As a theatre blogger/lover/addict (delete as appropriate) I regularly lament that I do not live in London with access to the fabulous West End every night of the year. But when it is summer and you live in one of the most beautiful towns in the UK which boasts one of the best theatres in the country, I don't really have much to complain about.
I am, of course, talking about Chichester Festival Theatre, which I am so lucky to have just down the road from me. This year, amongst other productions, it has put on Half a Sixpence which I was invited to attend on Tuesday night with a group of fellow bloggers.
Half a Sixpence, based on the novel Kipps by HG Wells, is the story of overworked apprentice Arthur Kipps who yearns for a better life and more money. But when he comes into an unexpected fortune, he finds that it does not solve all his problems. He struggles with trying to straddle the two worlds that are as far away from each other as could possibly be - the world of the poor, with his friends and the world of the rich, which he now technically belongs to.
Prior to attending the show on Tuesday night, I made the decision not to watch the film. Perhaps this was foolish, but as this had been adapted by a writer you might possibly have heard of, Julian Fellowes (yes, the Downton Abbey genius!) and new songs had been added by musical dreamteam George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (who helped create shows such as Mary Poppins); I wanted to enter with a fresh perspective too. I didn't want to simply be comparing this exciting, brand new adaptation to the old version the whole time. But I was in good company as Charlie Stemp (who played lead, Arthur Kipps) didn't either
Talking of whom, Charlie Stemp was absolutely wonderful in his first lead role. With a little West End ensemble work already under his belt, Stemp actually auditioned to be understudy Kipps but after circumstances changed for the original lead, he got the role. Proving that sometimes luck and good fortune play a big part in this crazy industry. However, that doesn't take anything away from the fact that he is unbelievably talented. He serenaded, whistled, pranced and banjoed his way through the show with apparent ease. Which isn't easy at all considering that he is on stage for the majority of the runtime. His energy didn't seem to wane though and he definitely made you fall a little bit in love with this slightly doofus-like character as he carried out the plot of the show.
Devon-Elise Johnson and Emma Williams (who played his love interests Ann Pornick and Helen Walsingham) were similarly fantastic. Johnson's girl-next-door portrayal of the often ignored Ann really made us feel for her and the feistiness she brought to the part was spot on. Johnson's vocal prowess was proved time and time again too. From the emotional 'Long Ago' to the extremely comical new addition 'A Little Touch of Happiness' which had us all in stitches, Johnson proved how truly diverse her voice was. Williams, in some ways, had a much harder job in that she played a slightly less likable character. It would be easy to view the character of Helen as this horrible woman who stole Arthur away from his childhood sweetheart. But Williams' performance and stunningly heartfelt vocals allowed you to empathise with her and feel for her big time! Williams did a truly epic job.
You might not feel like you know this musical but actually it is highly likely that you know at least one of the songs - Flash bang wallop which comes at the very end of this new reworking of the show. Giving the cast no chance to rest, it is this massive extravaganza which ends the show with a (literal) bang. The entire musical is a big spectacle with one huge glittering dance number following another. It is gorgeous to watch. Most of the songs have been adapted in some way to fit the changes that Fellowes made and then there were the additions of a whole bunch of new songs. These fitted seamlessly into the musical and were in keeping with the original score so well that it is hard to tell which are the additional ones. In fact, two of my favourites - 'A Little Touch of Happiness' and 'Pick Out a Simple Tune' - were new ones and I didn't realise until I had looked them up afterwards. One thing is for certain, whether new or old you won't be able to leave the theatre without them buzzing around your head and accidentally humming them.
I do love the classic musicals and considering the popularity of Showboat, Guys and Dolls and Funny Girl this year, I hope that Half a Sixpence may have an opportunity to Flash (Bang and Wallop) its way into the West End. But in the meantime you can catch it at Chichester until the 3rd September. And if you are under 25 you can get tickets for £8.50 (find about their Prologue scheme here) so you really have no excuse.
**I was very kindly invited to attend Half a Sixpence and meet the cast by Chichester Festival Theatre but, of course, all the opinions expressed here are my own**
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