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‘He was a serial shagger’ – Half a Sixpence: opening night

Chichester Festival Theatre's Half A Sixpence has now transferred to the West End. Photo: Manuel Harlan

As Half a Sixpence opens in the West End, Matthew Hemley met cast members and producer Cameron Mackintosh to discuss bringing the show from Chichester to London.

Cameron Mackintosh, producer and co-creator

Cameron Mackintosh. Photo: Eliza Power
Cameron Mackintosh. Photo: Eliza Power

What made you decide to do Half a Sixpence?
It originally started with a conversation with Jonathan Church, when he was running Chichester. He asked if I had any ideas for shows to do there. I suddenly thought Half a Sixpence was a show that hadn’t been done for ages. I loved it when I was at school and I knew it had a local resonance as it was about HG Wells. I didn’t realise how autobiographical it is.

Tell us more about that…
When you read the novel it’s virtually his life and the character of Arthur Kipps is HG Wells for the most part – he also started off as a draper’s assistant. He hated it and then got a job as a teacher in a local school just outside Chichester. As part of that he was given access to the school library and it was because of that the world of books – also in the plot – his mind was opened to what he could do, and he became one of the greatest English writers of all time. And he was a serial shagger. He had more women than anybody. In the late 1880s he was on his second wife and had three public mistresses. This is brilliant stuff. I thought I was free and easy in the 1960s. I led a nun’s life in the 1960s compared with what HG Wells got up to. Everything in the plot is a distillation of his own life.

And Kipps is brilliantly played by Charlie Stemp in his West End lead debut. What is it about him that makes him special?
He picked up the script and when I asked him to read it he became HG Wells and Arthur Kipps. I am now 70 and the last person who had this kind of talent to me was Michael Crawford, when I first saw him in No Sex Please, We’re British – someone you saw in light comedy who had this extraordinary ability on stage. It’s like the gods of the theatre brought him to us. He is learning on stage in front of us. He deserves a huge success in this but I think we are seeing a great British star, the like of which is very rare. And he is a decent, lovely guy, completely unspoilt.

Charlie Stemp (Arthur Kipps)

Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps in Half a Sixpence at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps in Half a Sixpence at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

How was the opening night for you?
I am buzzing. How can you not be after a performance like that, with an audience like that? We are so blessed here with our creatives and cast – an amazing cast who have been with me every step of the way, when it was really hard and really easy, and really fun and really stressful. I am beaming not just because the performance went well, but because I am in such good company and in good hands. I am beaming from ear to ear.

You have such amazing energy in the production. How will you keep that up for the run?
A very good friend once said if you’re enjoying something, you don’t realise how much energy you are using. Once you are on stage you don’t think about it, you just think, ‘What’s next?’ With audiences like this you thrive off the standing ovations you get.

Emma Williams (Helen Walsingham) and Ian Bartholomew (Chitterlow)

Charlie Stemp and Emma Williams. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Charlie Stemp and Emma Williams. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Do opening nights ever get easier?

Emma: I don’t think so.
Ian: You tend to look at these things and get nervous about it and try harder than you might do on a normal night, but everybody kept it together and just did the show that we all know works. The audience reaction and response is fantastic. Everyone is relieved to get that one over with and now we can settle in and do the show. It’s been going very well in previews. It’s been amazing.

What makes the show special?

Ian: It’s summery, it’s joyous, it’s not deep. It hasn’t got a massive message, but it’s fun. Going back to Chichester, the audience there is, shall we say, slightly ageing – there is an older demographic. But you would see 17 and 18-year-olds going to their cars skipping having had a lovely evening and that is testament to the show and what the creative team has done. I have to say Charlie is such a charming, warm presence on stage that you cant help but like him and the show that he is in.
Emma: We are seeing young people discover an old show in a new format and they are loving it just as much. It’s a young cast, a young company – and that is what makes it so infectious.

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