I hadn’t been to see Half a Sixpence before last week, but of course I had heard the rave reviews about it and in particular about Charlie Stemp’s performance. He has received awards and five star reviews for his portrayal as Arthur Kipps in the production which began at Chichester Festival Theatre and transferred to the West End in November 2016. Since then booking has been extended twice (currently until 2nd September 2017) and, finally getting the chance to see it, I can understand why.
I was really fortunate to be invited to a bloggers’ event last week which not only allowed us to meet the cast for a Q&A but also encouraged us to join in a dance lesson on stage with Dance Captain Jaye Elster. How stupidly exciting. First of all we got to talk to the charming Charlie Stemp who introduced us sweetly to his banjo and taught us to always lie in auditions! (he had never picked up a banjo before his audition, nor sung on his own in a show). He was likeable from the get go, honest and open, and I couldn’t wait to see how he played the part. He stressed how much he has learnt from people more experienced than himself and it came across that his success has come from a lot of hard work, and from pushing himself in situations of extreme terror (such as auditioning for producer supremo Cameron Mackintosh for this role).
It was then time to get up on stage for a dance class! Dance captain Jaye Juliette Elster (‘Mrs Wace’) taught us the grand total of ten seconds’ worth of choreography on stage, which of course took ages and was so fast and difficult for non-dancers like most of us. It was so much fun to pretend to be on stage for real, but it drove home how hard it is to entertain people! Add to that the heavy costumes, corsets, wigs and hats, and then imagine learning the dance routines for the entire show, not forgetting spoken lines, songs, and banjo playing, and then you start to understand why Stemp mentioned the words ‘hard’ and ‘work’.
We were joined by other members of the cast, Emma Williams who plays Helen Walsingham, Bethany Huckle (who plays Flo) and Sam O’Rourke (Buggins). Either they really are amazing actors, or they actually do get on like a house on fire. They recounted lots of fun times from the Chichester days onwards, as all of them have been in the show since the beginning.
As they went off to warm up and prepare for the show, we went off to have a drink and Wasabi-covered nut in the bar. It’s not a bad view down St Martin’s Lane, out of the window of the Albery Bar.
And finally, show time. Half a Sixpence was first produced on the West End stage in 1963, based on the book by H.G. Wells and with music and lyrics by David Heneker. This production has been updated by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes and some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and is directed by Rachel Kavanaugh. It tells of young Arthur Kipps, a young draper’s assistant who comes into some unexpected money and is catapulted into high society and the likelihood of marriage with the plummy Helen Walsingham. When he realises that she and her family are more about improving him, and profiting from his fortune, he realises that a more genuine love might be waiting for him in the form of his childhood sweetheart Ann (tonight played effectively by Rebecca Jayne-Davies).
The story is the least exciting part. Half a Sixpence made a star out of Tommy Steele and it does the same for Charlie Stemp. The choreography by Andrew Wright and the direction are highly laudable, the rolling set is clever and the costumes just right; the ensemble works beautifully together, but it’s all brought together by Stemp. He has a lovely cheeky twinkle in his eye and a broad, genuine smile, and he sings and plays nicely, but his acrobatic movements are amazing. Jumping on and off furniture, dancing with everyone and in all corners of the stage, he is everywhere without missing a beat; his Cockney charm is lively and infectious and throughout you are firmly on his side to escape the snobbish Walsinghams and end up with the right woman and the right future.
We really enjoyed Bethany Huckle as Flo, and Ian Bartholomew as Chitterlow, the actor who Kipps quite literally bumps into, and who becomes quite a catalyst in Kipps’s life (as well as a friend). He is a great loud character who provides some real laughs. There are some beautifully sung duets, and smaller group songs, but the big numbers such as ‘Flash Bang Wallop’ are the most entertaining to watch. It was especially fun to spot the ten seconds of routine which we had found so challenging earlier in the evening. Imagine having to learn and perfect the dances for the whole show!
My favourite number is ‘Pick out a Simple Tune’, where Kipps’s banjo-playing and singing proves so infectious that even the middle class partygoers, against the will of their own bodies at first, end up joining in, culminating in a boisterous knees-up. This is a joyful, delightful scene which literally sums up the charm of 23-year old Charlie Stemp. The plot is really a simple one, but absolutely everybody can enjoy Half a Sixpence due to the personality, talent and charisma of this young man. I highly recommend that you buy everyone you know a ticket.
hattydaze rating: ****/*****
We attended the Meet the Cast event and performance of Half a Sixpence thanks to press tickets from Raw PR. Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre is now booking until 2nd September 2017.