Credit: Chichester Festival Theatre Credit: Chichester Festival Theatre

Review: Half a Sixpence at the Noël Coward Theatre

Written for Everything Theatre

Half a Sixpence is a classic rags-to-riches affair, a new and improved take on the original 1963 musical that was written for teenage heartthrob Tommy Steele. Set in the early twentieth century, it tells the story of draper’s apprentice Artie Kipps and his attempts to blend in with ‘civilised society’ after he unexpectedly inherits a fortune. You probably don’t need my help to figure out where this is going, but then again, I don’t think anyone would go see this show primarily for the plot. I’m not saying it’s not entertaining – it is – and behind its wholesome exterior lies an unexpectedly large amount of dirty jokes, which made me very happy. But what sells this show are the catchy songs, the nearly acrobatic dancing and, of course, Charlie Stemp’s fantastic performance as Artie.

If you’ve come across any other reviews of Half a Sixpence, you’ll already have read lengthy explanations as to why Stemp is next best thing since spreadable butter. So I’ll limit myself to saying that I couldn’t agree more and that I’m pretty sure it’s physically impossible to look at him without smiling. Let’s, instead, talk for a bit about how amazing the rest of the cast are. Special mentions have to go to Ian Bartholomew as the slightly dodgy actor/playwright/Renaissance man Chitterlow, and to Devon-Elise Johnson and Emma Williams as Artie’s love interests Ann and Helen. Even in this much improved version their characters are about as flat as they come, but Johnson and Williams do manage to wring every last bit of personality out of them nevertheless. And let’s give some more credit where it’s due: ensemble members are some of the most hard-working and talented people you’ll see on the West End stages, and Half a Sixpence is no exception.

Now, back to the singing and dancing bit. After many years of musical theatre consumption, I thought myself largely immune to the impulse to run home from the theatre and immediately sign up to the nearest dance class. Not anymore. I challenge you to come out of this show and not attempt a casual high kick or a twirl around a lamp post on your way to the tube. It’s also a real joy to have a live band providing the music, especially when they play their way through familiar earworms such as Flash Bang Wallop and If the Rain’s Got to Fall. Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe have added some excellent new songs as well, like Pick Out a Simple Tune. Even the lady behind me who kept asking her friend in a very carrying whisper whether it was the interval yet, was clapping along enthusiastically towards the end of the evening.

Is there anything to this show that I haven’t gushed about yet? Well, the set and the lighting expertly conjure the postcard picture British seaside that only exists in the collective imagination, without overpowering the performances. And I even had a comfy seat, with legroom, in a West End theatre! Once again, then, Chichester Festival Theatre have proven that they know their musical theatre stuff. I would urge you to go see Half a Sixpence as soon as you can, because you’ll probably want to go a couple of times more before it closes.

Half a Sixpence is playing at the Noël Coward Theatre until 2 September 2017