Review – Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre, 29th December 2016

Half a SixpenceOne of the albums from my childhood was the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s Music for Pleasure record of Des O’Connor singing songs from Half a Sixpence, the 1963 musical by David Heneker and Beverley Cross, originally written for Tommy Steele. Despite – rather than because of – this recording, I’d always wanted to see the show, and we finally got the opportunity back in 2007 when we saw Gary Wilmot as Arthur Kipps in Bill Kenwright’s production at the Birmingham Hippodrome. I remember thinking at the time that the show itself was quite tame, but that it was an excellent production and I couldn’t imagine anyone better in the cheeky chappie main role than the irrepressible and brilliant song and dance man Mr Wilmot.

charlie-stempThings change, then change again. Fast forward nine years, and, remembering its rather mundane plot, when we made our selections from this summer’s Chichester Festival offering, neither of us particularly wanted to see this new production. Honestly, have we not learned our lesson? Over the past few years we’ve seen cracking good shows like Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, Mack and Mabel and Kiss Me Kate, so why wouldn’t the new Half a Sixpence – now transferred to the West End – be up there with the greats? (Spoiler – it is.)

pick-out-a-simple-tuneTo be honest, I still find the show itself a little underwhelming, with its somewhat dated subject matter of comedy juxtaposition between the upper and the working class, and its message that you should always marry someone of your own kind. However, Julian Fellowes’ new book and some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have given it a well-deserved kick up the backside and created a much more entertaining and better structured show. I think one of the problems with the original version is the relative dearth of musical numbers in comparison with the length of the show. Today your average musical-goer simply expects more – a legacy of the Lloyd Webber approach, where, after curtain up, the orchestra basically never stops till going home time. I must agree with other comments I’ve read though that it is an enormous shame that they chose to do away with the original song All In The Cause of Economy, which a) is a great tune, b) is a very funny lyric and c) perfectly encapsulates the horrendous relationship between the bullying Mr Shelford and his poor troupe of resident drapers. Another problem with the original show is that, as it was specifically fashioned around the amazing talents of Tommy Steele, it’s perhaps just a little too Kippscentric. The new structure, however, is much more balanced – even though, when you look at the list of musical numbers in the programme, of the 22 songs listed, only 2 don’t feature Kipps as one of the singers. He’s at the heart of the original book so it’s no surprise he’s also the heart of the musical.

flash-bang-wallopAs I’m sure you know, it’s based on H G Wells’ 1905 novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, which I confess I haven’t read but apparently was Wells’ personal favourite of all the books he wrote. Young Arthur and young Ann share a special friendship, but when Arthur has to move away, they each keep half a sixpence as a token of their young love. When working in the drapery shop he is smitten with the delightful Helen Walsingham, but she is high born and, surely, too far above him to care. But Arthur unexpectedly inherits a great legacy and an annual income of £1200, and can thus transform himself from commoner to toff in one fell swoop. His relationship with Helen blossoms, but then it turns out that Ann (remember her?) is the Walsingham family parlourmaid… And if you don’t know how all that resolves itself, you’ll have to see the show!

half-a-sixpenceNo doubt about it, this truly is a fantastic production. Stunning to look at, amazing sets, perfect costumes, a brilliant band and a large cast of superbly talented performers. As a piece of theatrical confectionary, it is the sweetest, tastiest, zingiest show I’ve seen for some time. Andrew Wright’s choreography, particularly in the big set pieces, is overwhelmingly, in-your-face ebullient, and gives you that great to be alive feel that musical theatre can sometimes achieve. Even if you don’t take into account the performances, the visual impact of the staging of the new song Pick out a Simple Tune and the perennial old favourite Flash Bang Wallop are among the most exhilarating experiences on stage at the moment; and the “real rain” in If The Rain’s Got To Fall helps give a charming sense of pathos and drama to the end of the first act.

