Half a SixpencePosted by Laurence Green
Laurence Green reviews Rachel Kavanaugh's adaptation of H.G Wells semi-autobiographical novel, Half a Sixpence.
A star is born in the shape of Charlie Stemp who brings an impressive mixture of singing, dancing, acting and banjo playing to the role of Kipps in Rachel Kavanaugh’s superb production of Half a Sixpence, which has transferred from the Chichester Festival Theatre to the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End. The musical is a completely fresh adaption of the H.G Wells semi-autobiographical novel which reunites book-writer Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, with British songwriting duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, following their previous international success on Mary Poppins.
Arthur Kipps, an orphan and over-worked draper’s assistant at the turn of the last century, unexpectedly inherits a fortune that propels him into high society and turns his life upside down. His childhood companion Ann Pornick watches with dismay as Arthur is made over in a new image by the beautiful and classy Helen Walsingham, and briefly forgets his old mates. Both young women undoubtedly love Arthur but which of them, should he listen to? With the help of his friends, Arthur learns that if you want to have the chance of living the right life, you need to make the right choices.
As well as providing an illuminating insight into human nature, self-worth, snobbery and the class system (a sterling job by adaptor Julian Fellowes) the show is a joyous, exhilarating affair that had the first night’s audience on their feet. Indeed it is that rare thing in a musical when the writing, music and dance, lighting, staging, costumes and performances come together in a perfect mix. Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe have diligently enhanced the late David Heneker’s charming and catchy numbers and brilliantly supplemented them at every turn. The score is a potent blend of saloon-bar brass sounds of a band stand. ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’, the uproarious wedding-photo jamboree and best known number now comes at the end of the show. But it has strong competition – ‘Pick Out a Simple Tune’ sees Arthur pluck at his at his banjo at a posh party in such a mesmerising way that it has the snooty guests joining in, bashing the silverware and even swinging off chandeliers.
Designer Paul Brown has created a period set of promenades and wrought iron railings, giving the felling of a classic seaside town, while the video projects conjure up images of rolling countryside and sleepy backwater villages, only to de disrupted by the dream of the Walsingham Family Castle.
But there is no getting away from the fact that the evening belongs to Charlie Stemp, who redefines the role played by Tommy Steele in the original production and is a revelation as Kipps. From his infections grin, that welcomes the audience at the start of the show to his boyish charm and care about his rags-to-riches tale. He is strongly supported by Emma Williams as the delightful Helen Walsingham and Devon-Elise Johnson as his down-to-earth childhood sweetheart, Ann Pornick, with whom he shared half a sixpence as a token of their eternal bond.
A truly five-star musical then that you will not want to end!
Half a Sixpence
Playing until 11 February 2017 at the Noel Coward Theatre
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