There is a gentle elegance to Half a Sixpence, the latest retelling of H G Wells Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, which American tourists will adore. It has oh-so British charm by the bucket and spade and leading man Charlie Stemp truly deserves every plaudit heaped upon him following the show’s out-of-town reviews in Chichester.
The rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of Arthur Kipps will be well-known to aficionados of the 1967 film starring Tommy Steele (subsequent to West End and Broadway runs), but whereas the movie delighted audiences, often this stage adaptation with book by Julian Fellowes lacks soul. The opening scene between childhood sweethearts Ann and Arty where a sixpence is cut in two halves to symbolise their eternal bond, lacks the requisite punch and the subsequent story suffers as a result. Instead of willing their romance on, too often I felt that they’d just had a quick swordfight and Arty wasn’t all that bothered whether he saw Ann again or not.
There is, though, plenty to make up for show’s flaws. The band, elevated above the stage, is in fine form and William David Brohn and Tom Kelly’s lush orchestrations infuse the score with a rich, melodious warmth. Paul Brown’s production design is charming and perfectly conjures up the elegance of the era – at least for those amongst the upper echelons of society.
As the show begins (and once he’s ditched Ann in favour of a banjo and a career in retail) Arty takes employment with Shalford – a shopkeeper whose belief in ‘ficciency, ‘conomy and system seems to have entirely passed his employees by. Instead, unfathomably, they insult their customers so openly that they should probably all be fired on the spot. Only a throwaway comment about breaking his banjo ages ago gives any sense that time has passed for Arty – and the blame for that lies squarely with the book, by Downton Abbey creator Lord Julian Fellowes.
Fortunately for our hero, the down on their luck but awfully upper class Walsinghams arrive and daughter Helen immediately takes a shine to shop-boy Arthur Kipps, enrolling him in her woodwork class. Arty seemed quite perplexed by why he has been enrolled on a course which finishes that evening – and so was I. Still, never mind – one of her students appears to have made an entire reproduction of the Taj Mahal out of wood so it was probably good a good course while it lasted.
The whole show lifts with the first big number – Money To Burn – from the original Heneker score. It’s a real crowd-pleaser and shows, if there were any doubt, that working in a haberdashers must pay only marginally less than being a dustman…another favourite profession for working class people in musicals.
As well as some cracking musical numbers, a highlight of the show is the arrival of bicycling writer and bon viveur Chitterlow (a delightfully over the top Ian Bartholomew). Following a rather fortuitous collision with Arty, it transpires that Chitterlow has based his new play upon a young gentleman in the newspaper who it seems may have come into a large sum of money – and that man perfectly fits the description of one Arthur Kipps. There’s a ring of truth to the line “What is wealth but labour robbed out of the poor?” but even honest working-class boys can be swayed by cold hard cash and three houses in Kent, and soon enough Kipps is dreaming of The Riviera – even though he’s “a bit more end of the Peerage”.
Arthur’s transformation is as immediate and complete as Pip’s in Great Expectations and all too soon the posh-but-poor Walsinghams are conniving to get their hands on his fortune. Perhaps it was a lack of chemistry between Arty and Ann or a badly-explained plot, but when the audience should really root for Ann, instead I wondered whether he wouldn’t simply be better off with Helen Walsingham who at least tried to fend off the worst excesses of her family’s ambition?
There’s a lovely scene where Arthur is courted with snails and grouse, highlighting the deep chasm between his former and new worlds. Soon, everyone is queuing up for a slice of Arty’s pie – even Chitterlow, who has written a play – The Right Horse – in which Arty takes a quarter stake by way of a thank-you for finding him in the first place.
Putting aside concerns that come down either to the direction or writing of that crucial prologue, individually, Charlie Stemp as Arty and Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann both work their socks off. Stemp is a truly outstanding song-and-dance man and has a feline sense of balance – his youthful exuberance in dance numbers is utterly captivating. Johnson holds her own but isn’t terribly well-served by an uneven book.
Andrew Wright’s splendid choreography lends the show a real joie-de-vivre and amongst a strong cast, Bethany Huckle stands out as feisty shop-girl Flo. Emma Williams’ warm portrayal of Helen Walsingham and two fine comic turns from Vivien Parry as Mrs Walsingham and Jane How as Lady Punnet also deserve a nod.
Although Lord Fellowes book may lack the wit of Stephen Fry’s adaptation of Me and My Girl, there are some nice additions to the original stage and film versions. Stiles and Drew, now dab hands at augmenting existing shows, bring a pleasing sense of fun to several new numbers. At times though, less is more, and there are too many songs which simply hold the show up. Stiles and Drew’s simplest song is their most effective, and “Pick Out a Simple Tune” is an instant classic (even if it does bear an uncanny similarity to “It’s Easy To Sing a Simple Song” from Salad Days).
Act 2 is far more engaging and when the show is allowed to breathe and tell its simple story, it has undeniable charm. Sadly, a few too many jokes fall flat, and a mincing photographer is a cheap touch that merely distracts from David Honker’s hit song Flash Bang Wallop.
I won’t give away the ending, or whether Arty ends up with Helen or Ann. Whichever he chooses, I had the nagging feeling that they could both have done better. I’m sure there must have been a position at Downton Abbey for Ann and Helen could probably have sustained her entire family just teaching people how to make the Taj Mahal out of wood. Still, Half a Sixpence remains a fun night at the theatre, packed full of David Heneker’s hit songs and a brand-new Stiles and Drew showstopper that will leave you swinging from the chandeliers!
Buy Tickets for Half a Sixpence here
Noël Coward Theatre
St Martin’s Lane
London WC2N 4AU
Currently booking until February 2017