I went into Half a Sixpence not knowing much except that Tommy Steele had been in the original 1963 production (it was one of the last British productions to go to Broadway before the 1970s-1980s dominance of Andrew Lloyd Webber) and my boyfriend had sung the title song at me. As stories go it is a rags to riches tale about the value of money, class, and love.
Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps is fantastic: charming, handsome but with a naivety about women and status. When he finds he’s been left a fortune he gets close to Helen Walsingham (Emma Williams), a teacher who had shown him kindness when he was a draper’s assistant in the local haberdashery. He still has feelings for his childhood sweetheart, Ann (Devon-Elise Johnson), who works as a parlour maid. I really enjoyed the scenes with Kipps’ work mates and there is fantastic support from the social-climbing Mrs Walsingham (Vivien Parry) and her dodgy son James (Gerard Carey).
It is a very old-fashioned story and an old-fashioned musical: huge choreographed numbers and tune after tune after tune. There are revisions of the old production with new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who collaborated with Half a Sixpence adaptor Julian Fellowes on upcoming The Wind in the Willows at The London Palladium. What struck me after seeing shows like The Lion King and School of Rock recently was the lack of diversity and refusal (with the exception of the projections) of many modern elements. It feels like it has been staged as it would have been in the 1960s.
As a result, the audience for this seems quite limited, it is fun show but it seems aimed at a certain generation and it feels very different to many of London’s current musicals and you can feel every inch of what an epic production this must have been in the 1960s, but it now feels a bit dated. Its strength is not the music but the story and the performances. Alongside Stemp (this feels like a breakout role) there is strong support from Ian Bartholomew as Kipps’ playwright friend Chitterlow and whose musical theatre experience, along with Emma Williams’, really shines through. It feels very lush and you will come out feeling delighted you went but my main recommendation would be as a seasonal show to take grandparents and parents to, rather than a group of young friends.
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