(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardisn 12/30; via Pam Green; Photo: Comic parable … Charlie Stemp in the title role of Kipps: the New Half a Sixpence Musical. Photograph: Sky Arts.)
In a surprisingly class-conscious stage adaptation of the HG Wells-inspired musical from the Downton Abbey creator on Sky, Charlie Stemp radiates kindly innocence
What’s in a name? Quite a lot in the case of the musical Kipps, which aired on Sky Arts on Wednesday night. The title comes from the 1905 HG Wells novel, but the show itself is a radical rewrite of an earlier musical version of the story, Half a Sixpence, which starred Tommy Steele on stage and film in the 1960s. Julian Fellowes wrote the fresh book, which he titled Half a Sixpence, in 2016, while George Stiles and Anthony Drewe added seven new numbers to the original David Heneker score. What we saw on screen was a filmed performance at London’s Noël Coward theatre in 2017.
So what’s the difference between the original Half a Sixpence and Kipps? I would say that the former – especially in the 1967 film version where Julia Foster co-starred with Steele – was essentially a romantic tale about how Artie Kipps finally finds true love with his childhood sweetheart, Ann. Kipps is closer to Wells’s original in that it is a comic parable about the English class system. I even wonder whether the novel influenced Shaw’s Pygmalion, which dates from 1912, in that it shows how in a rigidly stratified society accent determines status.
Given Fellowes’s creation of Downton Abbey, what is most surprising about Kipps is its portrayal of the English upper class as brutally snobbish predators. Artie himself is a Kentish draper who comes into a fortune and finds himself, despite his avowals to Ann, falling for the do-gooding Helen Walsingham. But it is made abundantly clear that Helen is being used as bait by her upper-crust family to hook the wealthy Kipps.
Two artfully juxtaposed numbers demonstrate how money can be used for ill or good. In one, Ann’s criminal brother tempts Kipps with capital gains. In another, the raffishly thespian Chitterlow hymns “the joy of the theatre” and asks Artie to invest in his new play.
But I’ve long argued that any musical needs a moment of ecstasy where song, dance and story combine to spirit-lifting effect. In Half a Sixpence, it comes in the number Flash, Bang, Wallop, which is a pub knees-up with its roots in English music-hall. In Kipps, it comes in a new song, Pick Out a Simple Tune, where Artie galvanises a starchy musical evening by playing on his banjo: “Just keep plucking with your plectrum / make new friends across the spectrum,” he jovially sings as Folkestone’s finest rattle spoons, whirl, twirl and even swing from the chandeliers.