When first created, Half A Sixpence was an unashamed star vehicle for Tommy Steele, his tap shoes and banjos. In 2017, buoyed by fabulous new musical numbers from the prolific Drewe and Stiles, Half A Sixpence proves a real musical treat. Undoubtedly, it will make a star out of Charlie Stemp, who plays Arthur Kipps with assurance and style, but the production has other virtues – it makes the case for other characters to have their moment in the sun. With a near perfect second Act, Half A Sixpence proves, with flashes and bangs, why it packs a wallop!
When this production began its life in Chichester, it was widely tipped to transfer to the West End. Quite rightly, the transfer happened and the production, with some small modifications, opened at The Nӧel Coward Theatre on 29 October 2016 and has recently extended bookings until 6 May 2017.
This is a solid night of entertainment. Although the first act drags somewhat (it could lose at least fifteen minutes of exposition – not music- without any real diminution in quality), the second Act of this reworked version of Half A Sixpence is a genuine triumph – at least until the unfortunate arrival of a very unfunny, bizarrely stereotypical and quite offensive tipsy gay photographer, played badly by Gerard Carey, in the otherwise magical sequence surrounding Flash Bang Wallop.
Essentially, Rachel Kavanaugh’s bright and breezy production has the same highs and lows as it did in Chichester – they are all noted in my original review and there is no need to repeat them here. Graham Hurman’s mastery of the score ensures that justice is done to all of the music, new and old with Back The Right Horse, If The Rain’s Got To Fall, Pick Out A Simple Tune and Flash Bang Wallop all exceptional. The orchestral support for the cast is first rate.
The performances have brightened and grown in confidence for the most part. Charlie Stemp is far more relaxed, but just as thrilling to watch, as Arthur Kipps, the hapless hero. He is secure enough to be unworried by his co-stars having their moment in the sun, and this improves his overall appeal immeasurably. His singing is more confident, too, and balances his considerable dancing skills more effectively.
Each of Ian Bartholomew, Emma Williams, Jane How and Bethany Huckle turn in fine performances; all sing beautifully and play their characters with gusto and aplomb.
There are real strides forward, in confidence and ability, from Devon Elise-Johnson, Alex Hope and Sam O’Rourke, each of whom is really terrific – as Ann, Sid and Buggins respectively. Elise-Johnson is quite marvellous throughout and her work in A Little Touch Of Happiness and You Never Get Anything Right/I Know Who I Am is exemplary. She proves to be more than Williams’ equal in terms of Kipps’ affections. Hope and O’Rourke shine as Kipps’ mates, with Callum Train’s Pierce adding to that mix very nicely. All of these relationships work more easily, and more impressively, on the West End than they did in Chichester.
On the other hand, though, the flaws in the cast seem more egregious now than they did before. Gerard Carey’s cardboard villain, James, has become less interesting than before (and nothing further need be said about his cameo as the photographer…) and Vivien Parry inexplicably seems to have taken a leaf out of Carey’s book – Mrs Walshingham is a shadow of what she was in Chichester. But, in the grand scheme of things, these are trifling matters.
Paul Brown’s production design works well enough in the smaller stage space at The Nӧel Coward Theatre but it seemed more radiant somehow at Chichester. Still, the set changes all happen smoothly and Paule Constable’s exquisite lighting still entrances. The look and feel of the piece is friendly, charming and olde worlde – exactly as it should be.
Half A Sixpence is wonderful entertainment and it boasts terrific performances, spectacular choreography and tunes that set toes and fingers tapping in melodic bliss. It’s good old fashioned fun – musical theatre that emphasises the music.