REVIEW: You won’t be short-changed by Half a Sixpence at Chichester Festival Theatre

Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Tommy Steele. An irritatingly memorable title song and a couple of foot-tapping numbers. That apart, even aficionados of the 1960s musical film, can find little to love or recall of Half A Sixpence.

Now it’s back. Like a piece of antique ephemera tossed aside by 1970 and suddenly rediscovered. That master craftsman of the period piece Julian Fellowes has painstakingly provided the restoration and imbued it with his lush Downton polish. New music and lyrics added to original songs complete the theatrical re-upholstery.

At first glance, it’s threadbare of celebrity. On first night at Chichester Festival Theatre there were more stars in the audience than on stage. Charlie Stemp who is propelled into the Steele role of Arthur Kipps has just seven lines of biography in the programme. That’s postage stamp size by the standards of the summer season. And second class post at that.

If he doesn’t have pedigree, it’s clear from the moment he springs on to the stage that he has the twinkly sparkle in the eye that was the distinguishing brand of Steele.

As he blazes his way through one energetic scene after another, he proves he has stamina.

Then finally, as the show crash, bang, wallops to its crescendo with What A Picture, you can see through the sweat and ingenuous smile a truth that was there from the first rendition of the title song.

‘You’re more unusual than you think,’ the glorious Helen Walsingham (Emma Williams) tells Kipps.

She’s right.

Charlie Stemp is a star. Brighter, shinier, than many of the familiar names that repeatedly tread this stage.

The ticket-paying public, hesitant at first, grasps the moment. One standing ovation after another from an audience in this retirement capital who rarely rise for anything for more than a few moments and then only to purchase a tub of ice-cream, stamps the hallmark.

Fellowes, true to form, has not resuscitated a relic. Thanks to a mix of choreography, endlessly revolving props of merry-go-round proportions, and a cast who are on fire with Stemp ablaze at the helm, this is a genuine masterpiece.

It’s a story of class and money - and the happiness that depends on neither. Based on HG Wells’ autobiographic piece Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, this whole production swirls as much with parallels as scenery. Wells grew up at Uppark the stately Downtonesque mansion just north of Chichester where his mother was housekeeper in the late 19th century. Wells’ dismal apprenticeship as a draper - the meat of this particular meal - was just down the road at Southsea.

2016 is 150 years since his birth.

Chichester has a tradition of summer musicals which have launched here and moved swiftly to the West End. Gypsy. Singin’ In the Rain. Sweeney Todd.

Can this one match them?

In the final scene, playwright Chitterlow (Ian Bartholomew) proclaims that his longshot new drama has been hailed as a ‘triumph’ by the critics.

It’s prescient.

This is a triumph. As Jonathan Church moves on as Chichester artistic director, this final gamble will secure him a fragment of immortality and earn Stemp the shimmering recognition of his star quality.

Half A Sixpence at Chichester Festival Theatre: until September 3

Book by Julian Fellowes; new music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe; original songs by David Heneker; co-creator Cameron Mackintosh