The opening of this show continues the Chichester Festival Theatre’s remarkable record of transferring shows to the West End. And, along with the excellent School of Rock, marks a second opening in a week for Julian Fellowes — although the writer of Downton Abbey is back on familiar ground here with a story about class and wealth divisions.
When Half a Sixpence first opened in 1963 it was very much a vehicle for Tommy Steele and I’m pretty sure this considerably revamped revival will do wonders for the career of relative newcomer Charlie Stemp, who gives a thoroughly engaging performance as Arthur Kipps, the poor shop boy who inherits a fortune.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh has enlisted writers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to work on David Heneker’s original score — they introduce a number of new songs as part of that process — and Fellowes to rework the book.
Going from draper’s assistant to man of wealth overnight thrusts Arthur into upper class society and a world of tea parties and musical soirees. But he’s a simple soul and fish out of water hardly covers it as he struggles to fit in. To make matters worse, Arthur is now torn between two women: the beautiful and refined Helen Walsingham and his equally beautiful childhood sweetheart Ann.
It’s a simple story, but superbly played. There are delightful performances by Emma Williams and Devon-Elise Johnson as the girls who steal Arthur’s heart and nice comic turns from Vivien Parry as a possible future mother-in-law, and Ian Bartholomew as the man who points Arthur in the direction of his new found wealth.
Stiles and Drewe have worked wonders on the score. The new songs blend seamlessly with Heneker’s original work and they have arguably created a new 11 o’clock number for the show. Whereas before the memorable song was Flash, Bang, Wallop, now the rousing Pick Out a Simple Tune really raises the roof.
Indeed, choreographer Andrew Wright’s staging of all the big ensemble numbers is really quite superb and they received well-deserved and sustained ovations on the night I went.
There are no prizes for guessing how the story pans out but that doesn’t matter a jot because director Rachel Kavanaugh’s production is carried off by a superb cast with an exuberance and charm that is simply irresistible.
Half a Sixpence is at the Noel Coward Theatre
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