Hold it! Flash, bang, wallop, what a show! After a run that received rave reviews at the Chichester Festival Theatre, the foot-stomping Half a Sixpence has ‘blown right in’ to London’s West End. Revised by the same team that brought Mary Poppins to the stage: Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes; George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, Half a Sixpence was originally adapted from the H.G Wells novel Kipps by David Heneker and Beverley Cross but has had a revamp thanks to Fellowes. It follows working-class Folkestone boy Arthur Kipps as he unexpectedly inherits a fortune. Torn between his childhood sweetheart Ann (Devon-Elise Johnson) and the upper-class teacher Helen Walsingham (Emma Williams), he skips between social classes and tries to determine his place on the ladder, and which woman to choose.
Compiled of a tight cast, Devon-Elise Johnson is brilliant as leading lady Ann Pornick, and the chemistry between her and Kipps strengthens in the second act. However, the driving force of Half A Sixpence is newcomer Charlie Stemp, and watching him effortlessly tap, jump and kick his way around the stage with bags of charm is a joy. He has an endearing boyish naivety about him, and his old-time moves stir up nostalgia for days gone by. He may not be the best singer of the bunch, but what little his voice lacks is made up for with exceptional dancing, as he flies through choreographer Andrew Wright’s slick and suave routines. A true showman and talented from his head to his toes, he’s one to watch.
The new songs by Stiles and Drewe blend seamlessly with the original score, and share the same merry tone. ‘A Little Touch Of Happiness’ provides a chance for Johnson and Bethany Huckle as Flo to showcase their fantastic voices and comedic skills. Another one of Stiles and Drewe’s original numbers, ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’ is the perfect toe-tapping number, as Kipps tries to unite the both the social classes he finds himself straddling through music at Lady Punnet’s (Jane How) evening party. Complete with James Walsingham (Gerard Carey) swinging from a chandelier, it put a smile on the steeliest of faces. The stand out number though is of course ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’. A tune almost everyone knows, the whole cast perform it with such gusto that – as it builds to a proper cockney knees-up – the urge to get up and join in is almost irresistible.
If you can, try not to worry about poor Helen (the posh but kind lady snubbed by indecisive Arthur) and the notion that Kipps and Ann may very well have boarded the Titanic in the following year on a belated honeymoon, or the fact that WWI is just around the corner, because besides all that it’s simply terrific. Ultimately a love story, but touching on more tender subjects like class divide and self-belief, Half A Sixpence – with its banjos, beautiful swinging dresses and fitted suits, and 24-strong cast that run like a well-oiled machine – is a rip-roaring good time. Golden from start to finish, it’s absolutely bloomin’ blindin’.
Half a Sixpence is booking at the Noël Coward Theatre until February 11.
Photo: Manuel Harlan