BWW Review: HALF A SIXPENCE, Noel Coward Theatre, 17 November 2016
This Sixties Tommy Steele vehicle is joyfully reborn in another Chichester Festival Theatre musical triumph, now comfortably ensconced in the West End. The unstoppable George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have seamlessly renewed and added to David Heneker's original score, and Julian Fellowes has done the same for Beverley Cross's book, giving this gently passé show a smart new suit of clothes.
HG Wells's semi-autobiographical novel - drawing on his early life in Edwardian Kent - centres on orphan Arthur Kipps, who swaps drudgery in a drapers' shop for the life of a gentleman when an unexpected inheritance comes his way. But he soon finds himself caught between two worlds, and two girls: upper-crust fantasy Helen Walsingham, who promises to teach him the ways of high society, and parlourmaid Ann, his childhood sweetheart who holds the titular love token. It's My Fair Lady meets Great Expectations.
Fellowes's facility with upstairs/downstairs drama adds some heft to what could otherwise be a fluffily insubstantial romcom (and a heavily telegraphed one at that). Class divisions are revealed as a sham, with Kipps only needing a change of jacket - and a handy fortune - to pass from one to the other, while Helen's family aren't as affluent as they make pains to appear. Nobility must bow to pragmatism.
Yet there's some Downton-style having of cake and eating it too in a show that skewers aristocracy while revelling in its stylish excesses, advocating for the simple life more in theory than in practice (except when it comes to the Brexity rejection of that ghastly foreign food). There's also a core reactionary message about the perils of social climbing, which threatens the extinction of this golden era. The downtrodden poor are too cheery, and the idle rich too beguiling, for any wavering criticism to stick.
Yet even Jeremy Corbyn might find it hard to resist this show's ebullient charms. Appropriately, the arts are the uniting strand: just as Kipps's mates unite in song, Stiles and Drewe's barnstorming "Pick Out A Simple Tune" turns a staid musical soiree into a manic shindig punctuated by silver spoon-clacking, a banjo vs organ duel, and toffs swinging from the chandeliers.
It's also an allowable form of ambition in a story generally protective of the status quo, with Kipps's Wells-like literary aspirations encouraged by Helen - who runs a well-meaning but futile woodcarving class - and facilitated through his relationship with a playwright. Talent and creativity offer the path to fulfilment, rather than money.
In contrast to the depressing trend of stunt-casted shows, Half A Sixpence doesn't import a star, but births one. The marvellous 22-year-old Charlie Stemp is both balletically fleet-footed and a sweetly relatable cheeky chappie, openly acknowledging and making sympathetic his dithering character's flaws. His voice is natural and charming, his physicality astonishing, with sharp turns, daring tricks and exuberant elevation; love makes him soar.
Ian Bartholomew is a delight as the eccentric playwright, who offers a welcome element of unpredictability, as are Gerard Carey as both a dodgy financial advisor and an ultra-camp photographer, and Alex Hope as the budding socialist. Jane How relishes the Maggie Smith role of grande dame with pithy one-liners, and Vivien Parry is a fearsome snob of a potential mother-in-law, feathered hat bristling.
If the girls are stuck in husband-hunting mode - and castigated for it, even though it's their sole means of advancement - Emma Williams still brings dignity and determination to Helen, trapped by circumstance and yearning for a purpose in life. Devon-Elise Johnson is an appropriately faithful Ann, though truly shines in the innuendo-laden, literal end-of-the-pier comic duet with Bethany Huckle's genial, similarly overlooked Flo.
But the real joy is the ensemble numbers, with Rachel Kavanaugh's excellently drilled company - supported by a lively orchestra - delivering ravishing choreography from Andrew Wright, who's on top form here. Wright provides fantastic variety, from the lilting, wistful and lyrical to dynamic and propulsive, the cast threatening to burst into the audience with their thrilling, full-throttle knees-ups.
There's also witty use of the multi-ringed revolve, with performers riding or dodging it as it whisks around Paul Brown's expressive set, beautifully lit by Paule Constable. The drapers' shop is in muted earth tones, as are the staff, while the aristos swan in wearing gleaming white; attendees at the soiree are in lime green and yellow to match the expensive furnishings. A nostalgic charmer that looks set to be a flash bang wallop hit.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan