Noel Coward Theatre, London
Guest reviewer: Andy Bee
The musical Half a Sixpence bounds into the West End from Chichester, newly adapted by Julian Fellowes, with a spring in its step and an infectious grin. The story of Arthur Kipps, a lowly haberdashers’ assistant who comes into money but ultimately questions what happiness it brings, is brought to life in a visually beautiful production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh.
The well known 1967 film of the musical (after the original 1963 stage production) was based on the HG Wells novel Kipps, A Simple Soul. In an Edwardian seaside town, Kipps, coming into an inheritance, has his head turned by upper class Helen Walsingham while his heart lies with his childhood sweetheart, scullery maid, Ann Pornick. Kipps & Helen are engaged to be married yet the Walsingham family, the epitome of Edwardian snobbery, only wish to use Kipps for his fortune. Helen tries to “make a gentleman” of her commoner beau but Kipps realises his happiness lies “within his own kind”. The script, though full of punchy one liners, is light on heart and emotion.
Fortunately, the staging and choreography is top-notch with an exceptionally talented ensemble singing and dancing faultlessly. Andrew Wright‘s choreography is full of inventive mannerisms and the energy created is infectious. Flash Bang Wallop at the end of the show is a tour de force bringing the audience collectively to its feet. Paul Brown’s set design, concentric circles of revolving stage, creates a fluidity to the production with seamless scene changes that makes the stage seem vast. From a seaside pier to the ballroom of a mansion, each scene is placed perfectly with artistry, while using the minimum of props.
As Arthur Kipps, Charlie Stemp is glorious. A dancer to the tips of his fingers, he looks totally at ease taking the lead in nearly every number. Charming, committed and cocky, Stemp makes Kipps incredibly likeable. It would be good to see more emotion when in turmoil (this Kipps shows more love for a banjo than any woman) but Stemp commands the stage and was a joy to watch.
Emma Williams is spot-on as the rather unsympathetically written Helen, with perfectly clipped speech, elegant manner and singing that plucks at the heart strings. Devon-Elise Johnson is a delightful Ann, not only singing from the heart but imbuing every line of dialogue meaning. As Ann’s friend Flo, Bethany Huckle adds depth and warmth to her supporting female character and her skittish duet with Johnson, A Little Touch Of Happiness is the act one highlight.
Julian Fellowes’ script offers more than a nod to his juggernaut TV success of Downton Abbey with his dowagers Mrs Walsingham (Vivien Parry) and Lady Punnet (Jane How). Both actresses relish their scenes, How particularly eliciting howls of laughter with every hilarious line. Perfect for the role, she gives a master class in taking the stage and working an audience.
George Stiles & Anthony Drew’s new and additional songs work, for the most part. In the overly long first act, Just a Few Little Things is brilliant, however, some of their new material feels unnecessary. The second half motors along with Pick Out A Simple Tune becoming a modern day classic – it is absolutely the best number seen in this or any show for quite some time.
This is a show that will make you smile. It will make you tap your feet. It will probably make you go home singing on the tube. And that can’t be a bad thing.
Booking until 11th Februuary 2017
Reviewed by Andy Bee
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan