Half a Sixpence at the Noël Coward Theatre
It’s been quite the week for Julian Fellowes. Just days after his School of Rock debuted in London, the Downton scribe’s version of Half a Sixpence transfers to the Noel Coward Theatre following a successful run at the Chichester Festival. Spear-headed by Cameron Mackintosh, this iteration of the 1963 musical, originally based on the novel Kipps by HG Wells, features a fresh book by Fellowes and new songs from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The story follows the rise and fall of Arthur Kipps (Charles Stemp), a young man caught between the high-class Helen and his old flame Ann after being catapulted into the upper echelons of society thanks to a suddenly inherited fortune.
Stemp, who seems to be preternaturally effervescent, is like a music hall Lee Evans, oozing charm as he shuffles and kicks his way through the play. Arthur as a character is less enthralling; he is a cardboard cut-out of a dim-witted working class kid, one who comes across as more of a flighty, if well-meaning, idiot than a befuddled romantic. Elsewhere, there is strong work from Emma Williams, who adds a melancholy to Helen’s inability to break out of her class-learnings, and Devon-Elise Johnson, whose Ann has the fierce confidence of someone who knows exactly who she is.
Sadly, the Half a Sixpence spends quite a lot of time on not a lot of plot. Part of the problem are the new songs from Stiles and Drewe, which end up bloating the length of the piece to near three hours. Of this batch, only the raucous, chandelier-swinging Pick Out a Simple Tune merits inclusion. Not that David Heneker’s original soundtrack is particularly memorable beyond its few set pieces. Still, Rachel Kavanaugh’s production handles these standouts with panache, especially the pub-bound version of Money to Burn, and the lawn green luncheon of If the Rain’s Got to Fall. And then, of course, there is Flash, Bang, Wallop. Rightly the most famous tune from the musical, the number is the one instance where everything, from the story’s cheerful view of relative poverty to its Carry On-style humour to its delightful choreography, comes together to create something truly unforgettable.
Yet though by the time it’s over the audience has been flashed, banged and walloped into submission; that feel-good factor fails to mask Half a Sixpence’s lack of urgency or heart. One can’t help but think that Mackintosh’s rather considerable clout would be better spent not exhuming old hits, but instead trying to find the British Hamilton.
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Half a Sixpence is at the Noël Coward Theatre from 17th November 2016 until 11th February 2017. Book your tickets here.