Friday, 21 April 2017

Behind-the-Scenes at Half a Sixpence at the Noël Coward Theatre

I go to the theatre a lot and there are few shows and plays in the West End I have yet to see. However, despite being inside London's glitter playhouses frequently, I don't normally get a chance to glimpse behind the (safety) curtain and see the inner workings of a big West End production. Until this week... I was kindly invited to attend a special media night at the Noël Coward Theatre to see musical Half a Sixpence, with not only a Q&A with the cast beforehand (and a delightful tune by lead Charlie Stemp on the banjo) but even a behind-the-scenes tour afterwards.

We were welcomed at the theatre before warm-up and it felt very special to enter the auditorium with our relatively small group of people. In two separate sessions we were allowed onto the stage to learn part of the dance routine for iconic tune Flash Bang Wallop (just 10 seconds worth and it was exhausting! It really made me appreciate the ease and flawlessness with which the actors perform the choreography every night even more) and we had the chance to ask cast members Charlie Stemp (Arthur Kipps), Emma Williams (Helen Walsingham), Bethany Huckle (Flo) and Sam O'Rourke (Buggins) all things show and acting related.

My burning question was whether there were any fun mishaps they could share and there were quite a few! From the motor bike at the end of the show getting stuck while the cast was waving Arthur off stage (which went on and on and on...) to the revolve getting stuck and so people had to 'casually' manually move set pieces. We also learned that Charlie went through an astonishing 11 rounds of auditions for his role and he had just 4 hours of banjo lessons before he had to play in front of producer Cameron Mackintosh. He clearly smashed it out of the park as he is not only playing the role in London today, but he actually opened in the part when the show originated in Chicester last year.

Now onto the actual show...

Based on the novel Kipps by H.G. Wells, Half a Sixpence is a musical comedy that originally opened all the way back in the 1960s in London. However, the book by Beverley Cross has been revamped by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), and the music & lyrics by David Heneker too have been spruced up by additional material from composing duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (Betty Blue Eyes, The Wind in the Willows), who all collaborated on the refreshed Mackintosh version of Mary Poppins back in 2004 as well. Unless you're already very familiar with the original show or film adaptation staring Tommy Steele you wouldn't notice which bits are new as they work seamlessly with the original material. 

The story centres on shop clerk Arthur Kipps who unexpectedly comes into money and the clashing of his old, modest life with his new, luxurious one. He's a simple lad and as he tries to manage the woes of etiquette and adjusting everything that makes him him, he gets caught up in a love triangle between his childhood sweetheart and a girl from his new world. Needless to say, hilarity ensues, framed by a jam-packed list of catchy tunes and some mean banjo playing.

Charlie Stemp at just 23-years-old is already a fantastic leading West End actor, so good in the role of Arthur Kipps in fact that he was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical this year and won the WhatsOnStage Award in the same category. And it's easy to see why; his charming musical performances and high energy on stage form the heart of this feel-good musical, and he carries the show admirably. Not that there is a single weak spot in the cast, mind, as the entire company clearly gives it their all, which is especially mesmerising during the big, showy dance numbers that makes the audience want to jump onto their feet and join in (but please don't, this is a theatre show after all).

The choreography by Andrew Wright is easily one of the highlights of this production, and is the best I've seen in a long time. It was bold, it was tight, and while old-fashioned in nature to fit the tone of the story, it felt very fresh and exciting too. Special mention must also go to the absolutely fantastic score. These are not just simple tunes a la the song Pick Out a Simple Tune (which is a real charmer by the way), no the music is oodles of fun and sizzling in all the right places. Several days later I'm still humming the delightful melodies of Flash, Bang, Wallop, Half a Sixpence, and Just a Few Little Things.

Half a Sixpence flash-bang-walloped its way into the West End all the way from Chichester thanks to its phenomenal choreography, highly catchy score, and incredible multi-talented cast. With the charming Charlie Stemp at the helm as banjo loving Arthur Kipps, this musical comedy has injected a much-needed boost of good old-fashioned fun into London's theatre scene. This is the kind of stand-out show that adds a Little Touch of Happiness to the West End and its audiences, and I hope it'll get the chance to do so for many more years to come.




After the show we were so very kindly allowed a sneak peek behind-the-stage as we explored quick change and the storage areas on both stage left and stage right. I especially loved the row of banjos and all the costumes (and hats and wigs and flowers...) in the quick change dressing room. For someone who loves theatre as much as I do this was a real treat – and I cannot thank the team enough for this incredible opportunity and for being so generous with their time and answering our many questions.

I took a ton of photos but my camera is dying and so they turned out really poor (on that note, I'm going to have to buy a new camera this weekend, any recs?), but you can find a snapshot of the best of the bunch below. They don't do the actual experience justice, but it's something at least.



Half a Sixpence has recently extended its run and is now playing at the Noël Coward Theatre in London until 2 September 2017. You can book tickets here.




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