Half A Sixpence (theatre review) ★★★★☆

HALF A SIXPENCE is currently running at the NOEL COWARD THEATRE (London)

 
Half A Sixpence is the story of Arthur Kipps, a working class young man from Folkstone employed at a gentleman’s outfitters. By a stroke of luck, he discovers that he has inherited a wealthy fortune from an estranged relative, turning his life upside down as he tries to navigate the turbulent world of the high society which he has always been excluded from.As he does his best to fit in, he is torn between succumbing to all the conventions and manners of the upper classes or sticking to his humble roots. This is directly mirrored by the choice he must make between his new fiancee, the educated and refined Helen Walsingham, or his childhood sweetheart, Ann Pornick, who now works at the Walsingham’s maid. Arthur tries his best to make the right decisions, but as the join between his past and current life starts to tear at the seams, will he make the right decision?

 
Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Half A Sixpence is a marvel. Although the story originally stems from the book Kipps by H.G. Wells, what sticks in the public’s mind is the 1967 film starring the unsurpassable Tommy Steele as Arthur Kipps, with songs by David Heneker. While nothing will quite beat the original film, this production is a close contender. It combines tight and frankly mind-boggling choreography with new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (alongside the original score) and a beautiful set on a rotating stage. Those are not the only delights – perhaps the most impressive part of the production is the star of the show, newcomer Charlie Stemp, who plays Kipps. He has only two theatre credits to his name and was trained at a small performing arts college in Epsom called Laine Theatre Arts. Furthermore, he is only 23 years-old. To land such a big part on so little West End acting experience is impressive – but the moment he steps on stage you understand why he got the role. His singing, dancing, and acting are all impeccable, and he even plays the banjo with complete ease (often doing 3 or 4 simultaneously); in short, he steals the whole show. That being said, the supporting cast is also excellent. Devon-Elise Johnson is charming as Ann Pornick, whose sweetness and poignancy makes her one of the most likable. Interactions between Arthur and Ann, while also humourous, often hold moments of unexpected poignancy, leaving little gem-like moments of beauty scattered through the show. Arthur Kipp’s group of friends, who work with him at the outfitters, provide much of the comic relief; special mention must be made about Buggins, played by the lovely Sam O’Rourke, who while everyone is singing about their extravagant pipe-dreams in “Money to Burn”, dreams about having endless food to eat, making him surely one of the most relatable characters.Ian Batholomew is also lovely as Chitterlow, the avuncular stranger (and later friend) who reveals Kipps’ inheritance to him, who has more than a slight air of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka about him.

 
While the additional music written by Stiles and Drewe is well-executed, some of it really missed the mark. “A Little Touch of Happiness”, the duet between Ann and Flo, the female apprentice at the outfitters, is full of cringe-inducing holiday postcard style innuendo. While one or two jokes may have been amusing, the whole song felt thoroughly uncomfortable and I could not wait for it to be over. That and the inclusion of lots of stereotyped Cockney-isms included in the script for the lower class characters made some of it feel like a parody of the era. While the rest of the music is fundamentally good, many songs felt unnecessary and furthermore, the constant stream of songs left me feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the end of the show. The script was gasping for some more dialogue and moments of quiet, something that the original film balances perfectly. However, there is a triumph in the new score – “Pick Out A Simple Tune”, a song so perfect that I did not realise until I looked at the programme that it was not from the original soundtrack. It is a song, much like “Flash, Bang, Wallop” from the original film, that you will be humming and singing for days after seeing the show.
Without a doubt, Half A Sixpence is a first-class show, and Charlie Stemp is a more than worthy rival to Tommy Steele. Not only an amazing piece of stagecraft, but an afternoon of fun. A must-see for all.

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