Half A Sixpence, Chichester Festival Theatre

Half A Sixpence at Chichester Festival TheatrePhoto credit: Manuel Harlan

This new production of Half a Sixpence has been updated with some new music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and what strikes me first when composing my thoughts is that, as someone who never saw the original, I could not detect the new material; such was the skill used to write it and slip it into the show. I tend to have reservations where nostalgic, period pieces are concerned, especially in musical theatre, but director Rachel Kavanaugh and her team have created a highly polished piece which is low on ‘twee’ and brimming over with positivity and energy.

Before anything else, one has to applaud the production’s leading man, Charlie Stemp. His face reveals his young age, but the small handful of credits in his biography are a shock when you witness this performance. Stemp injects such energy and commitment to every step, note and scene, one could easily mistake him for a deceptively young looking seasoned professional. His ‘Kipps’ is truly a joy, combining the ups and downs of the character’s narrative, with outstanding skills as a dancer and singer. Every second counts, and this young man leads a vibrant ensemble through a score full of excellently choreographed numbers; “Pick Out A Simple Tune” being just one example, with the confidence of a star. His leading ladies bring a delightful contrast to their roles. Emma Williams, makes an elegant Helen, with just the right blend of heart and social awareness to make her relationship with Kipps sweet but ultimately doomed. Hers is a sensitive performance, with ample opportunities to showcase her vocal skills. What is interesting about the way Kipps’ love interests are written is that although both are likeable, kind women, we ultimately never root for him to marry Helen in the end. Devon-Elise Johnson’s portrayal of Ann is understated, combining the vulnerability of a young girl in love with a strong moral backbone of the woman we later see serving as maid to Lady Punnet. Johnson’s voice blends well with Stemp’s, and provides an excellent contrast to Bethany Huckle’s vivacious Flo in the delightfully performed “A Little Touch of Happiness”. Ian Bartholomew also gives a thoroughly entertaining performance as Chitterlow, with “Back The Right Horse” a particular highlight.

Leading man, Charlie StempPhoto credit: Manuel Harlan

Paul Brown’s ‘carousel-esque’ design, set against video projections by Luke Halls gives a picture postcard feel to the story. From the polished wood and towering shelves at Shalford’s shop at the bazaar, to the bandstand with its vibrant grass, (apparently a replica of one at The Leas in Folkestone), and eventually the Kipps’ nuptial celebrations at the Hope and Anchor, all the locations fly by in a whirlwind, like the change in Kipps’ lifestyle, contributing further to the energetic pace of the piece. The carousel, built upon a revolve which allows the fluid journey through place and time, reminded me of Ascot in “My Fair Lady”, another story of class from bygone days. “If The Rain’s Got To Fall” held within it a gentle nod to the “Ascot Gavotte”. The design aspect, especially of a musical, is so important when setting the feel and tone of a piece, and the attention paid to detail, colour schemes and texture of the costumes, really added to both the enhancement of the period, class differences, and the journey Kipps goes through during the plot. From the familiar blues and earthy browns of his childhood, to the dramatic swirling colours of ostentatious dresses of the wealthy, we see a fusion of Kipps’ experience and his expectation.

Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction is full of character and coupled with Andrew Wright’s tight flamboyant choreography, the production is filled with finesse and polish. There were perhaps one or two moments when I found myself looking for a little more of a struggle emotionally in terms of the journey of Kipps and his love interests, but this is often the case with ‘feel-good’ musicals and it by no means detracts from the joy of the experience. “Half A Sixpence” is the ideal summer musical, especially in a city like Chichester. Audiences have been on their feet every night there. If the production gets a West End transfer it is sure to capture audiences!