Review of Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre
There's something to be said for theatre as escapism, and as 2016 rolls towards a turbulent end we need musical comedy more than ever. That's not to trivialise the impressive work seen in this handsome revival of Half a Sixpence which has arrived in London as the latest in a long line of transfers from Chichester Festival Theatre. Producer Cameron Mackintosh pulls out all the punches in this glorious revival that sees the 1963 musical given an impressive lick of paint by an established creative team, resulting in a charming British classic that's set to delight audiences of all ages, and not a moment too soon.
If there's one book writer with a proven track record of effectively portraying the differences in the British class system it's Julian Fellowes, and in adapting the original book of the musical by Beverley Cross he maintains the quintessentially British charm whilst adding a great deal of heart to the material that softens the characters and helps the audience find their innate magnetism.
Yes, the female characters are faintly sketched and like any musical from the 1960s sing songs about wanting and needing a man to feel fulfilled, but the material is played with a wink in its eye and a conscious nod to a forgotten time that helps gloss over the gender and class politics without ever feeling too trivial. All the familiar tropes of British musical theatre are assembled, from knees ups in the local pub to the parasol laden garden party that descends into a riotous song and dance about the most British of conversations – the weather. It doesn't break ground yet never pretends to – instead you get to sit back and delight in both the spectacle and finely tuned performances.
The David Heneker score may not be a hit-a-minute classic but thanks to some careful doctoring by the genius of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe it's allowed to flourish in an almost perfect rendering. Skilled at manipulating and enhancing material, songs such as “If The Rain's Got to Fall” and “Flash, Bang Wallop” sit neatly against new production numbers and ballads in fresh new vocal and dance arrangements that lift the material considerably into the top drawer of British musical theatre, blessed with sensitive orchestrations by William David Brohn that balance sensitivity and theatricality.
Much of the success of the show hinges on the central character of Arthur Kipps, the draper turned gentleman who is forced to choose between the high life with the haughty yet beautiful Helen Walsingham (a delightful Emma Williams), and his down to earth childhood sweetheart to whom he shared half a sixpence with as a token of their eternal bond. In the role made famous by Tommy Steele Charlie Stemp is a revelation, and lands in London as a fully formed West End leading man.
From his infectious grin that welcomes the audience at the top of the show to his boyish charm and bouncy manner, he holds you in the palm of his hand and makes you care about his rags to riches tale, however inconsequential it may initially feel. An impressive dancer he tears up the stage with a gentle yet accomplished presence that has you rooting for him to the very end.
Andrew Wright's choreography is his best yet, frenetic lively and full of imagination. He harnesses the skill of both Stemp and his uniformly strong cast compounding production number on production number to effectively build to the climax of “Flash Bang Wallop”, successfully repositioned to late in the second act. Paul Brown's functional yet beautiful set is transformed from a deep thrust stage to the conventional proscenium, offering one of the most impressive visuals currently on offer in the West End.
There's fantastic support from Ian Bartholomew as Chitterlow, Emma Williams as Helen and Devon-Elise Johnson as the delightful Ann, alongside a finely tuned ensemble who commit to the humour and tone with the correct level of tongue in cheek energy and respect for the material. Far from a perfect musical it's brimming with British charm that forgives its narrative and musical shortcomings. A great big hug of a show that's as thrilling to watch as it is comforting. Pure tonic for the soul and the senses that has you leaving the theatre walking on air.
Half a Sixpence Tickets are now on sale.
What the Press Said...
"Slick musical update lacks emotional clout."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This is the best version of this musical London has yet seen, oozing with confidence and style in Rachel Kavanaugh’s staging, and brimming over with spick-and-span choreographic delights"
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph