I’ve noticed that the West End in its current state is overpopulated with Broadway transfers and Disney shows; there aren’t many original British musicals on show at the moment. So with the revival of much-loved Half A Sixpence (which hasn’t been in London for 50 years) comes a sense of joy that there is something brilliant and buzzing and new in this area of London that takes us right back to our classical musical theatre roots.
Arthur Kipps, an orphan and over-worked draper’s assistant at the turn of the last century, unexpectedly inherits a fortune that propels him into high society. His childhood companion, Ann Pornick, watches with dismay as Arthur is made over in a new image by the beautiful and classy Helen Walsingham. Both young women undoubtedly love Arthur – but which of them should he listen to? With the help of his friends, Arthur learns that if you want to have the chance of living the right life, you need to make the right choices.
The plot of the show itself, as you can see, is pretty simple and easy to follow; but that’s the beauty of it. We have to take with a pinch of salt the issues of class and gender (women are merely wanting a husband in this show) rife in this ’60s show, of course. But aside from that it’s funny and engaging, and confronts issues which span generations of theatre-goers: romance, wealth, and the social class system.
Recently transferred from Chichester, this new production is not just a revival – it’s a reworking. Producer Cameron Mackkintosh, working alongside book-writer Julian Fellowes and musical duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, has looked at the show with fresh eyes. Starting with the semi-autobiographical novel ‘Kipps’ by H.G. Wells, they have finessed the show to appeal to a more contemporary audience, tweaking the book and adding plenty of delightful new songs. Having not seen the original show, I couldn’t tell the difference between original and brand new – they all work so well together. Classics such as ‘Half A Sixpence’ and ‘Flash Bang Wallop’ still remain; and the applause they got on the night was tumultuous.
I can’t describe the thrill I felt watching the production (I love this era of musicals). I’ll say I felt in awe. The set is simple, including a revolving stage and tiny additions such as doors and benches, and this works so well for a show which is constantly shifting location: from bar to shop to seaside and garden party. Of course, the lack of set is perfect to make room for Andrew Wright’s lively choreography, which looks so effortless yet I can imagine is incredibly tiring! The entire company, majority fresh-faced from drama school and training, don’t break a sweat, moving in a highly stylised way with plenty of acrobatic tricks thrown in for good measure. ‘Flash Bang Wallop’ and ‘Pick Out a Simple Tune’ are a dancer’s delights.
Speaking of the cast, I don’t think I have ever been excited by so many faces on the same stage. Of course, Emma Williams shines as Helen Walsingham, graceful and not at all a character you could hate, despite wanting to for getting between Arthur and Ann, albeit unknowingly. She plays her with a touch of vulnerability, and her singing is, as usual, gorgeous. Ian Bartholomew as Mr Chitterlow is a comic delight, as is the new innuendo-filled number “A Touch of Happiness” shared between Flo (Bethany Huckle) and Ann (Devon-Elise Johnson). It’s great to see females conversing about their own sexuality on stage, instead of just pining for an idealised version of love.”The Joy of the Theatre” is another stand-out company number, delivered with a careless nod and a wink to us reviewers sat in the audience.
Of course, the stand-out performance has to go to Charlie Stemp, a relative newcomer to the West End stage, having only been in the ensemble for two major shows. Stemp as Kipps is charismatic and charming, yet also able to play the serious moments Kipps faces. His grin is infectious, his singing easy to listen to and impeccable comic timing. His dancing is by far his greatest skill – I am so glad he is in a role which can showcase his talent for it.
We have certainly found more than a sixpence in him – we have found gold.
Half A Sixpence is a show the West End certainly needs – something bouncy and infectious, with a mixture of nostalgia and the brand new. Running at the Noel Coward theatre until who knows when (hopefully a long time..) I urge you to book your tickets for this show.
“What A Triumph” indeed…