Reviewed at: London’s Noel Coward Theatre
Half a Sixpence is currently playing at London’s Noel Coward’s Theatre and wowing audiences on a daily basis. This production originated in Chichester last summer and broke records there and rightly transferred into London.
The show about Arthur Kipps, an orphan and a draper’s assistant, who suddenly inherits a fortune which propels him into high society. Arthur’s childhood sweetheart, Ann Pornick watches in dismay as he is made over with a new image by classy Helen Walsingham. Both women love Arthur and with the help of his friends, he must learn that if you want to have the chance of living the right life, you need to make the right choices.
This is a fresh adaptation, so isn’t the show that you may know of previous. It’s based on H.G. Wells’s semi-autobiographical novel ‘Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul’ and has reunited the award-winning team which brought Disney’s Mary Poppins to the stage. Downtown Abbey creator, Julian Fellowes, has written the book and the songwriting duo of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have given it a wonderfully fresh new score. It does retain some of the classic songs from David Heneker which were in the original 1963 production. These include ‘Flash Bang Wallop’, ‘Money To Burn’ and ‘Half A Sixpence’.
This truly is the theatre at it’s best. You’ll be toe-tapping throughout and you’ll be whisked away through the story with a beaming smile. The set uses a wonderful revolve to take you between the locations where the story takes place. At moments you feel right there at the seaside and then you’ll be back in the drapers. It’s wonderfully creative. Designed by Paul Brown. With the assistance of superb lighting designed by Paule Constable and the sound designed by Mick Potter, this really has to be one of the strongest creative teams on any show.
Andrew Wright’s choreographer is first class. I’ve been a long time admirer of Andrew’s work and this is another superb showing. The energy and pizzazz that the cast gives to the piece are stunning to watch and as I say you just sit there beaming. It’s just joyful movement. Andrew’s work makes him a double Olivier-award winning choreographer and he is one of the finest working in the industry.
The music in this show is truly fantastic. Those original songs of David Heneker that have been retained have been given a new lease of life. Stiles and Drewe are two of Britain’s finest songwriters and this is another stellar piece of work. There are so many superb songs that I could pick out but my personal favourites including the brilliant company number ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’, which I defy you to not have stuck in your head for days or weeks after you’ve seen the show! ‘A Proper Gentleman’ and ‘Back The Right Horse’ are two more great songs from the first act. ‘A Little Touch Of Happiness’ is just one of those songs that stand out. It’s performed brilliantly too. Of course, you can’t overlook ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ which is just a theatre classic and is the one song I go too when I need a quick smile. The work Stiles and Drewe have done on the score is one of the major reasons this production has done so well.
The cast here is one of the strongest companies I have watched for some time. Ian Bartholomew’s Chitterlow is just a joy. From the first scene you just adore this character, he is completely madcap but just joyful. Ian has one of the purest voices I’ve heard too. His performance in the brilliant Mrs Henderson Presents recently was one of the standouts of that show and again he brings a great turn here. ‘Back The Right Horse’ is a great number and that’s really down to Ian’s performance.
Emma Williams, who to me is one of the finest British female performers, again gives a stunning turn as Helen Walsingham. She becomes instantly watchable anytime she is on stage. She has such a strong stage presence. Again she was incredible in the recent Mrs Henderson Presents and it’s fantastic to see her give another wonderful performance. I could listen to her sing the phone book I think, her voice is smooth and charming. Emma is really one of the most beautiful people to watch.
Vivien Parry’s Mrs Walsingham is great. She’s almost the villain of the piece and it’s hard to like the character but that’s thanks to the performance Vivien gives. Jane How’s Lady Punnet is brilliant. You can’t help but fall slightly in love with her! She really excels in ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’ and again you just sit beaming watching her. Gerard Carey’s two characters couldn’t be more different. First, he is James Walsingham, who is the shows ‘villain’, again you don’t really trust the character and that’s because of the performance. His second character, the photographer in ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ which is just brilliant. He is increasingly drunk throughout the scene and is just hilarious and has a couple of fantastic quips “Hold it, Let’s give it one more bash, Hold it, Now watch me as I flash” and the even funnier “Hold it, It’s time the bride was kissed, Hold it, Oh Dear I think I’m pis… (Company interrupts) Hold it”. Genius. Nick Butcher was a stand out from the ensemble in a couple of scenes particular in the drapers.
Alex Hope is excellent as Sid Pornick, Arthur’s best friend, and Ann’s sister. We did have a couple of understudies as the other drapers that Arthur works with and unfortunately, I didn’t note their names but they were superb.
The whole ensemble is just incredible. Full of energy and clear passion and joy for what they are doing. They give their all throughout and whilst there are some superb leading performances it’s really worth noting how strong each and every member of the company is.
I must pick out the three strongest performances though. Bethany Huckle is just brilliant as Flo. One of the drapers and Ann’s friend. Every moment she is on stage she shines and stands out. If she doesn’t go on and have a huge career then there is no justice. I know I’m running out of superlatives for the company and the show itself but there is not enough praise I can heap on Bethany. She is a star.
Another two stars are born here. Devon-Elise Johnson is beautiful throughout as Ann. Her performance is just top class. Again she will go on to HUGE things in the future too and rightly so. She is just a truly lovely performer to watch. She has a beautiful smile too which shines throughout the show. She is also fierce when she needs to be. Her vocals are stunning too, ‘Long Ago’ and ‘Half a Sixpence’ show off what a great voice she has. Devon and Bethany’s duet of ‘A Little Touch of Happiness’ is one of the best moments of the show. I’ve listened to the song so many times since and it never fails to make me smile. It’s cheeky and naughty but just so much fun.
The undoubted star of the show is Charlie Stemp who is the lead Arthur Kipps. He is simply extraordinary throughout. I have never seen a performance with more energy with his dance and all-round acting. He is just incredible from the first scene right to the end. Although he is full of movement not once does he sound or look tired. He can sing so strongly, ‘She’s Too Far Above Me’, ‘If The Rain’s Got To Fall’ and ‘In The Middle There’s Me’ are just three examples of many numbers he excels in. I have NEVER seen a performance as good as his and I don’t know if I’ll ever see one better. Imelda Staunton’s Momma Rose in Gypsy is up there as is Trevor Dion Nicholas’s Genie in Aladdin but Charlie is a class above everyone here. This is his break and he deserves to go so far.
At the end of the show, the whole audience arose and gave the cast a hugely deserved standing ovation. The fantastic finale where the company forms a banjo orchestra is joyous and you leave the theatre with an extra boost in your step and a huge tapping of your foot!
So to wrap up you can tell that I really loved this show and I would more than recommend it. I am currently battling anxiety and depression but this show gave me an escape and ever since I saw it a couple of weeks ago I have had the soundtrack on and it gives me that escape. It gives me a boost and that is just with thanks to all the cast and creative team. It’s one of the best shows that I have seen for quite some time.
Grab yourself a ticket before it’s too late. The show is running at the Noel Coward Theatre in London until Saturday 2nd September 2017. Do NOT miss it!