Review: Half A Sixpence, Chichester Festival Theatre

“Don’t forget your banjo”

Take a deep breath… the 1963 musical Half A Sixpence by Beverley Cross and David Heneker, based on the HG Wells novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, has been adapted anew for Chichester audiences with Julian Fellowes writing a fresh book and George Stiles and Anthony Drewe adding new music and lyrics to Heneker’s original songs. And because Cameron Mackintosh is Cameron Mackintosh, he gets a co-creator credit.

Originally written as a star vehicle for Tommy Steele, Half A Sixpence is the story of Arthur Kipps, an orphan who dreams of a better life whilst earning a pittance as a draper’s assistant in Shalford’s Bazaar, Folkestone. An unexpected bequest thrusts a fortune into his hands but his meteoric rise in society leaves him conflicted about his place in life as his heart is pulled between two very different young women (and a banjo).

Rachel Kavanaugh’s production in all its old-fashioned charm is perfectly pitched for the Chichester audience (who to a person probably know who Tommy Steele was – I had to look him up!) and the Edwardian bandstand of Paul Brown’s revolving set design nods to this. And fans of Downton Abbey won’t mind Baron Fellowes of West Stafford once again giving us his inimitable if oft-repeated take on the British class system.

For Half A Sixpence has much going for it, not least in some astute casting from Trevor Jackson and Paul Wooller in finding relative newcomers Devon-Elise Johnson and Charlie Stemp to lead the cast. Johnson is highly appealing as Ann, Kipps’ childhood sweetheart, and Stemp is sure to be launched into the stratosphere as Kipps himself – an extraordinary dancer, an effortlessly strong singer, and endlessly endearing as he stumbles through the vagaries of high society, we’ll be talking about him in years to come, mark my words.

Add in vibrant supporting performances from the equally vivacious Emma Williams and Ian Bartholomew as Kipps’ other love interest and strange benefactor respectively, and typically stage-filling choreography from Andrew Wright and it is hard to resist the show. It felt a little sluggish to start with for me, packing the two stand-out showstopper numbers into the second half leaves it feeling a tad unbalanced but the joys of ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’ and ‘Flash Bang Wallop’ are the stuff of musical theatre heaven.

Stiles and Drewe have added 7 new songs to the score, partly in an attempt make the show more of an ensemble piece than a straight-up star vehicle (15 of the original 17 numbers were sung by Steele) and they mesh very well together, the composing duo always at home in this more retro atmosphere. And the company thrive under Kavanaugh’s increasingly enthusiastic direction and the bright sound of the band under conductor Graham Hurman – the smiles on their faces (particularly Rebecca Jayne-Davies and Bethany Huckle, whose dancing stood out for me too) really convince you they’re having the time of their life on the stage. 

Though Half A Sixpence is undoubtedly a success, it has to rank as something of a qualified one for me though. Employing a company of 24 without any ethnic diversity has got to become a relic of the past, it’s just not good enough and even if the show is set at the turn of the last century, something still rankles about the height of the sole female apprentice’s ambitions being to become a wife and mother – with this many levels of interventions of new books and new songs, to just leave this as is feels like a missed opportunity to change the larger narrative for the better.

Make no mistake, there is still lots to enjoy here, not least some live bassoon playing, 24 banjos, a vividly effective yellow and black costume theme, Emma Williams’ sad-face, Stemp’s impending stardom and a cuddly toy. I’m willing to bet more than half a sixpence that we’ll be seeing this show in the West End before too long but there’s something about the openness of the stage at the main house at Chichester Festival Theatre that is just infinitely more appealing.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 3rd September

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