(Seen at the preview performance on 14th November 2016)
This “Half a Sixpence” gleams as a freshly-minted show should. The original 1963
David Heneker hit has been re-worked by Stiles and Drewe under the beady eye of
musical theatre expert Cameron Mackintosh himself.
Out go “The Oak and The
Ash” and (sadly) “All In The Cause of Economy,” plus much of the original
arrangements of everything else. In come nine fresh songs, of increasing quality
as the show progresses.
Almost every number is given big “set piece” staging. The wonderful “Back The
Right Horse” (a hymn to theatre producers everywhere) must have been written for
Sir Cameron, “Pick Out A Simple Tune” as a gift from Stiles and Drewe to us, the
audience; and the re-working of “Long Ago” into a gorgeous musing their thanks
to Mr Heneker.
The monkey was left in no doubt, either, that this is a Mackintosh show. It’s
a masterclass in production values. Paul Brown’s revolving set, Paule
Constable’s lighting and Luke Hall’s Video Design takes us to shops, pubs, the
seaside pier, garden parties, grand homes, hovels and all points between - in
the course of Kipp’s progress from shop assistant to Society man and finally to
his personal comfort level.
Best of all, it sounds good. Mick Potter keeps it natural on the ear, making
sure that William David Brohn and Tom Kelly’s new yet respectful orchestrations
are properly heard.
Andrew Wright (choreographer) and Rachel Kavanaugh (director) keep the actors
moving, and even when the plot slows a little in act one to set up the far
livelier act two, the show itself rarely falters. The only glaring criticism the
monkey could find was new number “Look Alive” failing to do the work of “All In
The Cause of Economy” both in scene setting and adding the required edge of
bitterness to surviving classic “Money to Burn.”
Of the cast, the majority of praise will undoubtedly fall on Kipps.
Charlie Stemp – fresh Drama School graduate and now West End Leading Man in a
single bound, rather as if an unknown grandfather had willed him the role. A
cross between Tommy Steele and Michael Crawford, his stage presence is based on
comic timing and agility as he quips, sings, dances, tumbles and clowns, seldom
leaving the stage. If he isn’t appearing, there will be protests at the box
office, the monkey is certain.
For the monkey, however,
Ian Bartholomew as actor, impresario and terrible cyclist Chitterlow stole the
show. “Back The Right Horse” punches proceedings up a gear at the right moment,
and his years of experience enhance gloriously every scene he plays.
For the ladies,
Emma Williams gives us a lovely Helen Walsingham, aloof yet kinder than her
(neatly snobbish Vivien Parry) will allow. Jane How’s Lady Punnet is another
member of society worth mention, a rounded performance underlining perfectly the
difference between true and aspiring class.
As Ann, Kipp’s “girl from back when,” Devon-Elise Johnson makes a good
transformation from 16 to 22 (better than Stemp – the opening eschews the
difficulty of child actors by having the leads play themselves younger). There’s
a sweetness that will deepen as her performance grows, for sure , and her solo
number is a highlight.
With an energetic and talented company behind them, and managing to send us
off with both a “Crash Bang Wallop” (Gerard Carey’s camp photographer skating
the line of good taste) plus an even better surprise to finish with, this
musical does exactly what the “old time shows should,” letting us leave many
times happier than when we went in.
It’s the full glittering shilling – so do spend yours to see it. 5 stars.
Photo credits: Manuel Harlan, used by kind permission.