Having made the decision to halt the regular review of online theatre which had taken place for 640 consecutive days, I thought a short break was in order to reset the troubled mind before proceeding with a mixture of live and digital coverage, albeit with less intensity. I had expected a few withdrawal symptoms but keeping busy with other stuff means I feel more inclined to proceed with this new arrangement than might otherwise have been the case. I thought I’d begin with something left over from the festive season, especially as we are now officially at the end of the Christmas period.
Kipps – The New Half A Sixpence Musical is a production from 2016/17 so actually a few years old now though it is “new” in the sense that it’s an updated version of a musical first performed in the early 1960s to showcase the singing, dancing and banjo playing talents of Tommy Steele. Following the success with the stage adaptation of Mary Poppins, Cameron Mackintosh recalled the services of song writing team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to flesh out the original and brought in Julian Fellowes to rewrite the book. This trio had also worked on a musical adaptation of The Wind In The Willows and with Fellowes’ credentials as the creator of Downton Abbey, they clearly know their way around an Edwardian set piece of light entertainment. While we’re dealing with the credits let’s also mention novelist H.G. Wells, author of the original novel which is light years away from his sci-fi material.
In many ways the plot of the piece echoes Shaw’s Pygmalion/My Fair Lady as the central character finds that being hoisted up the social ladder suddenly is far from the idyll imagined. Arthur Kipps, a self- effacing and kindly draper’s assistant inherits a fortune and finds himself propelled into the world of the moneyed classes when all he’d rather be doing is playing the banjo and being with those he has left behind in Folkestone. There’s evidently a healthy dash of Great Expectations hanging around in the plot too, even to the fact that Kipps becomes infatuated with society beauty Helen Walsingham (Emma Williams in fine voice) at the expense of his long standing relationship with childhood sweetheart Ann Pornick (Devon Elise-Johnson). Where Helen was previously unattainable, she is suddenly within his compass, and he looks set to marry her; the Walsinghams are actually broke and need Kipps’ money to retain their social status. Of course, it doesn’t take any great powers of prognostication to realise that all will be well by the finale.
It’s actually a show that examines class quite candidly (a move of which Wells would definitely have approved) and strongly suggests that the espoused communist beliefs of Anne’s brother, Sid (Alex Hope), are infinitely preferable to those of Helen’s swindler sibling, James (Gerard Carey). There’s also a significant nod to the power of theatre in the subplot featuring the flamboyant Mr Chitterlow (Ian Bartholomew, playing to the gallery) who is another Dickens homage – Vincent Crummles from Nicholas Nickleby is clearly one of his forebears. Fellowes’ book, therefore, mostly moves along a fairly predictable path of rags to riches to rags to a state of equilibrium but as the show’s primary function is to entertain it succeeds on its own terms.
In any case it’s all about the songs and these are put over with gusto from a hard working cast, none more so than the almost always central Charlie Stemp; he first shot to prominence in this production and rightly won an award for his performance. I found his goggle-eyed innocence and sometimes over emphasised gurning slightly too much on screen though it probably worked in a situation where he was playing to the upper circle as well as the front stalls. He’s an absolute bundle of energy who dances with elegance and sings delightfully particularly in the two set piece numbers “Pick Out A Simple Tune” and “Flash, Bang, Wallop!” which pay homage to the music hall tradition. The latter is, of course, the big song that everyone knows and there’s a very long wait before it hoves into view; when it does it still seems to have little to do by way of advancing the narrative but it’s an honest to goodness knees up. Andrew Wright’s choreography has plenty of other high energy moments which regularly punctuate the narrative, strongly directed by Rachel Kavanaugh. However, I do wish she’d resisted the rather obvious temptation to shunt her actors/dancers onto tabletops, bars and other raised areas every time there happened to be one available.
The biggest downside to watching the show was the rather poor editing which has been used. It’s choppy, uses too many close ups and was presumably taken from more than one performance meaning that continuity can be problematic. As the film has been in the can for four years it’s surprising that more time and attention hasn’t been given to this aspect. Mostly though it’s buoyant effervescent fun and a good choice to take us into the gloomy and rather uncertain times of pandemic year three.