"If I had money to burn," proclaims Arthur Kipps in Half A Sixpence, "I'd buy me a banjo." That's his first big mistake: as the Folkestone nobs really ought to teach him when he soon afterwards comes into a sizeable legacy, a gentleman is someone who can play the banjo but doesn't.
This adaptation of H.G. Wells's novel Kipps is an audacious choice, possibly even a rash one, by Jude Kelly to follow the West Yorkshire Playhouse's 1999 end-of-year musical success with Singin' In The Rain (revived this Christmas at the Olivier): this is very much a second-division musical. David Heneker's music and lyrics never really transcend English whimsy, and are as suggestive of the '60s in which they were written as of the turn-of-the-century era they purport to mimic. It includes at best two well-known numbers, "Flash, Bang, Wallop!" and possibly the title song. Above all, its observations on class and money (as Kipps finds happiness only after he loses his fortune, accompanied by merely modest social advancement through honest toil) are outmoded. We are now accustomed to the idea not that wealth can buy social cachet, but that it overrules it. Not only does the story appear now to consist of a choice between various obsolete social pigeonholes, but there is a palpable risk that Wells's Fabian message may be missed or, worse, misinterpreted entirely.
Kelly's direction keeps things cheery and animated on Peter McKintosh's bland, all-purpose "versatile stage musical" set; however, all kinds of little details begin to niggle, from inconsistent use of the "digital imaging" technology which provides animated backdrops to anachronistic dressing of set and actors (tights on barmaids in 1910?) to the gratuitous (and, I'm sorry to say, tuneless) appearance of venerable actress Pip Hinton in Burlington-Bertie drag for one number. Jonjo O'Neill (not the former jockey) is an energetic but not electrifying Kipps; both in speaking and singing, Samantha Seager as his below-stairs beloved Ann looks and sounds like a young brunette Barbara Windsor; as Kipps's incompetent financial advisor and his old shopkeeper boss respectively, Ken Bradshaw is unobtrusively excellent and David Alder ebulliently so. Overall, though, there won't be a yawning gap if you don't stick this one in your family album.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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