Interview with Half a Sixpence's Leading Man Charlie Stemp
Charlie Stemp's energy is infectiously electric both on stage and off. In the lead role of Arthur Kipps in Cameron Mackintosh's new production of Half a Sixpence which officially opens in the West End next week Stemp redefines a role that became synonymous with Tommy Steele after the 1963 West End première. filling the stage with his own brand of charm and effervescent personality.
“My motto has always been just to be happy” he laughs, filling his impressive dressing room backstage at the Noel Coward, named after Gertrude 'Gertie' Lawrence with his affable personality and unmissable grin. Stemp certainly has a lot to be happy about, having received rave reviews for his performance in the role in Chichester, transferring with the show to London to become the West End's latest leading man.
“It really is a whirlwind” he beams, “I've literally gone from sharing a dressing room with ten other boys to suddenly having this place where I have a pantry and a bath. It's ridiculous!” I meet Charlie directly following a physio session – a vital 'perk' that ensures he remains in peak physical condition in order to deliver what has to be the most energetic performance London has seen in some time. Whilst his name may not ring bells outside of theatrical circles, his face literally lights up the marquee of the Noel Coward Theatre, and his presence at the forefront of the marketing campaign has taken some getting used to for this unlikely ensemble performer.
“I've gone from being ensemble in one show to being on the posters” he chuckles, “It's crazy, I always get pictures from friends saying I've found you at Paddington Station. One of my friends said I'm like a bad rash – I'm everywhere.”
Stemp's journey to West End leading man has a touch of the 'star is born' narrative which plays nicely into this invigoratingly fresh revival that thrusts the 60s British musical into the West End of 2016. He explains how a chance meeting with the show's choreographer Andrew Wright whilst training got him on the radar through his performance in the the very same role, and after the original leading man Brian Dick couldn't join the show due to a contractual clash he found himself in the running.
“I went in for the audition and it was the hardest thing I've ever done” he remembers. “I did 11 rounds and I didn't know I'd got it. I was on my way to my friends house with a crate a beer on my shoulder, ready to have a nice evening and I got a call from my agent saying they wanted me to come in the next day to Cameron's office so I thought Oh God! Stop drinking! It was daunting to say the least! I sang a song I'd only learnt a week before, and it was such a cool experience. The experiences have only got cooler!”
"Oh my God, Gandalf is on the phone! This is the coolest thing ever!"
Being a leading man certainly has its perks, and for Charlie they have even come from the most unlikely of sources.
“Three days ago that phone rang, I was exhausted, it was my lunch break and I was being grumpy” he explains. “I answered it and I heard 'Hello, this is Ian McKellen...' I was like oh my God, Gandalf is on the phone! This is the coolest thing ever! Obviously he's next door and he's such an amazing man and he wanted to call me to say good luck for opening night. It's such a credit to a man who has been in the theatre for my life plus a couple. It's incredible to have someone who is world famous to want to help someone who he doesn't know get through a process that I'm sure he's been in many many times.”
Whilst the support from within the theatrical community has been overwhelming, Stemp also continues to be inspired by the audience's response to the show night after night, both in Chichester and during previews in London.
“On our first show that was our open dress we got standing ovations at the end of “Pick Out a Simple Tune”, “Flash Bang Wallop” and then again at the end, and they didn't sit back down!” he delights. “In Chichester we were told to expect that no one would stand up, because a lot of them were older, so we didn't expect much, so to have them stand up was amazing. We realise here in London the audiences are different – they laugh at the cruder jokes. The comedy is very different and it's amazing to have those jokes that do make the older generation laugh, they are smarter and wittier, so to have both of those and to get even more laughs is brilliant. We didn't think we could do it – the more laughs the better because it is supposed to be a fun show.”
Half a Sixpence is fondly remembered by an older generation of theatregoers, as well as those who remember the 1967 film adaptation. Mackintosh has collaborated with the Oscar winning 'Downton Abbey' creator Julian Fellowes to totally overhaul the book of the show, alongside the dynamic British song writing duo to George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to craft a new edition of the show for a modern audience.
“British musical theatre is so different – it's so subtle”
“It is a period piece but the music is so upbeat” Charlie explains. “George and Anthony have done an incredible job of taking the David Heneker songs and giving them a new twist, and also adding their songs to make it a lot more modern. They've been an absolute hit, “Pick Out a Simple Tune” always gets a fantastic response, I definitely say we've found a way to bring a period piece into much more of a modern era.”
