REVIEW: Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre ✭✭✭✭

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Half A Sixpence
Noel Coward Theatre
14 November 2016
4 Stars
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H G Wells is one of the mythologists of the modern age, and his Candide-like story of an orphan hero, mismatched lovers, sudden enrichment and equally unexpected re-impoverishment, all presided over by arbitrary and capricious fate, is one of the jewels in the crown of his legacy of archetypes that describe the world we know. Arthur Kipps, the protagonist of this cautionary tale of the power of money, is a deeply popular figure and has fascinated adapters for stage and screen pretty much ever since he first appeared in 1905. Most enduringly, the vehicle written for Tommy Steele in 1963, full of magnificent songs by David Henecker (himself born just one year after the story's first publication), has lodged most firmly in the popular imagination, and it is through this version that the current adapters have made their way to revisit Wells' fable.

If you like glamour, you will find this production – designed by Paul Brown – utterly irresistible. The handsome bandstand set, with double revolves, houses a parade of late Edwardian fashions that seem to have sprung directly from the pages of the Yellow Book. Ivory dominates the first act, with a stunning second act opener of gorgeous yellow and black, recalling Toledo steel or the drawing room of Sir John Soanes' house. Paule Constable lights everything to show these outfits to their best advantage: in the theatre of the period, people went out to see the latest styles, and we are not stinted here.

Rachel Kavanagh's light and quicksilver direction appears to take its cue from this starting point: everyone's life is a performance, a spectacle, even if it's just taking some photographs at a wedding, or rocking up at the reception on a new-fangled motorcycle: the visual language adopted by each character is a vital, perhaps the most vital, element of their personality. Nowhere is that plainer than in the lead actor, newcomer Charlie Stemp's transformation from Draper's apprentice boy to gentleman of means, executed in best Sartor Resartus manner, right there in his workplace. Off come the drab work clothes, and on goes a smart if rather flashy checked suit and cream waistcoat and a bright new pair of shoes. Around him, the rest of the staff remain unchanged, while he may now insist upon being addressed as ‘Sir' by the imperious owner, his erstwhile employer, who looks visibly crushed as the relentless social code weighs down upon him. Beneath the frolicsome dream of the story, gritty reality is never far away.

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Heneker's score, the last British musical to transfer successfully to Broadway (in 1965) before the advent of an entirely different world of ‘Evita' and ‘Cats', pumps this story full of melodic beauty and lyrical invention: everyone sounds clever, sophisticated, warm and affectionate. Most of what he wrote is present here, but the new writers, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, have reworked the numbers to fit in with a largely new book by Julian Fellowes: more or less the same plot is here, but there is considerably more of what Arnold Bennett described as Wells' ‘ferocious hostility' towards all the characters bar Kipps. And thank goodness. This is what musicals of the past often need but so rarely receive: books that fit more appropriately with contemporary tastes. The bite of the darker motives of so many of the characters – be they conscious or unwitting – gives this work so much more appeal, tempering its sweetness with canny, earthy realism.

Stiles and Drewe also contribute eight entirely new songs to the play, including the magnificent ragtime hit, ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune', but you would be hard pressed to know which numbers are theirs, so perfectly do they merge with the re-used material. Personally, I missed the presence of ‘Efficiency', which didn't make it through the re-writing, but the new number that replaces it, ‘Look Alive', creates much more speed and drive in the early stages of the plot with a greater sense of, um, efficiency. This is characteristic. All the decisions that have been made have been made in the interests of telling the story.

Regarding casting, the decision has been made to take a beginner in the industry and place him at the centre of this demanding work: he has to sing, and often carry, 20 out of 23 musical numbers. He is very young and a very impressively athletic dancer; he has a pleasant voice. His girls, working-class Ann (Devon-Elise Johnson) and rich girl Helen (Emma Williams), are well contrasted. Vivien Parry has fun as Helen's pushy mother, and Jane How makes a formidable Lady Punnet (the Maggie-Smith-type character here, for devotees of Mr Fellowes' hugely successful television work, who will find themselves more than at home with this production). Gerard Carey makes a suitably chilling villain of the embezzling would-be brother-in-law to Kipps, and then doubles as the camp as Christmas wedding photographer (in ‘that' number!).

Alex Hope makes a telling impact as the socialist Sid Pornick and Bethany Huckle is a charmingly vivacious Flo. And there's a fine West End turn from Ian Bartholomew as Chitterlow (he was most recently seen at this very theatre in ‘Mrs Henderson Presents'). With a full strength of 24, the ensemble produces a gloriously effective sound.

Choreographer Andrew Wright is a trusted collaborator of Kavanagh's, and their work dovetails together beautifully. Dance is, of course, a major feature of the brilliant 1967 film of the musical, but here there are no long choreographed sequences: movement is put at the service of the narrative. So, now, when ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop!' arrives, audiences may well find themselves actually listening to the clever lyrics for the first time, and thoroughly enjoying the experience of hearing them so pertinently declaimed in Kavanagh and Wright's astute staging of the showstopper. And above everything, the brass and wind band of a dozen – so appropriate for a bandstand – plays lively orchestrations by William David Brohn (and Tom Kelly), including dance and vocal arrangements by Stiles himself, under the sure guidance of Graham Hurman (musical supervision is by Stephen Brooker). The sound, by Mick Potter, seems to favour the treble register and is close and somewhat forward.

All in all, this collaboration between the Chichester Festival Theatre and Cameron Mackintosh is a splendidly handsome revival of a much-loved classic story, offering a fresh look at one of the greatest British musical scores ever written, and incorporating a lot of fine new writing by some of the most experienced creatives in the industry. It's a delight.

Photos: Manual Harlan

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