This production of Half A Sixpence, arriving in the West End in the year of the 150th anniversary of the birth of HG Wells, whose novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul serves as the source material, is perhaps the best of the summer musicals of recent years to transfer to London from the Chichester Festival Theatre. Pulsating with dynamic enthusiasm, this is no mere revival of a show not seen in the West End for over half a century. Indeed, with as many changes to the show as this, it would be inappropriate to describe it as a revival at all.
As with many musicals, the first half introduces various characters with a combination of song, dance and spoken dialogue. Despite my emphasis just now on this being a reworked show rather than a revived one, enough of the well-known musical numbers have been retained from the original, although even these have been adapted and re-orchestrated by the British musical theatre powerhouse duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
The show is far from light on plot (even if it is predictable), with a running social commentary on the class system, something of a chosen specialist subject for book writer Julian Fellowes. Things go into overdrive in the first of two utter showstoppers in the second half, ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’, one of the new additions to the show. The other one, ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’, has been shunted from its original position fairly early in Act Two right to the end, such that there’s a build-up to the hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and sensational song and dance in what is now the final number.
It’s Andrew Wright’s choreography that shines time and time again, combining with the 12-strong orchestra under the baton of Graham Hurman, to provide such a lively air to proceedings. There’s a broad range of characters, with political views asserted by Sid Pornick (Alex Hope), an excessive expression of capitalism in John Conroy’s Shalford, zealous theatricality from Chitterlow (a hugely likeable Ian Bartholomew) and the wannabe person of importance getting ideas above her station in Mrs Walsingham (Vivien Parry), whose Act Two howls of despair, while hilarious, also evoked memories of Glenn Close’s Norma Desmond in the English National Opera production of Sunset Boulevard. Like West Side Story, so much in Half A Sixpence still holds direct relevance to today’s world, despite being set in a previous generation.
Charlie Stemp’s Arthur Kipps is never off-stage for very long. Kipps (he seems to be referred to by his last name more often than his first) has some part or other in 21 of the 25 musical numbers listed, and two of those he’s not in are the Overture and Entr’acte. Stemp has mind-blowing stamina and stage presence, and deftly leads a large and top-notch cast with a confidence and dependability that betrays both his tender years and the brevity of his previous credits as listed in the show’s programme. There’s a grace and elegance in his dancing that is simply beautiful to watch, he’s palpably enjoying himself on stage, and he’s equally engaging when he has the stage to himself as well as when leading the big full company numbers.
To put it another way, Charlie Stemp is a gloriously incomparable tour de force.
The love triangle element in the story is staged brilliantly, with the various pains and emotions of Kipps, Ann Pornick (a highly convincing Devon-Elise Johnson) and Helen Walsingham (a vocally stunning Emma Williams) exposed with depth and conviction. Cabaret asserted that “money makes the world go around”, and while it does, Half A Sixpence demonstrates that love is a more powerful force than cash. The stage designs (Paul Brown) leave little to the imagination, whether depicting a draper’s shop, a local bar or the opulence of the stately home of Lady Punnet (Jane How). No expense has been spared here, and it’s all well supported by video projections (Luke Halls).
Of the supporting roles, there’s a sweetness and charm in Sam O’Rourke’s Buggins, which made me think of a previous role of his in the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. That show, indeed, had the same director as Half A Sixpence, Rachel Kavanaugh, who clearly has what it takes to direct solidly joyful musicals that cannot help but put a smile on the audience’s faces and have the audience singing and humming tunes from the show as it leaves the theatre.
Bethany Huckle’s Flo has a girl-next-door charisma about her, and a duet between Flo and Ann, ‘A Little Touch of Happiness’, gives them both a chance to shine and put forward their perspective. Yes, it gives the leading man a rare moment to get his breath back, but it’s a delightful song in its own right. Elsewhere, Gerard Carey doubles up as antagonist James Walsingham and then, in the iconic number ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’, a flamboyant wedding photographer, such contrasting roles, both performed to great effect.
This wholly astonishing performance from Charlie Stemp in Half A Sixpence sees the first of what must surely will be many leading roles for a clearly talented and hard-working actor. Indeed, the whole cast is radiant with vitality and enthusiasm from start to finish, and there’s a definitive feel-good factor in a show that is sublimely uplifting. And even the encore is a treat – worth remaining in the theatre for, if you possibly can. An extraordinary and entertaining production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Following rave reviews and a record-breaking run in Chichester, Cameron Mackintosh is delighted to announce the West End transfer of the critically acclaimed hit musical “HALF A SIXPENCE” -which he co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre – introducing the sensational new star Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps.
This new stage version of “HALF A SIXPENCE”, the musical adaptation of H.G. Wells’s semi- autobiographical novel ‘Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul’, is a completely fresh adaptation which reunites book-writer Julian Fellowes (Oscar-winning screenwriter and creator of Downton Abbey) with George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, the musical team that co-creator Cameron Mackintosh first put together to create the hit stage adaptation of “Mary Poppins” with Disney. The score is inspired by and features several of composer David Heneker’s exhilarating songs from the original production, including ‘Flash Bang Wallop’, ‘Money To Burn’ and ‘Half A Sixpence’.
Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre
85-88 St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4AU