lady-punnet-and-mrs-walsinghamThere’s been a lot of hype about Charlie Stemp, who plays Kipps, a performer plucked from relative obscurity – his programme bio reveals just an international tour of Mamma Mia and ensemble in Wicked. Well, believe it. This is one of those toe-curlingly delightful occasions when you can say “I was there” – I genuinely believe that, with this performance in this production, a star is born. He is the natural successor to the young Michael Crawford, with his engaging stage presence, superb voice and extraordinary dance ability. Hardly off the stage for the entire performance, he invests Kipps with an exuberance that really pushes out into the auditorium. The fact that he is new on the scene is perfect for the role as it reflects the character’s own fish out of water situation – an unknown person in an unknown environment. The production, however, knows he is a winner, subtly (or not so subtly?) lighting him just a little more strongly than everyone else in the ensemble pieces. I had no hesitation in giving him the standing ovation he totally deserved.

charlie-stemp-and-emma-williamsBut this is no one-man show. He’s surrounded by a fabulous cast, our personal favourite being the wonderful Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann, nobly and touchingly handing over the object of her love to her mistress. Ms Johnson is also spellbinding in the big song and dance numbers and is the perfect energy counterpart to Mr Stemp. I also really liked Emma Williams’ Helen, a classy, elegant performance that reveals the bravery of her character’s ability to climb out of her social class and become entwined with Mr Kipps. Jane How exudes delightful superiority as the sumptuous Lady Punnet, who really believes her musical evenings are the most fun you can have, and who has a brilliant twinkle in her eye whenever she speaks to Arthur; and there’s an enormously fun performance from Vivien Parry as Mrs Walsingham, her eye on the financial prize, never quite becoming the horrendous mother in law from hell, but not far off.

gerard-carey-and-charlie-stempIan Bartholomew’s Chitterlow is a wonderfully larger than life creation, with more than a touch of Dickens’ Vincent Crummles about him; one of those few characters who is nothing but decent through and through. Mr Bartholomew brings out the humour of his songs – notably Back The Right Horse and The One Who’s Run Away – with great style. John Conroy, always masterful in authoritarian roles, is chillingly unpleasant as Mr Shalford, and Gerard Carey is splendidly slimy as the villainous James Walsingham and genuinely funny as the camp photographer, even if the characterisation is a little more 1963 than 2016. However, all the cast give terrific support and the physical commitment to the performance from one and all is just magnificent.

ian-bartholomewAn absolute treat from start to finish, we left the theatre beaming from ear to ear. You simply have to see this one!

P. S. A couple of unfortunate examples of bad theatre etiquette couldn’t erase what a wonderful show it was. But why must people be so grumpy and unhelpful when it comes to letting others past to get to their seats? It’s bad enough anyway in the New, I mean Albery, I mean Noel Coward theatre where the front stalls are as tight as a [insert rude simile here] without having to make special negotiations and pleadings to get past. There was also a mother and daughter who constantly nattered all the way through the first act. They were just out of reach for me to tell them to shut it, but maybe someone else did because they behaved like proper theatregoers after the interval. Honestly, some people!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan and Michael Le Poer Trench

Review – Translations, Brian Friel Season, Sheffield Crucible, 1st March 2014

Brian Friel SeasonMrs Chrisparkle and I had invited our friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters for a day’s immersion in the works of Brian Friel, courtesy of the Sheffield Theatres. We found ourselves licking our post Wonderful Tennessee wounds with a pre-theatre meal at Café Rouge. “This one should be much better” I ventured. “Translations is the play that really made his name”. They looked at me as if to say “we trusted you for the matinee. Why should we trust you for the evening?” But I was right. Translations is like the Eiffel Tower lit up on New Year’s Eve, in comparison to Wonderful Tennessee’s out-of-order Belisha Beacon. It was first produced by Friel’s own Field Day theatre company in 1980 with a cast including such worthies as Stephen Rea, Ray McAnally and Liam Neeson and is considered to be a modern classic.

TranslationsWe’re still in Friel’s fictional Ballybeg in County Donegal, and it’s 1833. We are introduced to a hedge-school where a cross-section of the locals come to improve their education; from the barely-able-to-speak Sarah to the Latin- and Greek-scholar Jimmy Jack, both young and old are welcome provided they pay their fees. Hugh, the teacher, is a pompous drunken Stentor who treats his lame son and assistant Manus like a skivvy; and Manus is in love with milkmaid Maire, although she is disappointed by his lack of ambition and assertiveness. Into this mix come representatives of the British Army in the form of Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland who are to re-map the area and to anglicise the Gaelic place names at the same time – for consistency, you understand, of course. Yolland finds himself attracted to Maire, and from then on you sense it’s not going to end well.

