This review comes after having seen Cameron Mackintosh’s reworked revival of the classic musical: ‘Half a Sixpence’ for the second time, five months after having seen it the first time at its press night. The show concerns Arthur Kipps (Charlie Stemp), an orphan and over-worked Drapers assistant, who at the turn of the last century, unexpectedly inherits a fortune which propels him into high society. His childhood companion Ann Pornick (Rebecca Jane Davies at this performance) watches Arthur transform into a new man at the hands of the beautiful and classy Helen Walshingham (Emma Williams). Both women love Arthur – but who should he listen to? With the help of his friends, Arthur must learn that if you want to live the right life, you have to make the right choices…
Transferring from Chichester, this production is not just a revival of the classic show famous for starring Tommy Steele, but it is a reworking. Producer Cameron Mackintosh has worked alongside Julian Fellowes (book) and Stiles and Drewe (music) to look at the show with fresh eyes, going back to the source material- H.G Wells’ semi-autobiographical novel ‘Kipps’. They have finessed the show by reworking the script and adding delightful new songs. Having not seen the original, I could not tell the difference between original and new – they work so well together and fit the score perfectly. Of course, classic numbers ‘Half a Sixpence’ and ‘Flash Bang Wallop’ still remain, and are obvious audience favourites.
The set is simple, consisting of a bar which transforms from a shop desk into a pub, and a set of shutters which split the stage so that the action can take place out front, whilst the set changes out back. The fantastic orchestra are placed on a platform above the stage, slightly hidden from view, but it goes without saying that they make themselves heard! The minimalist set works well for the constant scene changes – from shop, to garden party, to seaside (with one seagull oddly dangled in). I was really surprised at how small the stage was when I had a backstage tour, considering how energetic and full-on Andrew Wright’s lively choreography is. The dancing is easily the standout feature of this show, and I remain dumbfounded as to how it hasn’t been nominated for a prestigious Olivier award.
The entire company do not break into a sweat when erupting into five-minute intense dance numbers, moving in a highly-stylised fashion, with plenty of acrobatic tricks thrown in for good measure. ‘Pick Out a Simple Tune’ incorporates physical comedy with the choreography, whilst ‘Flash Bang Wallop’ is a dancer’s delight. I personally think the story is a bit weak and predictable, but the musical numbers certainly make up for this minor let down.
Speaking of the cast, every single member shines through their characters and delivers performances to the best of their potential. Emma Williams as Helen Walshingham- whom Kipps is besotted with- is graceful with a gorgeous voice that glides effortlessly through the air. I personally feel sorry for her character, and though you want to hate her for separating Arthur and Ann, it is impossible to do so. For Williams plays her with a vulnerability and sweetness which is hard to resist warming to.
Ian Bartholomew, playing budding playwright Chitterlow is a comic delight, and his main number: ‘The Joy of the Theatre’ is excellent, played with only a subtle wink and a nudge to the audience. Bethany Huckle (Flo) and Rebecca Jane Davies’ duet: ‘A Touch of Happiness’, is equally both sung and acted well. It is great to see females conversing about sexuality on stage (though disguised with innuendo), rather than pining for an idealised love which is commonly the trend in other plays.
Of course, the standout performance of the night has to go to the leading man Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps. With an effortless cheeky charm, top-notch dancing skills, and a boundless energy and likeability, it is hard to remember that this is his very first principal role. For he certainly handles the part with such ease- it appears the character was made specifically for him! He is charismatic and his singing is easy to listen to, and I could definitely envision him playing Bert in ‘Mary Poppins’ at some point in the near future. We’ve certainly found more than a sixpence in him – I’d go as far as saying that we have struck gold!
‘Half A Sixpence’ is a show the West End certainly needs right now – bouncy and infectious, a mixture of nostalgia and the brand new, it is a recipe for success. Running at the Noel Coward Theatre, I urge you to book tickets for a “triumph” of a show that you will not forget.