FLASH BANG WALLOP..
This 1963 show – based loosely on H.G.Wells’ semiautobiographical KIPPS – was originally a vehicle for Tommy Steele. And there were moments, as curly-haired young Charlie Stemp capered, frolicked, twirled, grinned with a whole keyboard of gleaming teeth and strummed a manic banjo, when I thought “Help! Some bastard has gone and cloned Tommy Steele. Where will this end?”.
For the part of Arthur Kipps, humble draper’s assistant who comes into money and nearly marries a posh girl, is pure quintessence of Steele in bad ways as well as good. Agile, likeable, fizzing with energy but shallow as a saucer. Becoming rich by inheritance, he forgets the childhood sweetheart to whom he gave half a broken sixpence as a boyish love-token, proposes to a posh and controlling girl whose family only want his money, realizes his mistake enough to be glad when the money’s embezzled, and returns to his old love. And that’s it.
The original work by Beverley Cross and David Heneker has been tweaked as to story by Julian Fellowes, the go-to man on Edwardian snobbery, with some new and revamped songs by Stiles and Drewe and loving oversight by Cameron Mackintosh. Immense fun has been had with the design by Paul Brown – an elegant diorama revealing English Edwardiana dripping with atmosphere whether in chandeliered drawing-room or ‘umble pub . Even wilder fun rules the choreography by Andrew Wright, which particularly in the second half is exhilaratingly witty. There’s a tremendous set-piece musical evening in which a nicely dreary bassoon solo by Lady Dacre morphs, with crazed psychological improbability, into a wild mass percussion event in bustles, led by Kipps on the banjo and culminating with the butler swinging from the chandelier. And of course the flash-bang-wallop wedding photo number ends it with dazzling precision and proper joy.
But for all Stemp’s valiant effort at character as the deluded hero, despite Devon-Elise Johnson as his beloved Ann (she has one fine moment of invective which got a small cheer), plus a dignified bland Emma Williams as posh Helen, the thinness of the story makes it un-engaging. Certainly it feels oddly dated, and devoid of the emotional kick we are used to in musicals all the way from Showboat to Sweeney Todd and Gipsy, and indeed Bend it like Beckham and Mrs Henderson Presents. Musicals can deliver a visceral, engaging, breath-holding thump but this one, overpacked with big numbers following relentlessly boom-bang-a-thump on one another’s heels carries you no further than foot-tapping and technical admiration. And there are some hellishly embarrassing lines illustrating Kipps’ social gaucheness: really, nobody on a public stage in 2016 should have to perform exchanges like “I suppose you like Bernini” “I don’t drink much”.
It would have been possible to drop a meaningless song or two to give us a lot more of Jane How’s magisterial Lady Punnet and Alex Hope’s Sid the Socialist (very HG Wells, but perhaps not very Fellowes). And I could have taken a great deal more of Ian Bartholomew’s bohemian actor-playwright Chitterlow, who beneath some very Donald Trump hair plays it genuinely funny with sparks of real eccentricity. It just needs something to throw a hook into our hearts, or at least our funnybones. But it’s fun, it’s vigorous, and the choreography and band are great. And Stemp is a real find. If you’d never seen a musical, it might dazzle.
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