Review – Half a Sixpence – revisited – on its last night – Noel Coward Theatre, 2nd September 2017

Half a SixpenceLast Christmas (no, this isn’t a George Michael tribute, but God bless him nonetheless) we saw Half a Sixpence as part of our usual let’s spend a few December nights in London seeing shows because we never go out ritual. Here’s the link to my blog review of that great night. We felt totally exhilarated by the end in the knowledge that we’d not only seen a great show but also a fantastic new star in the shape of Charlie Stemp.

charlie-stempEvery so often, I get visited by Avenue Q’s Bad Idea Bears – I’m sure they call on you too – and they tempt me with things I really shouldn’t do. But earlier this summer, they suggested I book for the last night of Half A Sixpence. It’s going to be a great party, they said. Sounds like an excuse for champagne, they said. The atmosphere will be overwhelming, they said. And do you know, they were right! But would Mrs Chrisparkle be on board for such self-indulgence? You betcha!

gerard-carey-and-charlie-stempWe’d seen An American in Paris in the afternoon, so, fully satiated with well-meaning, classy yet slightly dull entertainment, we were absolutely in the mood for a right royal Folkestone knees up. We arrived at the New, I mean Albery, I mean Noel Coward theatre in plenty of time to settle down in Noel’s Bar and crack open a half bottle of Verve Cliquot before the show, which, I think it’s fair to say, prepared us in the best possible way. I bought another programme, so I could see to what extent the cast had changed since last December: answer, not at all. Absolutely the same cast. No one had left. That tells its own story. It must be such a delightful production in which to be involved.

charlie-stemp-and-emma-williamsThe theatre was packed – the vibe was truly excitable; this audience is going to give the show its best possible send-off, isn’t it? Oh yes it did. From the moment that Mr Stemp and Devon-Elise Johnson ran into the auditorium and jumped up on the stage to portray Arthur and Ann as kids, the theatre simply erupted. This is going to overrun by at least half an hour, I reckoned. Actually, I was wrong; the cast enforced discipline on us by carrying on pretty promptly after each song – not like when we saw the last night of A Chorus Line, where the audience dominated the proceedings so much with their gratitude and fandom that the cast couldn’t hold back their emotions at all.

lady-punnet-and-mrs-walsinghamAs each scene and number followed each other, the audience kept up their frenzied response. By the time we’d reached the interval, with Charlie Stemp’s Kipps drenched under the real rain, I genuinely felt like I needed a rest, as my mouth muscles were beginning to spasm from my permanent smile. Whilst stretching our legs (a euphemism for heading to the bar), we overheard one lady say to another “You must come and meet Cameron. In the Albery Bar. Upstairs.” We looked at each other with mischievous intent; shall we gatecrash? No, quickly coming to our senses, let’s not risk being turfed out on our ear. We hadn’t heard Pick out a Simple Tune yet.

ian-bartholomewNow that I’ve mentioned that song title, if you’ve seen the show, that tune has already earwormed itself back into your brain. That scene was as fantastic as I remembered. After its rip-roaring reception from the audience, it put a whole new meaning on Lady Punnet’s assurance that you can’t have more fun than at one of her musical evenings. I’d also forgotten how wonderfully pompous Gerald Carey’s James is when he’s being sonorous on the organ, tossing back his foppish hair, and checking to make sure everyone else has noticed how superb he was. Mr Carey came into his own again as the photographer in Flash, Bang, Wallop, revelling in every single double entendre magnificently. FBW brought the house down as you would expect.

pick-out-a-simple-tuneIt was only at the end that the cast started to drop the professional façade and showed us how much they loved the response. Mr Stemp wasn’t allowed to join the other members of the cast for the joint curtain call until we had elongated his personal ovation for several minutes. Cameron Mackintosh appeared on stage to give a final thank you speech and it was a thoroughly joyful experience. He said he hoped it wasn’t the end for this production – and I don’t see how it can be. This is born to tour and continue to delight audiences of all ages for years to come. A magnificent success for Cameron Mackintosh, Chichester, Charlie Stemp and all the cast. But we still didn’t find out about the results of their filming the show over some of the last performances. Will it appear on BBC4 over Christmas like Gypsy did a couple of years ago? I’m really hoping so.

Congratulations to all. Half a Sixpence, London will miss you!

Review – Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre, 29th December 2016

Half a SixpenceOne of the albums from my childhood was the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s Music for Pleasure record of Des O’Connor singing songs from Half a Sixpence, the 1963 musical by David Heneker and Beverley Cross, originally written for Tommy Steele. Despite – rather than because of – this recording, I’d always wanted to see the show, and we finally got the opportunity back in 2007 when we saw Gary Wilmot as Arthur Kipps in Bill Kenwright’s production at the Birmingham Hippodrome. I remember thinking at the time that the show itself was quite tame, but that it was an excellent production and I couldn’t imagine anyone better in the cheeky chappie main role than the irrepressible and brilliant song and dance man Mr Wilmot.

charlie-stempThings change, then change again. Fast forward nine years, and, remembering its rather mundane plot, when we made our selections from this summer’s Chichester Festival offering, neither of us particularly wanted to see this new production. Honestly, have we not learned our lesson? Over the past few years we’ve seen cracking good shows like Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, Mack and Mabel and Kiss Me Kate, so why wouldn’t the new Half a Sixpence – now transferred to the West End – be up there with the greats? (Spoiler – it is.)

