Friday, 09 December 2016

Half a Sixpence

This toe-tapping remake of the original rags-to-riches tale is beautifully crafted

Written by Richard Barber

Within the space of a single week, Julian Fellowes has been responsible for the book for not one but two new arrivals in the West end: School of Rock and the Chichester transfer, Half a Sixpence. But whereas his gentle, sometimes spiky wit keeps adult audience members chuckling in between the noisy bits in the first, you’d be hard pressed to detect his hand in the second. Richard-Barber-colour-176

Which is surprising. Half a Sixpence tells the story, you may remember, of a draper’s assistant, young Arthur Kipps (HG Wells wrote the book on which the musical is based), who comes into an unexpected fortune and is then torn between his love for posh Helen Walsingham (a faultless Emma Williams with her bell-like voice) and childhood sweetheart and, later, parlour maid Ann Pornick (perky Devon-Elise Johnson). So it’s all about class, a subject in which the creator of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey is an acknowledged expert.

No matter. Even if the show, set in 1911 and written for Tommy Steele in the 1960s, cries out for a bit of edge, a touch of irony, it is nonetheless a beautifully crafted piece of work equally beautifully staged under Rachel Kavanaugh’s assured direction framed within Paul Brown’s handsome, sturdy sets.

Seven new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have been added to David Heneker’s original score with ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’ led by Arthur on banjo the most obviously toe- tapping. But it’s the title song and the show’s best number, ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’, that you’ll be humming as you step out into St Martin’s Lane.

Much of the show’s success rests on the shoulders of 22-year-old Charlie Stemp for whom this is his breakthrough moment. He has Steele’s toothsome charm, a singing voice that just about passes muster and an astonishing agility: his dancing – like all Andrew Wright’s choreography – is superb.

A shout-out, too, for the always reliable, always excellent Ian Bartholomew as an aspirant playwright who first breaks the news to Arthur of his (short-lived) sudden wealth. And my eye was also caught by Bethany Huckle as fellow shop worker Flo, whose duet with Ann, ‘A Little Touch Of happiness’, has a lightness of touch and wit not always apparent elsewhere.

So, if it’s good, old-fashioned family entertainment you’re after, this is the show for you. But if it’s newfangled family fare that’s more to your liking, that closet rocker Lord Fellowes can happily oblige.

Until 22 April at the Noël Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2: 0844-482 5141 

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