“It’s the role of a lifetime,” says Charlie Stemp about playing Arthur Kipps, the banjo-strumming orphan who inherits a surprise fortune in Half A Sixpence.
A passion project of super-producer Cameron Mackintosh – whose 70th birthday coincides with this interview – the production premiered at Chichester in the summer and is about to open in the West End. Stemp, who is 22, was not due to play the principal role originally. He was asked to step up from the ensemble when Bryan Dick – 15 years his senior – withdrew due to contractual obligations.
It was quite the break. To say Stemp has grasped it is an understatement, with more than one critic labelling him a “real find”. Many reviews also remarked on Stemp’s resemblance to Tommy Steele, who originated Arthur on stage and screen. But he’s keen to play down the comparison.
“When we started I had this fear of becoming Tommy Steele. I don’t mean that as an insult. He was incredible. But I didn’t want to be known as the new version of him. I wanted to bring my own style to the role.”
He has certainly done that, with a performance that exudes both frenetic energy and cheeky charm. It’s easy to see where the Steele comparisons come from, not least in his big-tooth grin, but Charlie Stemp has emphatically made Arthur Kipps his own.
It helps that the show, which is based on H.G. Wells’s novel Kipps: The Story Of A Simple Soul, has been significantly redeveloped. Although based on the 1963 original, it now features a reworked book by Julian ‘Downton Abbey’ Fellowes and new songs by Stiles and Drewe, alongside signature numbers such as Flash Bang Wallop.
“It’s changed on every level,” explains Stemp. “Cameron and [director] Rachel Kavanaugh told us on the first day of rehearsals that this wouldn’t just be another production of Half A Sixpence.” It also features groundbreaking design by Paul Brown. “We have four revolves, which has never been done before. It makes the show move really quickly. It’s almost like a new form of musical theatre.”
This is lofty talk for someone who nearly didn’t enter the profession at all. Stemp’s path into performing happened by chance, when his unhappiness at school led his mum to enrol him in a south London theatre school. He didn’t take to it initially, preferring the football field to the stage, but he soon changed his tune when people told him he had a talent. “Call it middle child syndrome but I loved the attention,” he says.
After GCSEs he moved to Epsom for a three-year course at Laine Theatre Arts. After graduating he landed a role in the Wicked ensemble, then the Mamma Mia! international tour. He had to do no fewer than 11 auditions before winning the leading role in Half A Sixpence. “I did backflips in the Ivy when I found out I’d got it.”
This ability to do acrobatics on a whim gives you a clue to his talents. Stemp is the ultimate example of that oft-heard phenomenon the ‘triple threat’. He’s a performer with a mastery of dancing, acting and singing. “I work really hard at all three, so it’s great to have the opportunity to showcase them all in this role. As an ensemble member it’s rare you get the chance to do that.”
As career trajectories go, Stemp’s has been pretty much perfect so far. I wonder where he’d like to go next. Will he gravitate to the TV and film roles that so often follow theatre stardom? “For me it’s about being happy. I do theatre not because it’s a job, but because I love it. I’m open to anything, but whatever I do next you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be something I love.”
With that, he needs to get back to Sir Cameron’s birthday celebrations. “I might have a word with him about playing Bert in Mary Poppins,” he laughs. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see Charlie Stemp stepping in time in the very near future.