pick-out-a-simple-tuneTo be honest, I still find the show itself a little underwhelming, with its somewhat dated subject matter of comedy juxtaposition between the upper and the working class, and its message that you should always marry someone of your own kind. However, Julian Fellowes’ new book and some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have given it a well-deserved kick up the backside and created a much more entertaining and better structured show. I think one of the problems with the original version is the relative dearth of musical numbers in comparison with the length of the show. Today your average musical-goer simply expects more – a legacy of the Lloyd Webber approach, where, after curtain up, the orchestra basically never stops till going home time. I must agree with other comments I’ve read though that it is an enormous shame that they chose to do away with the original song All In The Cause of Economy, which a) is a great tune, b) is a very funny lyric and c) perfectly encapsulates the horrendous relationship between the bullying Mr Shelford and his poor troupe of resident drapers. Another problem with the original show is that, as it was specifically fashioned around the amazing talents of Tommy Steele, it’s perhaps just a little too Kippscentric. The new structure, however, is much more balanced – even though, when you look at the list of musical numbers in the programme, of the 22 songs listed, only 2 don’t feature Kipps as one of the singers. He’s at the heart of the original book so it’s no surprise he’s also the heart of the musical.

flash-bang-wallopAs I’m sure you know, it’s based on H G Wells’ 1905 novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, which I confess I haven’t read but apparently was Wells’ personal favourite of all the books he wrote. Young Arthur and young Ann share a special friendship, but when Arthur has to move away, they each keep half a sixpence as a token of their young love. When working in the drapery shop he is smitten with the delightful Helen Walsingham, but she is high born and, surely, too far above him to care. But Arthur unexpectedly inherits a great legacy and an annual income of £1200, and can thus transform himself from commoner to toff in one fell swoop. His relationship with Helen blossoms, but then it turns out that Ann (remember her?) is the Walsingham family parlourmaid… And if you don’t know how all that resolves itself, you’ll have to see the show!

half-a-sixpenceNo doubt about it, this truly is a fantastic production. Stunning to look at, amazing sets, perfect costumes, a brilliant band and a large cast of superbly talented performers. As a piece of theatrical confectionary, it is the sweetest, tastiest, zingiest show I’ve seen for some time. Andrew Wright’s choreography, particularly in the big set pieces, is overwhelmingly, in-your-face ebullient, and gives you that great to be alive feel that musical theatre can sometimes achieve. Even if you don’t take into account the performances, the visual impact of the staging of the new song Pick out a Simple Tune and the perennial old favourite Flash Bang Wallop are among the most exhilarating experiences on stage at the moment; and the “real rain” in If The Rain’s Got To Fall helps give a charming sense of pathos and drama to the end of the first act.

lady-punnet-and-mrs-walsinghamThere’s been a lot of hype about Charlie Stemp, who plays Kipps, a performer plucked from relative obscurity – his programme bio reveals just an international tour of Mamma Mia and ensemble in Wicked. Well, believe it. This is one of those toe-curlingly delightful occasions when you can say “I was there” – I genuinely believe that, with this performance in this production, a star is born. He is the natural successor to the young Michael Crawford, with his engaging stage presence, superb voice and extraordinary dance ability. Hardly off the stage for the entire performance, he invests Kipps with an exuberance that really pushes out into the auditorium. The fact that he is new on the scene is perfect for the role as it reflects the character’s own fish out of water situation – an unknown person in an unknown environment. The production, however, knows he is a winner, subtly (or not so subtly?) lighting him just a little more strongly than everyone else in the ensemble pieces. I had no hesitation in giving him the standing ovation he totally deserved.

charlie-stemp-and-emma-williamsBut this is no one-man show. He’s surrounded by a fabulous cast, our personal favourite being the wonderful Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann, nobly and touchingly handing over the object of her love to her mistress. Ms Johnson is also spellbinding in the big song and dance numbers and is the perfect energy counterpart to Mr Stemp. I also really liked Emma Williams’ Helen, a classy, elegant performance that reveals the bravery of her character’s ability to climb out of her social class and become entwined with Mr Kipps. Jane How exudes delightful superiority as the sumptuous Lady Punnet, who really believes her musical evenings are the most fun you can have, and who has a brilliant twinkle in her eye whenever she speaks to Arthur; and there’s an enormously fun performance from Vivien Parry as Mrs Walsingham, her eye on the financial prize, never quite becoming the horrendous mother in law from hell, but not far off.

gerard-carey-and-charlie-stempIan Bartholomew’s Chitterlow is a wonderfully larger than life creation, with more than a touch of Dickens’ Vincent Crummles about him; one of those few characters who is nothing but decent through and through. Mr Bartholomew brings out the humour of his songs – notably Back The Right Horse and The One Who’s Run Away – with great style. John Conroy, always masterful in authoritarian roles, is chillingly unpleasant as Mr Shalford, and Gerard Carey is splendidly slimy as the villainous James Walsingham and genuinely funny as the camp photographer, even if the characterisation is a little more 1963 than 2016. However, all the cast give terrific support and the physical commitment to the performance from one and all is just magnificent.

ian-bartholomewAn absolute treat from start to finish, we left the theatre beaming from ear to ear. You simply have to see this one!

P. S. A couple of unfortunate examples of bad theatre etiquette couldn’t erase what a wonderful show it was. But why must people be so grumpy and unhelpful when it comes to letting others past to get to their seats? It’s bad enough anyway in the New, I mean Albery, I mean Noel Coward theatre where the front stalls are as tight as a [insert rude simile here] without having to make special negotiations and pleadings to get past. There was also a mother and daughter who constantly nattered all the way through the first act. They were just out of reach for me to tell them to shut it, but maybe someone else did because they behaved like proper theatregoers after the interval. Honestly, some people!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan and Michael Le Poer Trench