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Mark Shenton: Arguments for all-white Half a Sixpence are half-baked

Scene from Half A Sixpence. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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If you go to see Half a Sixpence, you will see as many banjos as The Music Man has trombones. But something is missing, something my colleague at The Stage Matthew Hemley spotted: “In a cast of 26, there is not one non-white face. That, for a new production, is unforgivable.

Of course there are West End roles elsewhere for black performers, in Motown (or Memphis, its predecessor at the Shaftesbury Theatre) and Dreamgirls. But as Hemley points out: “The problem is, these are shows either about black performers or with black performers written into them. My problem is where race isn’t specified in the roles and an entire cast ends up being white. It smacks to me of casting directors putting performers into roles that match their own image. It’s an unconscious bias that needs to be addressed.”

Julian Fellowes, who wrote the revised book for Half a Sixpence, defended that decision to The Stage. In fact, speaking on Radio 4’s Front Row, he revealed it had been a conscious decision: “The decision was made, not by me, to have a non-ethnic cast.”

The reasoning behind that decision seems to be that 1900s Folkestone was not a diverse place. “I can assure you,” said Fellowes, “that Folkestone was not diverse, in terms of Folkestone society and all the rest of it.” Presumably there is plenty of historical evidence of the townspeople being inveterate banjo players.

Fellowes, who is clearly a decent sort of a chap, conceded the fact that it’s a musical and so there’s a different suspension of disbelief. “You’re putting me in a difficult spot, because I kind of agree with you, but it’s not my call and it is my show, I’m one of the contributors to it, and I think it’s a very good show and the performers are terrific in it, so I don’t want to sound judgemental. With the chorus particularly, I think in future, one can afford a certain diversity without undermining the reality [of it].”

He cited Hamilton as a show “that may be changing all that” and claimed: “I’m all for finding characters who can be black.” But then he started digging an ever-widening hole for himself. On the one hand, contrasting the position with screen representations of ‘reality’, he said: “You’re up against two realities: stage reality and screen reality, and stage reality is more forgiving. There is a slightly looser reality in a musical.” Except when it comes to factual situations, he added: “I think if you were doing the life of Abraham Lincoln, you do have to aim for truth.”

That, of course, is the argument also advanced in 2015 when Trevor Nunn employed a cast of 22 white actors for The Wars of the Roses at Kingston’s Rose Theatre, saying that he made an “artistic decision” to cast according to “historical verisimilitude”. Nunn explained: “The connections between the characters, and hence the narrative of the plays, are extremely complex, and so everything possible must be done to clarify for an audience who is related by birth to whom. Hence, I decided that, in this instance, these considerations should take precedence over my usual diversity inclination.”

What, then, of Hamilton with its fully integrated cast playing the real-life, all-white Founding Fathers of America? It’s a history that belongs to all Americans – and the show doesn’t discriminate based on historical precedent. Audiences don’t just accept it – they positively embrace it.

Fictional representations of communities – as in Half a Sixpence, or the real-life one of Billy Elliot – can afford similar leniency on casting. The population in Easington, where Billy Elliot is set, was 99.2% white in the 2001 census (in 1981, when the show is set, it may have been higher); yet the show has always turned a blind eye to the ethnicity of the young actor in the title role – the fifth was Matthew Koon (now with Northern Ballet) and the sixth was Layton Williams (now playing Angel in the tour of Rent). The tour has two non-white performers among its Billys. More to the point, his family and the older, adult Billy remain the same actors, regardless. So something that is absolutely rooted in a specific time and place uses colour-blind casting in its lead role – and audiences don’t bat an eyelid.

In a flash, the argument for being true to period by casting an all-white company is demolished. And as the National Theatre proved, it’s not just in the non-realistic world of musicals that such things can occur. The real-life role of Salieri in its revival of Amadeus was played by Lucian Msamati. And Harry Potter and the Cursed Child made headlines by casting Noma Dumezweni as the adult Hermione in the entirely fictional Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Casting for the film franchise had led some to expect her to be white. Yet colour in both Amadeus and Harry Potter is simply an irrelevance – two brilliant actors were cast on merit alone. And as JK Rowling herself publicly stated at the time Dumezweni was cast: “White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.”

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