Behind the scenes at Half a Sixpence

9. HALF A SIXPENCE Charlie Stemp 'Arthur Kipps'. Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench
Charlie Stemp in Half a Sixpence
Photo credit: Michael Le Poer Trench

Last week (thanks to Raw PR) the Noël Coward Theatre opened its doors to a whole host of bloggers, giving an exclusive look behind the scenes at smash hit musical Half a Sixpence. Since transferring to the West End from Chichester it has enjoyed huge success, seemingly every other month announcing extensions to its run. To celebrate this, rather than simply invite us in to watch the show (obviously a treat in itself) we were given the chance to hear about Charlie Stemp’s experiences from audition to West End leading man, learn a snippet of the Flash, Bang, Wallop choreography from dance captain Jaye Juliette Elster and hold a brief Q&A with cast members Emma Williams, Sam O’Rourke, Bethany Huckle and Charlie Stemp too.

Split into two groups, mine was first sent in to see Charlie, who introduced us to his beloved banjo Babs (she’s surprisingly heavy!). He’d never picked up a banjo before, or even really sung by himself onstage before – initially when he went up for audition it was for the ensemble, but it was suggested that he try for the lead role. Eleven rounds later and he got the part! Everyone had to learn the banjo for the finale of the show, and rehearsing that in Jerwood Space turned out to be an interesting experience: “These things are great, when you play them well they sound lovely – when you play them wrong they really don’t sound so nice! So imagine 26 people all in this tiny little studio, and there’s different people on every level auditioning and rehearsing, and we all just made so much noise… So we had to soundproof the room that we were in just to learn the banjos.”

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The cast of Half A Sixpence
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Charlie’s “big boss” is producer Cameron Mackintosh, so it was quite daunting the first time they had to go through one of the numbers: “The most petrifying moment of my life was being in a room having had about four hours of lessons, not having a single clue really what the steps were…” But moments like this along the way have provided a great learning curve for him, and he really does seem to relish every second.

Remarkably after such a strenuous audition and rehearsal process, a run at Chichester and now several months in the West End his enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have waned – if anything it’s increasing as he really settles into his leading man role. He feels really lucky with the rest of the cast he has alongside him, getting lots of support from Emma Williams, Ian Bartholomew and others when he needed help. And outside of that he has a burgeoning interest in gardening to distract him when he’s not at the show, “I made a rockery!”

Following this, we switched places with the other group and headed to meet Jaye onstage. Having seen the show before (as well as their electrifying performance at the WhatsOnStage Awards) I knew how spectacular Flash, Bang, Wallop gets as it heads towards the climax – and of course we were being taught some of the moves in the latter part of the song! This number is a real test of stamina for the cast, as it is an all-singing, all-dancing affair that steadily builds to a real burst of energy, providing a full-on cardiovascular workout but still requiring a lot of character work. Jaye revealed that one of her notes in the past was to make sure there are real smiles as they hold their pose at the end – and not just gasps for air!

What we learned was actually just around 10 seconds of content, though within that there were three discrete sections involving lots of twists, turns and jumps. And what made it even more daunting for us was some of the cast appearing for warm-up, watching our efforts while they waited! No pressure at all – especially for those of us who’d for whatever reason been pushed to the front…

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After this there was just time for a quick Q&A before everyone began warm-up. We had a couple of interesting stories of mishaps onstage; Charlie once got a bar stool stuck underneath the motorbike in the final scene as they were attempting to exit, which resulted in confusion for the rest of the cast who had to decide whether to carry on with the track or watch what was going on. And the revolve failing during Look Alive was quite a stressful moment for the actors playing apprentices – less so for the shoppers, calmly carrying on as the apprentices tried to move everything manually!

We also learnt that Emma’s favourite number in the show is Pick Out A Simple Tune (as it’s the only big dance number she gets to do), Bethany’s is A Little Touch Of Happiness (for the fun value, as well as getting to duet with one of her best mates), Sam’s is In The Middle There’s Me (as it’s a calmer moment for the boys to sing together) and Charlie’s varies depending on his energy levels: If The Rain’s Got To Fall when he’s enjoying the dancing, In The Middle There’s Me if he’s in more of a singing mood, and Pick Out A Simple Tune purely for Babs! And if they had Money To Burn, Sam would buy a DB9 (he misses driving now he’s living in London), Charlie would get some nice grass seed for his garden, Bethany would buy a nice apartment in Covent Garden, and Emma would pay off her family’s mortgages.

For Sam and Emma the question of what their dream role might be was difficult as they both love the idea of originating a role and Bethany isn’t sure about the immediate future, but at some point in her career she’d love to be Glinda. For Charlie it was simple: Bert in Mary Poppins! He’s wanted to do it since childhood (apparently so keen he’d accidentally break his mum’s brooms by putting them up the chimney) and has now started dropping hints to Cam Mack himself, so watch this space…

15. HALF A SIXPENCE Sam O'Rourke 'Buggins', Alex Hope 'Sid' & Callum Train 'Pierce'. Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench
Sam O’Rourke, Alex Hope and Callum Train in Half a Sixpence
Photo credit: Michael Le Poer Trench

As for the show itself, it remains as joyous as I remember it from my previous visit in December. The great thing about getting to see it again is the chance to pick up on all the extra things going on across the stage – although Charlie’s performance is so magnetic it really is difficult to stop yourself from just watching him the entire time! Also being a few rows further back this time allowed me to survey the whole of the stage properly, spotting the chandelier swing in the background as Pick Out A Simple Tune came to a close – and later on have a giggle at Gerard Carey’s drunken photographer struggle with the revolve.

At this performance Rebecca Jayne Davies was covering the role of Ann in Devon-Elise Johnson’s absence, bringing a feisty yet sweet charm to the part. She would normally play Sid’s fiancée Mary, so is obviously used to being part of the show every day, but hasn’t had a lot of time on as one of the leads – so it was wonderful to see how much confidence she has in putting her own stamp on Ann. Her cheekiness and great partnership with Bethany as Flo made A Little Touch Of Happiness a really fun highlight in this particular show. Now that a longer run is confirmed, there are bound to be a few more understudy appearances cropping up, so it’ll definitely be worth extra visits to see what they’re like too.

13. HALF A SIXPENCE Ian Bartholomew 'Chitterlow'. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Ian Bartholomew in Half a Sixpence
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

After the show there was one final treat in store: a backstage tour! Once the stage had been reset, stage manager Kristi brought us behind the curtain and let us have a quick look around the wings and the quick-change rooms. It was amazing to have a poke around and spot a load of the props and costumes we’d seen a short while before in the show – particularly the room chock full of banjos and the seagull perched up in the lighting rig!

Each show that gets installed in the theatre has its own particular needs in terms of the layout and functions of the rooms; Half a Sixpence has so many quick changes that they soon realised it would be impossible to function with a single dedicated room on one side of the stage, so they had to convert a principal dressing room to meet this need. Charlie is the only one with his own dressing room downstairs by the stage – the rest are a bit more of a trek, with some several floors up…

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All that remained was to make our way out via the stage door (no adoring fans waiting for us though), still with the biggest grins on our faces. That is the Half a Sixpence effect! If they could bottle that feeling they’d make a fortune, but actually they’re probably still doing alright from ticket sales – so get yourself along to the Noël Coward Theatre while you can to experience it for yourself!

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Half a Sixpence is running at the Noël Coward Theatre and is currently booking until 2 September 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.

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