Charlie Stemp, star of Cameron Mackintosh’s breathtakingly delightful revival of Half A Sixpence, finds himself night after night shadowboxing with history.
Theatergoers with a touch (or more) of grey in their hair recall that his role belonged, half a century ago, to then-young British singing sensation Tommy Steele.
Whether they saw Steele or not, the more time that passes, the better Steele looks.
Which means that 50 years on, Charlie Stemp is competing with the memory of a man who could sing, dance and act like a hindsight-enhanced combination of Paul McCartney, Dick Van Dyke, Fred Astaire, and maybe Charlie Chaplin tossed in for good measure.
Here’s the reality check: Steele was fine but Stemp is better.
Which means that if you have any intention of seeing Stemp in the role before he hands it off to someone else, you’d best buy your tickets immediately.
Half A Sixpence is a classic musical from the era when people really knew how to write musicals, when songs happened because of what was going on in the story, when lyrics lacked expletives and were judged by the pithiness and cleverness of their rhymes, and when musical comedy was a pleasant escape from reality, not a two-hour gripefest about everything that’s wrong with the world.
Macintosh’s Half A Sixpence has been reimagined for modern audiences who like their shows to move a bit faster, with a new book and new songs, but at heart it’s still the same show that charmed audiences when Macmillan and Wilson took turns at 10 Downing Street.
Here’s what you can expect: the story of an earnest if poor young man who suddenly gets rich, suddenly gets poor, and suddenly gets rich again, while choosing between two women – a lady of high society, who it turns out is too broke to pay attention, and the earnest, down-to-earth girl he left behind.
To practically no one’s surprise, he chooses the earnest, down-to-earth girl he left behind, demonstrating that you’re better off being yourself than conforming to class values you don’t share.
You can barely call that summary a spoiler alert, since all but the most obtuse of theatergoers will figure out that’s where the play is headed from practically the second scene.
It’s the path that Stemp’s character takes, the young man’s journey to finding comfort in his own skin and social class, that makes the evening fascinating.
Above all, it’s Stemp’s youthful energy, enthusiasm, optimism, and bonhomie that makes the show work.
He’s described as a footballer and rugby player, and he attacks the role with the same leave-it-all-on-the-field mentality as a rugger.
Fortunately for his fellow performers, Stemp views acting as a non-contact sport. But he sings, dances, acts, and plays the banjo with the joy and abandon of a young man who has found his true métier.
And let the record state that he’s ten times better than the real Steele, not the shadowy recollection that older theatergoers believe they possess.
Stemp dances with conviction, sings with heart, and acts with humility and a willingness not to suck all the air out of the theater – he’s that rare combination of star power and dedication to the ensemble.
But these are mere words; you’ve got to experience for yourself the exuberance and delight of a great cast with a great star performing a rousing musical that will lift you out of your seat and leave you wondering how Stemp can keep moving and grooving for two and a half hours.
The play’s message: money can’t buy happiness.
True enough, but money certainly can rent it.
So take some of yours, head to the Noel Coward Theatre, get your tickets while you can, and enjoy the kind of West End experience that comes along once in a generation.
And then you can tell your grandchildren 50 years on that you saw Charlie Stemp in the first of a lifetime of starring roles.