If there is one theatre outside of London that has played home to some of the most critically acclaimed musical productions of recent times, it is the Chichester Festival Theatre. In recent years, productions have included Guys and Dolls, Gypsy and Mack and Mabel, all of which have either made the move to the West End or embarked on a UK Tour. This year, it was a reworking of the Tommy Steele star machine Half A Sixpence that came to the Chichester Festival Theatre with a new book by Julian Fellowes, new music by musical masters Stiles and Drewe and a cast led by some shining new stars.
I must admit that this review may be a little bit biased. Half A Sixpence has been an absolute favourite of mine since I watched the film when I was little and the opportunity to see it live on stage was too exciting to miss. When the show opened in Chichester, I was waiting for news of a tour or a move to the West End. And indeed, following rave reviews, Half A Sixpence was given a home in theatreland, in the beautiful Noel Coward Theatre. This intimate theatre with its smaller stage plays the perfect home to this good old fashioned English musical hit.
It has been a trend in recent years to bring in a star to be the lead in a new musical, a way of pulling in the crowd, but this was not needed in this case. In fact, Half a sixpence bucks the trend and does the exact opposite. Unknown new comer Charlie Stemp leads this cast with the most incredible energy and style you would think that you are looking at someone with years of experience. With this show, there is always going to be the association with Tommy Steele, and the worry that they could have a lead playing Tommy Steele playing Arthur Kipps. But no, there is no sign of this here. Stemp is new and refreshing bringing new depth to Kipps and his relationships with those around him. He bounces around the stage with boundless energy, performing in 21 out of 23 musical numbers with his cheeky Chappie smile and precise and perfectly executed dance moves. He has the star quality and it is no wonder why the critics are raving about him. He has got a big career ahead of him and I am sure that he has some awards coming his way in the future.
With Stemp at the helm, an incredible cast backs him up all the way. Devon-Elise Johnson plays Ann here and I love that she plays her as feisty and knowing her own mind. She knows what she wants from Arthur and won’t put up with any of his La Di Da rich gentleman behaviour. A moment that I picked up on and loved is her smile in the opening of act 2 spectacular ‘Pick out a simple tune’ when she is watching Artie as she calls him beginning to play the banjo. You feel that she sees the boy she used to know when they were children and feel her sadness when she sees that she is losing him to the world of high society. Another highlight is her act 1 duet with friend Flo (played brilliantly by Bethany Huckle). ‘Just a little touch of happiness’ is a famously funny innuendo laden spree that will bring a smile to your face and make you just love them even more.
Ann’s rival to Arthur’s affections is of course Helen Walsingham, played here by three times Olivier nominated actress Emma Williams. She plays the role with an undeniable grace and elegance and her voice is to die for. One thing I loved about the book for this show is that it allowed for a lot more character development then the film. As good as the film is, it is all about Kipps. The other characters are there but you don’t know a lot about them. Here, the audience learn a lot more about Helen and her desire to be more than a young women following her mother around. ‘Believe in yourself’ shows this clearly as she and Arthur agree to believe in each other. Even though you want childhood sweethearts Arthur and Ann to be together, you still end up feeling sorry for Helen when she doesn’t get him. It’s clear that Mrs Walsingham just wants Helen and Arthur to wed so that they can rebuild their family name with his fortune but nevertheless you can see that Helen really does love Arthur and wants to be with him even though he doesn’t fit in in their world.
Staying on the subject of this book allowing the audience to know more about each character, I believe that the reworked version of ‘money to burn’ illustrates this perfectly. Instead of just learning Arthur’s dream of a banjo, we learn about what Sid, Buggins, Pierce and Flo would do if they had money to burn and I must say that I love this. It allows you to feel more involved in all of the character’s lives and not focus solely on the life of Kipps. All of the songs, be they new or reworked, are brilliant and will be stuck in your head for weeks.
Another character that I just have to mention is Chitterlow, played by Ian Bartholomew. The playwright who comes bounding in with the news that Arthur has a fortune waiting for him is a relatively small role in the film but here you see him becoming much more involved in Arthur’s life, acting almost like a guide for him. His song ‘back the right horse’ is incredible and I’m sure it spoke on many levels to the theatre critics in the audience. Bartholomew plays him with a wonderful energy, guiding Arthur through his struggles with romance and trying to help him negotiate the high class world.
The set appears simple at first but then you realise how effective it is. A four way revolving stage allows for a seemingly effortless movement from one scene into the next. I also feel that it helps to illustrate the whirlwind world that Arthur finds himself thrown into, particularly in ‘If the rains got to fall’ and ‘pick out a simple tune’ where the revolve allows others to move quickly around him and gives the impression that he is struggling to keep up in this world of high class parties and musical evenings.
Andrew Wrights choreography is incredible. This show hosts some of the best group numbers that I have seen in a long time. It’s so precise and intricate, and is executed perfectly by this brilliant cast. The finale ‘Flash bang wallop’ is a show stopper with its leaps, kicks and turns that makes you want to dance with them. I hope that he gets some recognition for this brilliant work.
In conclusion, Half A Sixpence is a work of art. It is an absolute dream of a show. I reckon it must be impossible to walk out without a huge grin on your face. It is a good old fashioned musical, with new life breathed into it with the new book, amazing new songs and an absolutely wonderful dream of a cast. Less then a week after seeing it, I booked again and can not wait to go back to see it again. It was amazing to see my favourite musical brought to life on the stage. Half a Sixpence really is the golden show of the year and I hope that it has a long run ahead of it.