Half a Sixpence is in many ways the ultimate throwback to the Golden Age of the quaint British musical. Driven by strong accents, songs about the rain, and its plucky-underdog-against-society narrative, this is a musical cuts to the heart of the British tradition. Producer Cameron Mackintosh has teamed up with writer Julian Fellowes to rejuvenate this classic show, which launched the career of Tommy Steele in the 1960s. Fellowes (fresh from writing Downton Abbey) has adapted H. G. Well’s original classic Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul (1905) along with composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to create a truly memorable show that significantly moves away from the original musical. Old and new are seamlessly brought together in this completely rejuvenated production. Originally commissioned for the Chichester Festival Theatre and following in the footsteps of other notable transfers such as Gypsy, Sweeny Todd, and Guys and Dolls, Half a Sixpence has made its way to the Noël Coward Theatre right at the heart of London’s West End.

The story revolves around its protagonist, Arthur Kipps, played wonderfully by the recently Olivier Award-nominated Charlie Stemp. Kipps starts the show as a shop assistant for a tyrannical boss, before coming into an unexpected inheritance and struggling both to adapt to his new life, and to keep hold of his newly acquired wealth. At the beginning of the show, in a scene reminiscent of Blood Brothers, childhood friends Arthur (Charlie Stemp) and Ann (Devon-Elise Johnson) say their final goodbyes before Arthur is to leave for Folkestone. Arthur pulls out a sixpence that he has managed to chisel into two halves, one of which he gives to Ann as a token: “you keep half and I’ll keep half and when we’re separated you look at your half, and I’ll look at mine and then we think about each other”.[1] He is swiftly sent on his way by his aunt and uncle with the plea to “mind you behave proper when you get there” in order to become an apprentice draper under the tyrannical Mr Shalford (John Conroy). Whilst working in the shop he encounters the upper-class and beautiful Miss Helen Walshingham (Emma Williams) and is left to admire her from the bench of her woodwork class as “she’s much too high for such as I… cause the alley cat can’t get the Queen”.[2] On his way home from one of these classes, Arthur told by the playwright Chitterlow (Ian Bartholomew) that he is sought in the newspaper by executers of his estranged grandfather’s will and he comes into a fortune. The first thing he does: ask Helen to marry him. Much of the rest of the play deals with the meddling nature of Helen’s mother (Vivian Parry), the financial machinations of her brother (James Carey), and Arthur’s inability to act the gentleman. As his childhood sweetheart Ann emerges back on the scene Arthur needs to choose, his new life or his old.

Production-wise this every bit the smash hit promised. A first mention must be made of the monumental set which focuses around a revolving Edwardian bandstand. It’s Shutters open and close to reveal Mr Shalford’s shop and the local pub with ease whilst providing a front stage area (in an almost pantomime fashion) for smaller sets whilst the changes occur behind. Two circles revolve on the floor moving both set and cast with ease and creating flawless scene changes and transitions. The set design provides a visual feast for the eyes and makes what is in reality one of the West End’s physically smaller stages feel ten times larger.

The emphasis is on huge ensemble numbers and it is no mere coincidence that this production comes from the same team that brought the most recent large-scale production of Mary Poppins, which is currently captivating the nation on tour, to life. Big numbers such as “Pick out a Simple Tune” and “Flash Bang Wallop” demonstrate the power of a large 24-strong ensemble in full command of the stage. The energy spreads around the auditorium, thanks in no small part to Charlie Stemp’s unrelenting enthusiasm. The influences of Oliver!, My Fair Lady, and Oh What a Lovely War in particular are apparent in a production which emphasises a rejuvenation of past classics whilst at the same time constructing something completely new. The choreography also demonstrates a modern twist. The routines are full of classical elevation and high jumps but they also utilises multiple modern jazz elements, in a manner that appears to cross the famous choreography of Bob Fosse with Dick Van Dyke’s “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins. Stemp’s continual pirouettes for most of his entrances and exits evoke the energy and dynamism of classical musicals and their leading men such as Fred Austere and Gene Kelly.

