Cor Blimey, it’s the time of year when the West End is awash with cheap tickets. What else would bring me to a show that I’ve avoided for 50 years on stage and screen and one that (along with Southern Trains) led me to miss the annual trip to Chichester in 2016? Back in the days when Tommy Steele was strutting his stuff in the lead role, I always found it hard to shake off the prejudices that only the Americans can create great musicals and that British attempts to emulate them are a bit of an embarrassment. Although there have been obvious exceptions, this is not a show that I expected to change that ridiculous notion.
Julian Fellowes’ new book is adapted from Kipps, HG Wells’ account of class divisions in Edwardian Eastbourne. The story has a Shavian flavour, but, when a musical’s best-known song is Flash, Bang, Wallop, it is never likely to match up to My Fair Lady. And so it proves, but Rachel Kavanaugh’s sparkling revival offers many compensations. Andrew Wright’s choreography is faultless, Paul Brown’s sets and costumes dazzle and, above everything else, Charlies Stemp’s performance as “Arfur” Kipps is sensational. A cross between Steele and Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer, he occasionally resembles a stick of striped seaside rock, but he sings and dances into the spotlight as if to the manner born and the West End has an instant new star.
The first of two big production numbers in the second half is Pick Out a Simple Tune and for the most part, composer David Heneker seems to have taken this advise from his lyricists George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (who also add new music). Moderate songs, predictable and clunking plot, so reservations remain, but the euphoria generated in this production, particularly the vibrant second half is still hard to resist.
Performance date: 16 January 2017