Wednesday 2nd August 2017 at the Noël Coward Theatre, London.
This new version of Half A Sixpence (based on the novel Kipps by H G Wells) is a delight. Presented by Cameron Mackintosh and the Chichester Festival Theatre Productions and adapted by Julian Fellowes, it’s a perfect example of why productions of classic period musicals which value the charm of authenticity are well deserving of stages in 2017. Set between 1904-1911, this show glorifies the sweet innocence and fun of times gone by while providing mild social commentary on class divides, adding a miniscule touch of grey to an irresistibly light-hearted story.
The story of Half A Sixpence is quaint and romantic, befitting a period musical which has evidently been brought to the stage with painstaking attention to detail. Arthur Kipps, usually played by Charlie Stemp to much critical acclaim, was for this performance played by the wonderful understudy Sam O’Rourke (there are no Press images of O’Rourke as Kipps, so the images here feature Stemp) and Ann Pornick is played by Devon-Elise Johnson. The two are childhood friends, and young Arthur presents Ann with half a Sixpence as a token of his affection and implied future intentions. Then life happens, and Arthur becomes infatuated with a lady of the upper class just as Ann returns to his life and begins to work as a maid in the social circles that Arthur now uncomfortably frequents. It’s a classic tale of a love triangle and tragically doomed love affairs across the class divide, but while Half A Sixpence is unmistakably quaint and idealised, it’s the breed of musical that provides total escapism from modern life; enveloping its audience in a world of lively, lovable characters who burst into song frequently and do so with astounding energy.
Under Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction, O’Rourke and Johnson win hearts within minutes as the sweet youngsters navigating their awkward feelings. With Stemp out for this performance, O’Rourke made his mark on this production with beautiful vocals and a winning charm as the endearingly muddled youngster with plenty of energy and not much lasting luck. Kipps has a heart of gold and has many lessons to learn, but such is the sweet innocence of O’Rourke’s boyish portrayal, that it’s impossible to dislike him for a moment, even as we watch poor Ann’s frustrations. Johnson’s performance as Ann is delicate, tragic and yet full to the brim with a winning positivity and good nature. Johnson’s sugar sweet vocals serve to compliment the warmth of her character and her rendition of Long Ago is pure and beautiful. The audience can’t help but root for Ann to find happiness and O’Rourke and Johnson make Kipps and Ann a dream couple for the books.
The pervading joy throughout Half A Sixpence is partly down to there being no real villain; this story features irksome prejudice manifested in comical pompous characters rather than allowing any real shadows to darken the doorway of Kipps’ story. The upper class owner of Kipps’ heart, Helen Walsingham (Emma Williams) is severely critical and dismissive of Kipps’ lower class habits, but she does have a heart and is not particularly unlikeable as we are reminded that she is to an extent puppeteered by a desperate mother. That said, even the desperate mother, Mrs Walsingham (played brilliantly by a very, very funny Vivian Parry), doesn’t take the role of villain as she is essentially a comical character presented for light mockery, as is the case with social etiquette commander in chief Lady Punnet (Jane Howe). It’s easy to think that having no real villain would make the production too sickly sweet, but the many threads of this production skilfully combine to present audiences with something totally and utterly uplifting and full of life and light.
Particularly infectiously joyous are the ensemble performances of the most catchy tunes – to say that Andrew Wright’s choreography is incredibly lively is an understatement. His choreography creates the large scale musical spectacle we’ve come to expect from London’s land of theatre and those big musical numbers remain the pinnacle of this production for me. The vocals in this production are sweet, pure and beautiful, but they bypass the inveterate prominence of powerful belting associated with big musicals. There are big, rich sounds throughout, but no particular torch songs to bring the house down with a vibrato lasting for days and that’s actually not bad thing, as the sweet, light sounded Half A Sixpence is quite refreshing in the realm of big musicals. The original songs by David Heneker and new music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (with additional orchestrations from Tom Kelly) offer much of the charm of this show. With catchy, fun-loving melodies richly provided by orchestrator William David Brohn like Half a Sixpence, The Joy of the Theatre, Pick Out a Simple Tune and Flash, Bang Wallop, it’s near impossible to exit the theatre without humming.
Production Designer Paul Brown has brought the period to life on a modern stage with zest and beauty; there are no modern nods as is often the case in contemporary period productions, making this production thoroughly engrossing and refreshingly authentic. Costuming is elegant, ornate and fun, with each character donning some variation of clothing from the time, tailored to reflect their position or character. The set is clever and multi-functional, making the whole production impressively slick; the heavy use of the revolving elements of the stage is an inspired choice and serves to give the production as a whole a pervading sense of bustle, pace and energy. Watching the actors and set pieces navigate the revolve to transition from scene to scene creates genuine awe and certainly delivers that West End promise of razor sharp precision and perfection.
If your musical tastes include a love of classic, charmingly quaint musicals full of big smiles, big production value and big heart, Half A Sixpence is most definitely the show for you! The West End Production plays at the Noël Coward Theatre until September 2nd, and you can get your tickets here.