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Half a Sixpence review at Chichester Festival Theatre – ‘not much of a wallop’

Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps in Half a Sixpence at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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This year’s Chichester musical centrepiece production is billed as “the new flash bang wallop! musical”. But it it’s actually been reworked from a vintage 53-year-old British show. While it was a success in its day, both in the West End and on Broadway as a vehicle for its original star Tommy Steele, it’s never been revived since in either place.

There may be good reasons for this: Half a Sixpence has a lot of flash and bang but not much of a wallop. Rachel Kavanaugh’s Chichester staging is effortful and the whole thing threatens to drown in its old-fashioned and slightly reactionary charms – it’s a cheerfully class-conscious musical that comes to the conclusion that its ultimately impossible to transcend the class you were born into.

When drapery shop assistant Arthur Kipps inherits a fortune, he finds himself abandoning his childhood sweetheart for a more aristocratic partner (but whose family is suffering money problems of their own), but that way happiness does not lie and he eventually returns to his original love, now a parlour maid to one of the aristos with whom his new life has brought him into contact.

The show’s original book has been re-worked by Julian Fellowes, who knows a thing or two about upstairs/downstairs relationships thanks to Downton Abbey, but isn’t able to shoehorn this into a viable structure. It’s ploddingly obvious where and how it will all end up.

The songs and staging have to do a lot of the heavy lifting to keep us engaged. The original David Heneker score, with its music hall strains that owe quite a lot to Lionel Bart whose show Oliver! premiered just three years earlier, has been augmented by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe,  Just as they did for the original Sherman Brothers score to Mary Poppins when that was re-made for the stage, Stiles and Drewe now cleverly channel Heneker in lyrical style and easy tunefulness, so that it skilfully feels of a piece.

It is in choreographer Andrew Wright’s busy, boisterous set-piece dance numbers that the show truly comes to life, with Pick Out a Simple Tune exploding as a jolly old knees-up to an appropriately simple melody complete with spoons-playing, and Flash, Bang, Wallop offering plenty of energy.

The show is fuelled by the considerable gangly charms of its leading actor Charlie Stemp, whose Kipps may be a bit of a chump in his prevaricating between two women, but captures his enraptured difficulties with vulnerable appeal. The love interests are sweetly performed by Devon-Elise Johnson and Emma Williams, and the only edge of mystery comes from Ian Bartholomew as an aspiring playwright whose own ambition to ‘Back the Right Horse’ becomes a metaphor for Kipps’s own dilemma.

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Handsome reworking of a fondly remembered British musical that has its pleasures but also feels rather pointless