Benet Catty Productions

Half a Sixpence (WE 2016)

Nov 20, 2016

Noel Coward

Half a Sixpence is a total pleasure. Warm hearted, witty, romantic, touching, beautifully acted and sung and brilliantly danced. There's nothing not to like. It is the best musical of 2016.

In many ways this should hold no surprise. The original was a big hit for Tommy Steele in 1963. This revival has already been acclaimed for its try-out in Chichester. And the creative team is lead by Cameron Mackintosh, Julian Fellowes and songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe who had such a big international hit with Mary Poppins twelve years ago (now touring the UK).

Half a Sixpence was originally a star vehicle for the man with the teeth Tommy Steele in 1963. Sixteen of the score's seventeen songs by David Heneker were sung by him. It was effectively a one-man show with a cast of twenty. Now Stiles and Drewe have done what they did for Mary Poppins, re-crafting and embellishing the bits that work, cutting the bits that don't, and adding lots more songs of their own. As Stiles notes in the programme "There's hardly a bar we haven't interfered with in some way".

The wit and warmth of the new songs is identifiably theirs. And Julian Fellowes, who wrote Downton Abbey in the period between this and their last collaboration, has written a skillful and charming book very much fashioned from the HG Wells novel rather than a mere tidy-up of the Beverley Cross script. Fellowes knows how to write about class. (As we'll see next month, his ear for rock-obsessed contemporary American ten year olds is rather less adept on Andrew Lloyd Webber's School of Rock.)

Arthur Kipps is a well meaning but down-at-heel young man in the early years of the last century who has had his eye on a well meaning maid, Ann, since they were teenagers. When he comes into an inheritance from his grandfather things start looking up. He gains the interest of Helen, an attractive young woman of aristocratic heritage, as well as the self-interested approval of a motley crew of dreamers and chancers. But he makes an odd fit amongst the upper crust, as you would if you spoke like the Artful Dodger and found yourself amongst the cast of High Society. But, as so often in life, circumstances change and he changes with them.

If you don't like musicals in which people learn the value of being true to themselves then you probably shouldn't be going to musicals at all.
Kipps is played by Charlie Stemp, here getting his first West End lead and making his career with it. He is funny, charming and handsome and is an effortless dancer.

He is ably supported by Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann and by the West End regular Emma Williams, most recently seen in the under-rated Mrs Henderson Presents and who first made her name as Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sixteen years ago opposite Michael Ball. She's joined by a fellow Mrs Henderson fugitive, Ian Bartholomew, who is just as charming and well sung as he always is. It's hard to believe he was Uncle Ernie in The Who's Tommy twenty years ago.
Perhaps the ingredient that distinguishes Half a Sixpence most is Andrew Wright's choreography. There are as many dance sequences to be found here as in any current West End musical and he gives them all great wit and pizzazz. The opening number of the second half, "Pick Out a Simple Tune", in which Kipps' enthusiasm for his banjo encourages a party of poshos to let their hair down and accompany him on cutlery, is an absolute dazzler. Fans of show dance may notice that one of the central passages is from Bob Fosse's "Crunchy Grinola Suite" and another in the same number is a reboot of Susan Stroman's work on "I Got Rhythm". Even so, it is as good a dance number as I've seen in any musical this decade.

Despite running 2 hours 45 minutes (on the long side for a musical comedy) director Rachel Kavanaugh ensures that the interest and pace never let up. Lots of characters have their own moments, subplots weave in and out of each other; there's no sense of it being the one-man vehicle that it was originally created as. It is never self-indulgent.

It has the efficiency and value for money that is the hallmark of its producer Cameron Mackintosh. Few would bet that it'll have a run to match the three decades apiece of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, but it deserves to be the hit that his last new musical, Betty Blue Eyes (also with Stiles and Drewe) disappointingly fell short of.

This is a smashing night out. West End tickets are so expensive these days but this Sixpence is worth every pound.

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