The Hedge-SchoolBut the great trick in this play is in the language. Most of the Irish don’t speak English and none of the English speak Gaelic. The whole text of the play is in English though – apart from the Latin and Greek quotations – so you have the situation where, for example, Yolland is fumbling through his tentative words of love to Maire and she is saying similar things back to him but neither of them are understanding each other – because they’re speaking different languages – although we the audience understand them fully. It’s a superb comic device but also emphasises the various difficulties there are with communication in general.

Beth Cooke and John ConroyThe language also becomes symbolic of power in the struggle between Irish independence and the British presence. Friel makes it clear that anglicising the old names is a form of violation, even though, ironically, it’s being carried out by the mildest and most romantic innocent in the form of Yolland. He is being assisted by Manus’ brother Owen, six years in Dublin and now a man about town, who becomes a kind of quisling figure. As further evidence of miscommunication between the two camps, Yolland constantly thinks Owen is called Roland – a name similar in spelling to his own; maybe this is symbolic of the British moulding the Irish into a replica of themselves (or maybe I’m reading too much into it). And there’s also a chilling lesson in army tactics, shown by the very polite way in which the British first start their work but then, when they perceive threat, as in the fate (whatever it is) that befalls Yolland, they become clinically aggressive and ruthless.

Niall BuggyThis is a super, lucid, simple production that allows Friel’s words and characters to flourish. Lucy Osborne has designed a useful clear space to allow for the maximum interaction between the characters which is the best way to use the wonderful Crucible stage – when it’s littered with furniture and scenery something of the magic can be lost in that theatre. The back wall just provides a door to the barn and upstairs leads to the living quarters, but that’s all hidden; all we see are the steps that Manus has to slowly and delicately negotiate every time he is at his father’s beck and call.

James NorthcoteAt the heart of the production is the very tender and gentle burgeoning relationship between Yolland and Maire. James Northcote is fantastic as Yolland, a well brought-up starry eyed young romantic, not only about Maire but about Ireland itself. Caught up in his own dilemma of having to do what the army requires but thoroughly disapproving of it, he reminded me of a young Nigel Havers, all clean-cut and noblesse oblige. There’s a wonderful scene where he tries to join in with some Irish dancing, occasionally getting it right but largely as confused as any Englishman would be trying to follow those steps. Beth Cooke’s Maire is a strong character who knows her own mind and is very no-nonsense with the under-achieving Manus (a delicately drawn performance by Ciarán O’Brien) but who reverts back to simple girlishness when confronted with what she considers to be the magical sound of Yolland’s voice. The two actors work together really well to create this brief but emotional moment of romance.

Hannah James-Scott and Rory MurphyThere’s also a fantastically quirky but never over-the-top performance by stalwart Niall Buggy as Hugh, the bellowing Magister. Of course the role is beautifully written by Friel, but Mr Buggy absolutely convinces you he is the epitome of classical schoolmaster from top to toe. I wonder if he ever met my old Latin master Mr Edge? He absolutely encapsulated everything about Mr Edge that I can remember, even his dismissive “too slow” whenever you were struggling to work out the right answer. In many respects Hugh ought to be some kind of bullying monster but actually you really feel quite a lot of affection for him. We also really enjoyed John Conroy as Jimmy Jack, beavering away with his Virgil or Homer, living a life devoted to dead languages but whose stories are as real to him as life itself; acclaimed as the Infant Prodigy in his youth but with nowhere to take that learning other than to carry on being the Infant Prodigy throughout the rest of his life.

