Show of the Week – Half a Sixpence **** Four Stars.

half-a-sixpence-lead-large_trans++4pziSPaSP6jVi60XlW5SMFgYVn02AQzs729yb8zXflgFlash, Bang,Wallop what a show!  Lively and inventive, the revival of this musical adapted by Julian Fellows, with new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, has created a new star in Charlie Stemp who plays Arthur.  His acrobatic dancing is a dream and he is well supported by charming Devon-Elise Johnson as his childhood sweetheart Ann and Emma Williams as the upper-class Helen who he falls for.

The bones of H.G. Wells’ novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul remain in Rachel Kavanaugh’s splendid production. Arthur Kipps (Charlie Stemp) is just an ordinary young man playing childish games with his young sweetheart Ann Pornick (Devon-Elsie Johnson) to whom he gives half a sixpence which he has cut in two while he keeps the other half.  Arthur has to leave the home of his aunt and uncle (he is an orphan) in New Romney in 1904 to go and work as a draper’s assistant in Folkestone.  When we meet him again in 1911, he is part of a little group of workers serving a rich clientele in a draper’s store. He admires Helen Walsingham (Emma Williams) who comes into the store with her mother Mrs Walsingham (Vivien Parry).

Arthur meets the eccentric playwright Mr Chitterlow (Ian Bartholomew with a strange ginger wig) who reads a newspaper article alerting Arthur to a legacy left by his mother’s father who had stopped his daughter from marrying. Now wealthy, Arthur is able to court Helen and fraternise with the rich.  But he finds he is not happy in this upper-class life.  A good mixture of minor characters and their stories combine with the life of Arthur to provide an always interesting story.

The set is simple but most effective: a back wall of projections shows where the various scenes are set – the draper’s shop, the pub, the high-class home of Lady Punnet (Jane How) and other locations in Kent. A bandstand in the centre moves around to show the scenes. The designer, Paul Brown, has worked closely with director, Rachel Kavanaugh, to produce particularly attractive costumes. Each set of designs exactly suits the characters and the class they come from.  So the chorus of shoppers are all in cream dresses.  And later at Lady Punnet’s garden party, the well-drilled ladies move around in unison all dressed in white.  The thrusting apron stage at the Chichester Festival Theatre brings the dancers right up to the audience and the choreography is varied and exciting with the dancers executing a variety of steps with dexterity and verve.

There are some most hummable songs like the title song, Half a sixpence and the very lively Flash, bang, wallop.  Made to rouse the audience to an enthusiastic display of hand clapping, I found Pick out a simple tune with Arthur playing his beloved banjo, went on rather too long.

Young Charlie Stemp, with his toothy grin, reminds us of Tommy Steel in the 1963 production of Half a Sixpence.  While his singing can be called pleasant, it is not an especially good voice.  His dancing, however, when he performs somersaults and acrobatics is excellent. Both Emma Williams and Devon-Elise Johnson sing well and are nicely differentiated in their speech and behaviour.  Actors portray the other characters in an enthusiastic style and I can see this following other musicals from this theatre into the West End.

Chichester Festival Theatre.  Booking until 3 September 2016

Dir.  Rachel Kavanaugh – Box office 01243 781312 cft.org.uk

 

Review by Carlie Newman

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