REVIEW: Half A Sixpence, Chichester Festival Theatre, until September 3

Devon-Elise Johnson and Charlie Stemp                      Pic by Manuel Harlan
Devon-Elise Johnson and Charlie Stemp Pic by Manuel Harlan
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As we look back on the Jonathan Church era at Chichester Festival Theatre, his summer-musical slot will probably seem his greatest achievement.

From Carousel to The Music Man, from Sweeney Todd to Mack & Mabel, we’ve had some crackers. But it seems he’s been saving the best till last.

Half A Sixpence instantly feels a landmark CFT moment, one of the finest productions its stage has given – sparky and sparkling, polished to perfection and yet full of life and energy, a wonderful evening in which every last detail is spot on to produce one of the most enjoyable nights in memory.

And the chances are it will be night we all look back and say “Yes, that’s when we first saw Charlie Stemp. Of course, we knew straightaway he was going to be a star.”

The performer with the shortest biography in the programme just dazzles from first to last.

Of course, it is a genuine ensemble piece, with some fabulous big numbers alongside the quieter moments, but Stemp is outstanding as orphaned Arthur Kipps, the humble draper’s assistant who finds himself a fish out of water when an unexpected inheritance propels him into the ranks of high society.

Stemp gives us a Kipps who is decency personified, earnest, engaging and thoroughly likable – but a young man who thoroughly loses who he is amid all the blandishments and false seductions of suddenly being a man of means. It’s good to see H G Wells’ depiction of the corrupt, self-serving and frankly-ludicrous upper classes so beautifully delivered.

Kipps’ greatest agony is his choice of girl, and here Stemp’s performance is beautifully supported – by Devon-Elise Johnson as the homely but feisty Ann from his impoverished past and by Emma Williams as Helen from his current fortune. Johnson offers a beautiful picture of spirit and loyalty; Williams adds lovely poignancy as a woman thoroughly decent despite her class.

And that’s the great thing about the show – there is real substance: real hopes, real aspirations and real emotions, all wrapped up in this new version by Julian Fellowes with wonderful wit. It’s difficult to tell where the old Half A Sixpence stops and the new currency starts.

New music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe add to the original songs by David Heneker, and whoever did what, all you can say is that it works quite brilliantly – an absolute triumph for director Rachel Kavanaugh and everyone involved. And the icing on the cake? Gerard Carey’s photographer at the end.

Phil Hewitt

Tickets on cft.org.uk – but I am guessing you’d better hurry!

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