Without wanting to come across as a humourless feminist, the women in Half A Sixpence get a pretty rough ride. Orphaned Arthur Kipps (Charlie Stemp) is left a fortune by his estranged grandfather. He dumps Ann (Devon-Elise Johnson), his childhood sweetheart, in order to pursue Lady Helen (Emma Williams) now that he has the means to do so. Kipps discovers that high society is not for him, drops Helen and returns to Ann, who takes him back. And then there’s Flo (an excellent Bethany Huckle), unrequitedly in love with Kipps, who ends up settling for his co-worker when Kipps marries Ann.
Originally staged in 1963, and based on HG Wells’ 1905 book, Kips: The Story of a Simple Soul, it feels very much of its time – the class and gender divides are inviolable. However, given that Stiles and Drewe have added a bunch of new (fun) songs, and Julian Fellowes has updated the book, is it too much to hope that it might have been updated a little bit more?
One of the new songs, A Little Touch Of Happiness, is a hugely entertaining duet between Ann and Flo, bemoaning the fact that their respective men are idiots and singing charmingly about how horny they are. Half A Sixpence is at its best in these ribald, knowing moments, when it takes the chance to send itself up. When it’s trying for sweet – in the rather dull title number, for example – it all feels a bit staid and saccharine.
That said, the production is high-kicking, toe-tapping fun. There’s more than a hint of Mary Poppins in the portrayal of cheerfully dancing working class folk, but despite Alex Hope’s Sid spouting communist ideals, the inequalities are not much explored. Young Kipps goes from rags to riches and back again, discovering along the way that money isn’t the secret to all happiness and love across a class divide will never work. It’s a simple story, and one that hinges on Kipps being endearing enough that we can muster some sympathy for a man who must choose between two besotted women.
Charlie Stemp as Kipps has oodles of goofy charm and great comic timing. With a grin a mile wide, he has enough pizzazz to carry this show. And boy, the boy can jump. Stemp is a hugely impressive triple threat, but it is his dancing that really wows as he leaps his way around Paul Brown’s set, charming almost everyone he meets.
The big set pieces (Pick Out A Simple Tune and Flash Bang Wallop) are great fun, with dancing on tables de rigeur and Andrew Wright’s flashy choreography coming into its own. The choreography feels a bit scrappy to start, but finds it feet as the production warms up. Having the two biggest numbers in the second act doesn’t help, but again, it’s Stemp’s energy that keeps the show hurtling along.
By the time Flash Bang Wallop rolls around at the end, it’s hard not to be won over by this hugely talented cast and the sheer exuberance of the performances.
Half A Sixpence is on until 11th February 2017. Click here for more details.