Such a move appears to be reactionary – as Michael Billington has suggested in a recent article about Half a Sixpence in which he highlights the “re-emergence of the musical with firm roots in its native soil” [3] – against the global rise of the “super musicals” from titans of the genre such as Andrew Lloyd Webber. While Billington takes Cats as his principal example, which, he claims, is so detached from a national identity that itprovides a similar experience to the viewer sat in Brisbane as in Berlin. Half a Sixpence, in contrast, plays very much to British sentimentality, humour, and tradition. But, while Billington is right to a certain extent about this musical’s utilisation of the British theatrical canon, it is a possibly reductive way of contextualising this production. To turn to a popular cinematic example, the sweeping popularity of La La Land implies that there might be a more universal thirst for throwbacks to a more classical style emerging in culture more broadly. Despite its modern setting, La La Land is deeply canonically referential: in“City of Stars”, Sebastian sings against the iconic lamppost in a gesture to Singin’ in the Rain – a referential moment that is also present from Arthur Sixpence in this production of Half a Sixpence. These cinematic and stage smash hits both, in similar ways, seek to tap into an audience’s sense of nostalgia and use it to enhance the music being performed.

This rise in referential musicals will no doubt continue given their success (maybe as audience members we all crave retreating into the safety of the past given current events), but one unfortunate aspect of Half a Sixpence’s reach back into the past is that the social dynamics of the piece are equally old fashioned and have come along for the ride. While the production is tight, the plot is certainly problematic. Indisputably the key theme here is class and it seems that, despite the joy of the production as a whole, there are many disconcerting elements to the story that seem very out of place in front of a modern audience. Arthur struggles to adapt to the throes of high society and it turns out that clothes don’t make a “la-de-dah proper gentleman”.[4] Inevitably his accent is also a sticking point – “While minding my P’s and minding my Q’s / My H’s fell down the cracks” – and it is up to Helen to train Arthur to act as befits his social position.[5] The world of the drapers (Arthur Kipp’s former colleagues) is juxtaposed against that of the Walshingham’s and Lady Punnet’s (Jane How) garden parties and music evenings (to which he now has to conform). In depicting Arthur’s struggle to adapt, and conflicting feelings about the two women in his life, the plot unfortunately follows the typical (and outdated) trope of longing for the freedom that comes with poverty – as if it is the wealthy upper classes who have the real struggle through the tyranny of choice. One of the drapers, Sid (Alex Hope), is also consistently mocked by both the characters and the audience for his socialist principles and reading of Marx. Whilst the play obviously comes from a previous era, seeing this be played for cheap laughs in the manner that it is in Half a Sixpence does feel slightly uncomfortable in the surroundings of a West End theatre.

Arthur’s love life is particularly problematic as he spends the majority of the show stringing two ladies (with a third admirer) along. The emotional relationships in this love-triangle are not explored in any real depth, probably as it would not be seen particularly favourable on the lead. The only real moment of confrontation comes in the song “You Never Get Anything Right/I Know Who I Am” where Ann explains that she has been badly treated and he has a tendency to turn his head for any girl; but this turns into Arthur’s song of self-discovery. “The only person responsible for this mess is Arthur Kipps and no one else” he graciously declares. When he makes his choice he follows his own heart, breaking Helen’s in the process as she is left at the door with her hapless mother and she is given little more than a backwards glance over the shoulder.

While this is not reflective of Mackintosh’s excellent revival or Fellowes’ script – it is important to stress that they are, after all, working with a narrative that was originally constructed in Edwardian England – it is interesting to note how what was once a poignant social commentary now feels pretty uncomfortable for the modern viewer. As a production this truly excels, however. From expert costume design, an intricate set, and spot-on casting, Half a Sixpence ably demonstrates that new life can be breathed into past productions, but maybe not into past social attitudes.

Half a Sixpence is showing at the Noël Coward Theatre until the 2nd of September. For more information and tickets see here.

 

[1] “Half a Sixpence”, Charlie Stemp, Devon-Elise Johnson, Annie Wensak, James Paterson, Half a Sixpence, (2016).

[2] “She’s Too Far Above Me”, Charlie Stemp, Half a Sixpence, (2016).

[3] Michael Billington, “In an era of global musicals, Half a Sixpence is distinctly British”, The Guardian 23rd November 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2016/nov/23/musicals-half-a-sixpence-british

[4] “A Proper Gentleman”, Charlie Stemp, Half a Sixpence Cast, Half a Sixpence, (2016)

[5] “You Never Get Anything Right/I know Who I Am”, Charlie Stemp, Devon-Elise Johnson, Half a Sixpence, (2016)