Based on Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, a lesser-known (& semi-autobiographical) novel by HG Wells, Half A Sixpence is a semi-revival that ran at the Chichester Festival Theatre over the summer and is now enjoying an extended run at London’s Noël Coward Theatre.
Arthur Kipps leaves his childhood sweetheart, Ann, to become a shop assistant – but leaves her with half a sixpence as a token. The years pass by & they don’t see each other and Arthur takes a fancy to Miss Walsingham, after her regular visits to the shop, even attending a woodwork class she runs. Quite by chance he discovers that he’s been left a fortune by his grandfather, allowing him to join the upper echelons of society and even call on his beloved Miss Walsingham. They quickly become engaged, but Arthur struggles to fit in; upon encountering Ann again he starts to wonder if he’s been making the right choices…
Despite being set over one hundred years ago, the material still resonates in the 21st century. From a mention of the living wage, to attempts at social mobility – whether we admit it or not, there is still the issue of class to contend with in this country (particularly living in austerity under a Tory government), so Arthur Kipps is a hugely relatable figure. Plus it’s all boxed up in a charming & heartwarming love story, so the heavier themes don’t overtake events and you still end up with a joyous two & a half hours of theatre.
Stiles & Drewe have adapted David Heneker’s original score and added some of their own new compositions, resulting in a wave of wonderful show tunes. They are most reminiscent of the music hall style which would have been prevalent at the time in which the story is set – this gives it a great sense of nostalgia, as well as bringing a joyful quality & a feeling of community that draws the audience in. The reaction to Flash, Bang Wallop is an experience in itself!
Andrew Wright’s choreography is simply outstanding. With the big ensemble numbers it’s quite hard to choose where to look, as there is so much wonderful dancing all across the stage. However, it’s definitely not too busy by any means, and all elements fit together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle. The design of the whole piece is absolutely exquisite; from a beautiful set to wonderful costumes, Paul Brown has created a masterpiece.
There is a fantastically wide-ranging company, with some brilliantly entertaining turns from Ian Bartholomew as Chitterlow, Emma Williams as Miss Helen Walsingham, Alex Hope as Ann’s brother Sid and Gerard Carey as both James Walsingham & the photographer.
Devon-Elise Johnson is sweet yet feisty as Ann, with an incredible voice to boot. Her emotional side is on show, as well as her fun-loving nature; you can’t help but feel for her when it seems like Arthur’s moved on.
It’s not just the show itself that’s fantastic, but the story of Charlie Stemp. A definite Theatreland fairy tale is ever there was one! Plucked from obscurity to take on his first starring role, he is a natural fit for the description ‘West End star’. Stemp is fearless in his approach, tackling the energetic & intricate choreography, challenging score & near omnipresence onstage with apparent ease. Despite his occasional thoughtlessness, Kipps is an eminently lovable character, and that is enhanced exponentially by Stemp’s performance. He oozes confidence & appears to be having the time of his life – this only makes the whole experience more enjoyable for the entire audience. In our current climate of stunt casting, it’s refreshing & exciting to see a new star being born in front of our very eyes.
My verdict? An old-school musical that manages to feel fresh & lively, warming the audience’s hearts & getting their toes tapping – it really is a triumph!
Half A Sixpence runs at the Noël Coward Theatre and is currently booking until 6 May 2017. Tickets are available online and from the box office.