Julian Fellowes’ second offering in Theatreland in as many weeks is very different to his first. Having said that, both Half a Sixpence and School of Rock deal with outsiders trying to get on with the establishment, whether their elevated position is chosen or forced upon them. They are also both shows that have been made famous by films with big named stars (Tommy Steele in Half A Sixpence and Jack Black in School of Rock) and, as a consequence, rely heavily on the performances of the actors taking on the roles.
But Half a Sixpence comes from an altogether more genteel time, where children are rarely seen and never heard and certainly don’t rush about yelling Stick it To The Man! This is Julian Fellowes in his Downton Abbey comfy chair, creating jolly fine entertainment, to satisfy the theatre-going middle classes, who already know that the working classes should stick with their own, no matter how rich they get and that, however attractive their lives may seem to be, the upper class are not to be trusted.
Charlie Kemp – A star is born
Just as the original was made as a vehicle for the young Tommy Steele, this production has its own singing and dancing star at the helm. The brilliant Charlie Stemp – even his name bears comparison – plays Arthur Kipps, a young drapper who comes into a fortune that turns his life around and seems to fulfill his every dream.
The role demands a huge amount, in ability, from Stemp, who willingly obliges with energy and charm with strong dancing, singing and acting. I did wonder whether he could step down from the role by the time the curtain calls had finished as I was left wondering whether it was Charlie Kemp or Arthur Kipps who was taking his bow and that it was Charlie Kemp we had been watching all night long, rather than Arthur Kipps.
Song and Dance Success
Half A Sixpence is chokka full of fine melodies and catchy song and dance numbers and Andrew Wright’s lively choreography helps the piece rattle along when the book conspires not to do so.
And let’s face it – if a musical can boast show songs of the quality of If I Had Money to Burn, Flash Bang Wallop and Pick out a Simple Tune, it’s going to be a success, even if it didn’t have the combined powers of Cameron MacIntosh and the UK’s stand-out regional company at the moment, Chichester Festival Theatre (who have recently bought us Gypsy and Guys and Dolls), which this production, fortunately, does!
Of course it could be said that Half A Sixpence should be more a political piece – a worthy and timely comment against “all that is darkening and heavy and obstructive in life” as HG Wells wrote, but then that would have been a different show and Julian Fellowes wouldn’t have got near it!
So Hoorah for Stemp, Hoorah for Fellowes, Hoorah for MacIntosh and the Chichester Festival theatre and, most importantly Hoorah for the class system!