Half a Sixpence
Chichester Festival Theatre
Tuesday, July 26 2016
What a joyous, end-of the-pier-style, comedy knees-up this is.
Half a Sixpence is based on HG Wells’ semi-autobiographical novel Kipps, this new adaptation by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame, with a new score by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
It’s the story of Edwardian orphan Artie, who leaves his aunt and uncle, along with his sweetheart (giving her half a sixpence to remember him by) to become an apprentice at a draper’s shop in Eastbourne.
One day, thanks to an impresario, he discovers he’s inherited a fortune. He then falls for a posh bird Helen (played by Emma Williams) whose mother (Vivien Parry), come down in the world thanks to a dodgy dead husband, wants to get her hands on his cash. She pushes the well-meaning daughter into agreeing to marry Arthur.
Poor Arthur doesn’t feel comfortable with the upper classes, despite charming ‘em all with his cheeky banjo number at Lady Punnet’s musical evening (hilarious ensemble number here). Meanwhile he spots his childhood sweetheart working as a maid in the posh house. He realises she’s really his sort, but is engaged to posh bird. Then posh bird’s brother embezzles his money so the wedding is called orf, and Artie is free to marry his girl (played by Devon-Elise Johnson). Hooray!
He’s philosophical about his comedown but THEN he discovers the impresario’s play that he invested in when rich has made him a new fortune. Blimey!
But he’s learned his lesson; that it’s better to lark about with the honest working class folk he grew up with, rather than go hoity-toitying about with the gentry, where he don’t belong. Phew!
There’s no real tension in the show, the lyrics and songs are very simple, there’s no subplot, hidden themes or clever twists. It’s wholesome, family cheery fun. Great fun. It barrels along at a fair old lick, with laughs all along the way.
As Kipps, newcomer Charlie Stemp is a real treasure – a sort of Tommy Steele/Lee Evans combo, but more than anything, as Kipps he reminds me of Joey Essex – a simple soul, not all that bright, slightly bewildered in a world of cynicism and aspirations. He’s got more money than he knows what to do with and just wants to be loved and a little bit admired. What a firecracker Charlie is; dancing and singing, grinning and leaping across the stage like a joyful puppy.
The costumes are gorgeous and the set delightful – a rotating stage symbolising Arthur’s life in a spin but serving also to make the show more visible to all sections of the audience without exhausting the cast by making them run around any more than they already did (which was a lot!). I loved the choreography, with masses of flash bang wallop throughout.
This extremely energetic, hard-working cast fully deserved their standing ovation on press night. It’s hard to pick out individual performances to praise because they really were all incredibly good, but I did enjoy the slightly saucy duet between Flo (Bethany Huckle) and Ann in A Little Touch of Happiness, and Gerard Carey’s performance as the swindler brother James at the musical evening, trying desperately to impress on the organ, as well as playing the camp and increasingly drunk photographer in Flash, Bang Wallop.
The show is guaranteed to put a smile on your face – a real summer tonic.