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"the real joy comes in the dazzling choreography"

Critic Rating

17 November 2016, Noel Coward Theatre
Guest Reviewer Guest Reviewer
Fresh from taking Chichester by storm over the summer, Half A Sixpence comes swinging into the Noël Coward Theatre on a wave of banjo strings, bally good feelings and bloody great choreography. It also possesses a properly star-making performance in the form of Charlie Stemp – plucked from the company of the touring version of Mamma Mia and rising to the occasion, and considerable demands, of leading man with a remarkable charismatic ease that leads you to believe we could be watching Stemp for years to come.

He takes the role of Arthur Kipps, immortalised by Tommy Steele in the 1963 original production, an orphan living in Kent whose life is turned upside down first by the unexpected inheritance of a fortune and then the lessons he learns about what money can and cannot buy. Directed by Rachel Kavanuagh and featuring a rewritten book by Julian Fellowes and a score that blends new songs by Stiles and Drewe along with several of David Heneker’s original compositions, it’s the kind of feel-good, crowd-pleasing musical that revels in its old-fashioned nature – a gentle Sunday afternoon of a treat.

Stemp is hugely appealing, whether dancing up a storm, strumming his instrument or wandering bewildered through the world at his changed fortunes, and he connects well with both Devon-Elise Johnson (another discovery from that Mamma Mia tour) as the girl he knew before he got rich and Emma Williams as the one who arrives on the scene later. All three work effectively to give the show the emotional heft it has but the real joy comes in the dazzling choreography from Andrew Wright. In two humongous production numbers, he demonstrates once again a keen understanding of how to bring genuine joy to the stage, particularly in the strikingly designed ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’.

For all that is great about Half A Sixpence though, it’s not a perfect show. Those two big standout numbers both come in the second act, so the first half ends up feeling a little too gentle, lacking the necessary oomph for a real standout success. And its sexual and gender politics aren’t without issue either. The sole apprentice working with Arthur is only allowed to dream of having a husband and child in her future, the wife-to-be of one of the major supporting characters isn’t given a single opportunity to speak in any of her scenes, and the stereotypically camp stylings of the photographer at the end are a retrograde step when it comes to onstage representations of homosexuality.

You could argue that it’s down to the source material but considering that the book has been rewritten for this production, it is disappointing that Julian Fellowes hasn’t opted to address any of these issues. Likewise with the lack of people of colour in the cast, if contemporary productions aren’t willing to make the effort to do things differently, to address the attitudes of the past whilst still appealing to the sense of nostalgia that is undoubtedly always appealing, then when will things ever change? Theatre-makers of all shapes, sizes and stature have a responsibility and it is hard not to feel that it has been shirked here.

That’s not to say that there isn’t much to enjoy about Half A Sixpence, especially in the second act when all the daftness of classic musical theatre comes to the fore. ‘Flash Bang Wallop’ is likely the sound you hear as people rush to buy tickets – don’t miss out.

Reviewed by Ian Foster.


Charlie Stemp puts on a dazzling performance

Critic Rating

14 November 2016, Noel Coward Theatre
Shaun Millis Shaun Millis
As the show opens, we see Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps and Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann Pornick, childhood sweethearts about to be torn apart, but keeping one half of a sixpence each to remember each other by.

With the musical’s title, this isn’t exactly a shock. It also sets precedent for the rest of the show. Half a Sixpence is a musical that isn’t going to break any boundaries and isn’t going to shock or surprise you. However, it also isn’t going to offend you either.

The young Arthur Kipps is a poor boy raised by his aunt and uncle, over-worked and under-appreciated in his job, while dreaming of having enough money to court the delightful Helen of the revered Walsingham family and also have enough left over to buy a banjo. He surprisingly falls into money (rather unsurprisingly) and manages to get everything he has always dreamed of, however life at the top is not quite what he thought it would be.

Throughout the course of Half a Sixpence every character introduction feels like a massive signpost to exactly where this story is going. It is perhaps here where the piece starts to creak and show its age. These are the same stories told for centuries and now cannot help but feel a bit trite and clichéd.

The show has had a new book by Julian Fellowes and new songs by George Stile and Anthony Drewe, alongside reworkings of the Heneker originals. This just makes Half a Sixpence feel fresh enough and not purely another stale 1960s musical to find its way back to the West End.

Despite the underlying story, the cast really do shine. Charlie Stemp puts on a dazzling performance in the lead role with enough energy and gusto to put a smile on any audience member’s face. He may not be the most pitch perfect singer in the West End, but the brilliance with which he runs, dances and flips across the stage while he does more than makes up for it, and makes Arthur Kipps an incredibly endearing character.

The big company numbers such as ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’ and ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop!’ are expertly choreographed and performed, with the cast frantically building to a brilliant crescendo, allowing you, for a moment, to forget any cynicism on the rather twee nature of it all.

Half a Sixpence definitely isn’t going to redefine West End theatre any time soon, however this transfer from the Chichester Festival Theatre certainly holds its own. For a good-old traditional musical, it’s one of the best new revivals this year.

Reviewed by Shaun Millis


Dominic Cavendish
And in Charlie Stemp, who plays Arthur, the production boasts one of those fairytale finds that’s the stuff of legend. With just two professional musical credits to his name, the 22-year-old Londoner has a smile (less forced than Steele’s) as bright as the Oxford Street Christmas lights, springs about like a mountain goat and, crucially, suggests the Edwardian innocence and boyish simplicity of spirit that Wells was after.
Broadway World
The unstoppable George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have seamlessly renewed and added to David Heneker's original score, and Julian Fellowes has done the same for Beverley Cross's book, giving this gently passé show a smart new suit of clothes.
The Upcoming
And then, of course, there is Flash, Bang, Wallop. Rightly the most famous tune from the musical, the number is the one instance where everything, from the story’s cheerful view of relative poverty to its Carry On-style humour to its delightful choreography, comes together to create something truly unforgettable.
Ben Hewis
Complimenting all the above is Paul Brown's stunning design and Andrew Wright's ebullient choreography. All in all this is a charming night out that is certain to warm the chilliest of London evenings this winter. The musical of the year.
BritishTheatre.com
All in all, this collaboration between the Chichester Festival Theatre and Cameron Mackintosh is a splendidly handsome revival of a much-loved classic story, offering a fresh look at one of the greatest British musical scores ever written, and incorporating a lot of fine new writing by some of the most experienced creatives in the industry. It’s a delight.