If any producer has their finger on the pulse of the West End it's Mackintosh, whose successes outweigh any producer currently working in London or on Broadway. Just as happy reinventing a classic piece such as Half a Sixpence, he's also instrumental in bringing the genre defining hit Hamilton to the West End later next year. With Shaftesbury Avenue currently housing numerous Broadway shows, I wonder if the unique Britishness of Half a Sixpence will help it stand out from a crowded market.
“British musical theatre is so different – it's so subtle” Stemp replies. “It's so beautiful in its orchestration – it's brilliant, but it's so subtle and different and British. Like when you watch Monty Python, usually it's quite subtle they don't throw jokes at you. It has that feel. To keep that is very important. Don't get me wrong, I've done the big Broadway type shows and we've all gone to see them. They are incredible and I don't want to take away from them. But surely you go to Broadway to watch them, because it is a Broadway show? Broadway shows are very much in, and that's amazing. It's amazing to do something that is so personal and close to your heart. We need to remind people that it's not old or old fashioned, yes it's a dated piece but just because it's British doesn't mean it's dated – it's a new way of making British musical theatre go the way it was before. Trying to keep the British identity is really important.”
In many ways Half a Sixpence is being treated like a new musical rather than a revival, and I wonder if the usual stresses of birthing a new show in front of a live audience is proving to be a daunting experience to Stemp and the wider company.
“Not any more”, he replies simply. “It was in Chichester – a lot of the time we had to add new songs or music. We added a song called “A Simple Lunch”, I had about two hours to learn it which was quite tough. But then again it's amazing. You think of it as an amazing opportunity – you don't have time to moan. If you complain that's 30 seconds gone that you could have been learning the song! Cameron sits out there and tells us what he can see the audience are feeling. Most of the changes have happened in the last couple of days, so my head is all over the place. I've got pages of notes. When it gets to the 15 minute call I just try and look at them and focus.”
Stemp's track sees him sing, dance, act and pick out a simple tune on a live banjo and he rarely has time to breathe throughout the entire production. As an accomplished triple threat, he explains how vocally the show has provided him with one of his biggest challenges.
“For me the dancing comes very easily and so does the acting” he explains, “the singing was never a negative, but this is the first time I've ever had to sing on my own in my show. I never looked at it from a negative point of view, I looked at it how I do dancing. I look at this experience and see every part of it is new. Everything is new, it's all exciting, every bit of it. I never look at any part of it with dread. When you end the show with something like "Flash Bang Wallop" you have to gear yourself up for it because obviously it's knackering.”
Despite the physical demands the show makes on Stemp, he's clear that the entire company are having such a blast with the production.
“Everyone says to me when I leave the theatre 'I really enjoyed it' and I say to them so did I - trust me, I enjoyed it just as much” he laughs. “I sat in that chair last night before the show started and I was exhausted. It's a very big ask and I was knackered. As soon as the Overture starts you just listen to the music and you get this sense of pride of everything you've done and how incredible the band are and the conductor and all of our team – you just know it's all going to be a great show. The adrenalin and hopefully the standing ovation will get you through.”
For all the platitudes, critical praise and standing ovations Stemp is keen to make sure that he remains grounded throughout the entire experience.
"It's pretty cool getting your own bow, that's nice”
“It's so easy to lose yourself in this magical world of musical theatre – the highs are so high but also the lows are very very low”, he comments. “You've got to keep yourself grounded, it's about keeping the people close to you who keep you grounded. My Granddad came to watch the show on the second night in Chichester and I said to him 'what was your favourite bit?', and he said 'the interval...' My Dad sent me an email of all the reviews and highlighted the ones where they'd spelled my name wrong. A few of them had called me Charlie Stump, so he highlighted those and said 'this Charlie Stump is doing well...' My family are really good at keeping me grounded, and that's one thing I need to remember.”
For now however he's content to take in every moment of the experience, and as opening night approaches in the West End next week he constantly remembers how lucky he is to be leading such an exciting musical. “It's like nothing on the West End at the moment. It has that old fashioned British seaside feel to it – that stick of rock kind of feel, it's unlike anything you've ever heard or seen.”
Before I leave him in peace for a well deserved pre-show nap, I push him for a particular highlight of the experience so far. He grins his affable infectious smile, unable to commit to one particular highlight. “It's pretty cool getting your own bow, that's nice” he laughs. Based on his knockout performance in Half a Sixpence, I can confidently predict that Stemp is one star who will no doubt be enjoying his own bows for many years to come.
Charlie Stemp is starring in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre to 11 February 2017.