Kavanaugh ensures there is clarity about the feelings and attitudes of every member of the company.
Sam O’Rourke’s Buggins has few lines, but his love for food and Bethany Huckle’s vibrant Flo is palpable. He makes Buggins a gentle, sweet and delightfully charming character, so that when he finally takes his chance with Flo, your heart misses a beat, hoping it will work out. Alex Hope is marvellous as Sid, the watchful, politically minded brother of Ann, Kipps’ childhood sweetheart (the girl who carries the half sixpence as a reminder of their commitment), and it is clever indeed to play Sid as wholly unconvinced about Kipps’ integrity but desperately wanting him to be everything his sister hopes. Callum Train completes this quartet of Kipps’ friends and his Pierce is lanky and benevolent, a quiet study in ordinary geniality.
Vivien Parry is delightful as the desperate-for-grandeur Mrs Walshingham. She has that sense of ingrained, haughty superiority which makes her character understandable and amusing. Her howls of shame in the second Act are as amusing as her ludicrous plans for Kipps to pay for a huge mansion to be built for her. Jane How is exceptionally good as Lady Punnet, a woman who understands society and believes in everything being in its place. She radiates breeding and style with a soupçon of condescension; her final remark to Kipps is the key to her character and How gives it full value.
Emma Williams is gorgeous as Helen Walshingham, the society woman who upsets Kipps’ world. She does not make the mistake of playing Helen as cold and calculating; her Helen is warm and poised, a symphony of grace. There is a marvellous moment when Helen queries why Kipps is speaking with a parlourmaid (Ann) and Williams delivers the line with a sweeping smile but with resentment and incredulity barely concealed. It is a moment when true blue blood colours almost emerge. Williams’ singing voice is radiant and in full bloom: Believe In Yourself and Just A Few Little Things are vocally magical; and in Pick Out A Simple Tune there is a real infectiousness in her sound, a giddy release of joy.
As Ann, the holder of the half sixpence and Sid’s sister, Devon-Elise Johnson makes a real impression too. She has a marvellous voice, with top notes that could cut glass, and she knows how to use it. Her Ann is acutely ordinary, just as she should be. The new number she shares with Flo, A Little Touch Of Happiness, gives both a chance to bask in the sun and neither misses the opportunity. Reflecting the kinds of double-entendres evident in Flash, Bang, Wallop the lyrics in this duet are jauntily saucy. Johnson exacts real pleasure from them, and her voice seems to blush. She convinces both as Sid’s sister and Kipps’ girl, and also as a dutiful parlourmaid.
Both Johnson and Williams work well with Charlie Stemp’s Kipps. The relationship between Johnson’s Ann and Kipps is the most complex, and covers the most ground, and Johnson ensures that Ann’s cheery disposition is equal to the long haul. Williams has the easier path, as her character represents escape, a new horizon for Kipps, and so he embraces the possibility of her lustre more wholeheartedly. The real trick is that neither actor seeks to foul the other’s performance; neither plays for sympathy and both present a real possibility for Kipps’ future. Right up to the moment when Kipps finally decides, you can see how either woman could be right for him – and that is a testament to both Johnson and Williams.
Ian Bartholomew has a terrific time in both of his roles. His overly-fanged vicar, Spratlingdown, is a comic gem. But his main part, Chitterlow, the affable blagger actor/writer, is even more sparkling a comic creation. Like a combination of one of the managers from The Phantom Of The Opera and Grandpa Potts from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Chitterlow is a cipher for chancers, a kind of musical theatre Alfie Moon. Bartholomew finds exactly the right energy to fuel Chitterlow’s patter and brings a real music hall essence to his scenes. He sings up a storm too, in a vocal style that really suits the music and the production. Back The Right Horse is the highlight of Act One and when Chitterlow leads the final verse of Flash, Bang, Wallop the audience sees the true exuberance of that number.
In this respect, Bartholomew’s work stands in stark contrast with Gerard Carey’s contribution. Carey plays Helen’s brother James as a completely vile blackguard. It’s an odd choice, to say the least, because James’ place in the narrative should come as something of a surprise. Foreshadowing the horror simply neutralises the point of the character. If James was played as more charming and lovely than Helen, as a real – not a faux – friend to Kipps, what happens would be truly effective. Instead, Carey’s in-your-face arch and ruthless shady dandy approach ensures that James is loathsomely (and tiresomely) one dimensional.
Carey has another role, the photographer in Flash, Bang, Wallop. It is unfathomable that Mackintosh and Kavanaugh really think that a ghastly, offensive, sleazy and lazy caricature of a gay lush is what that song needed. The combined artistry of Andrew Wright’s high octane dance routine and the company’s splendid singing and full powered enthusiasm could not overcome the shadow cast over Flash Bang Wallop‘s first three verses by Carey’s tasteless puff of homophobia. It is only when Carey’s photographer is gone, and Chitterlow takes the lead in the number, that it comes truly into its own as a thunderous and perfect combination of character, movement, lyrics and music.
It takes some guts to step into Tommy Steele’s shoes in Half A Sixpence, but Charlie Stemp has guts in spades, not to mention endurance, commitment and abundant charm. Ten minutes after he starts in the role, Stemp has made it his own and pushed aside latent memories of Steele. Opting to play Kipps as the love child of Michael Crawford (as Frank Spencer) and Rylan Clarke-Neal, Stemp brings his boyish charm to the boil. His Kipps is broad, toothy, open, giddy, fearless and goofy – and makes complete sense.
Stemp sings very well and gives full value to the lyrics. There is a wistfulness to his performance which is beautifully endearing and his comic timing is excellent. He is at his very best in his duets – with Ann, Helen or Chittering – and his quartet with Buggins, Sid and Pierce, In The Middle There’s Me, is a triumph of affable, youthful compansionship. Happily, Stemp excels at the introspective, quieter moments as well as the bravura big set pieces.
Andrew Wright’s takes full advantage of Stemp’s height and long legs and the spirited choreography reflects Stemp’s considerable dance skills. There is a lot of comedy moulded into the dance moves and Stemp takes full advantage of that. Banjos were a trademark for Steele, but, equally, Wells’ novel specified an affinity between Kipps and banjos; Stemp handles the instrument well and to great advantage, especially in Pick Out A Simple Tune and the glorious moment when the entire cast, led by Stemp, appears strumming banjos.
The dancing throughout the production is slick, fiendishly angular and tricky – every number has its own beat, its own physical demands. The company always rises to the occasion and gives Wright’s inventiveness due polish and spirited commitment. It’s a terrific and gifted ensemble; multiple roles are managed easily and every single person works hard to let the show resonate as best it can.
In simple terms, this revision of Half A Sixpence is better than Bend It Like Beckham or Made In Dagenham, infinitely superior to Love Never Dies, Stephen Ward or From Here to Eternity and just as good as Travels With My Aunt and Betty Blue Eyes. Stemp is remarkable, Williams is superb, Johnson and Parry shine and Bartholomew, How, Hope, Train, O’Rourke and Huckle bring pure delight. Hurman’s control of the music ensures the pulse of pleasure never flags and the final verse of Flash, Bang, Wallop is the kind of ecstasy that musical theatre, and only musical theatre, can create.
Half A Sixpence should transfer to the West End and play and play. It doesn’t need a star to headline it. This production has created one. Charlie Stemp.