Cian Barry and Ciaran O'BrienPaul Cawley’s Captain Lancey is a figure of fun at first, with his faulting speech to the locals, talking to them as though they were idiot children, and then with his complex words translated by Owen in a very dismissive, abbreviated style. When he reappears at the end of the play he is on the warpath with his cold threats to obliterate the neighbourhood if the locals do not comply with his wishes. It’s a very chilling volte-face, and very effectively performed. Cian Barry is a smart and sophisticated Owen, enjoying his near-complicitous friendships with the English as evidence that he has “made it”. Hannah James-Scott and Rory Murphy give great support as the Friel equivalent of rude mechanicals Bridget and Doalty; and Roxanna Nic Liam is a touching, timid wallflower of a Sarah, who could have blossomed under Manus’ tuition but will doubtless revert to a life of silence.

A beautifully crafted play, given a top quality Sheffield treatment under James Grieve’s direction. It’s a moving look at a fascinating time in Ireland’s history, but what makes it special is that Friel has invested the story with some memorable characters and that it’s not just some dry and dusty old historical re-enactment. With its lightness of touch and its linguistic trickery, no wonder this play made his reputation. We were only grateful that we’d decided to see this in the evening and Wonderful Tennessee in the afternoon – the other way round would have been a serious downer.

Review – Radio Times, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th September 2012

Radio TimesTo celebrate the 50th anniversary of the corporation, the BBC brought out a double album in 1972 (remember those days of vinyl?) containing two hours of nostalgic clips – mainly radio – from a variety of broadcasts from the 1920s up until the “present day” – which if I recall rightly was Till Death Us Do Part and the Moon landings. I loved that record, and felt from an early age that the Beeb must have played an enormous role during World War Two in boosting morale and keeping spirits high. A major element of this was their cheery comedy and musical wireless shows like ITMA and Bandwagon, and it’s this kind of show that is lovingly resurrected in “Radio Times”. This production, a washed-and-brushed-up version of an original 1990s show, was born last year at the Watermill in Newbury, and is in the early stages of a tour throughout England which I’m sure will keep the home fires burning until Christmas.

Christian EdwardsI was very uncertain about booking for this show, as on paper (or on computer screen) it didn’t appeal to me that much, save for the fact that it stars Gary Wilmot, who is just about the most reliable name you can have on a stage to guarantee a good time. But I did think it would only appeal to old fogies, would shamelessly wallow in nostalgia, and have twee written through it like a stick of rock. Well, I was completely wrong. It’s a superbly entertaining show, with a funny script, great music and some fun performances.

Gary WilmotThe show never lets up in its attention to detail, which is a major source of the fun. Even before you go in, the ushers are dressed as ARP wardens, and guide you to your seat with little torches as in the Olden Days. The set itself absolutely conjures up how you would expect a 1940s radio broadcast from the Criterion Theatre to have looked; the costumes and styles are spot-on; and the use of language and comedic delivery capture perfectly those radio stars of the time. An essential element is that rather strange BBC radio comedy hallmark of a posh-voiced announcer interwoven with all the comic activity – pure Round The Horne – and this show kindles that happy memory delightfully.

Sara CroweThe whole cast are great. A major secret of its success is having the performers play the instruments as well, a Watermill trick that eliminates that sense of a band segregated at the back somewhere. The Grosvenor Girls, who replicate the Andrews Sisters’ sound brilliantly, not only sing and look good but also play brass and strings. When guest hunk Gary Strong offers to chip in to the musical numbers with his ukelele, you soon understand why they all roll their eyes. And Jeeps the sound engineer creates so many different sound effects with a myriad of props, as well as his own voice, that heaven knows how Christian Edwards, who plays him brilliantly, keeps up with everything that’s going on. He must be utterly exhausted by the end of the show.

Vivien CarterGary Wilmot, as Sammy Shaw, the cheeky star of Victory Bandwagon, is precisely as entertaining as you would expect him to be. He has such an easy, relaxed style; his presence is a reassurance; his every gesture, word, song makes you smile. He is the Olympic Gamesmaker of musical theatre; every household needs a Gary Wilmot to make the day pass more smoothly. Sara Crowe is excellent as his long-suffering girlfriend and co-performer Olive, who elicits some of the sadness out of her songs but a lot of the humour too.

John ConroyVivien Carter plays Ann Chapman, the lovely young singer and receiver of the “Dear Girlfriend” letters, and she completely captures the era with an immaculate performance and superb vocals. But arguably the topmost laughs are from John Conroy’s stiff-and-starchy BBC producer Heathcliffe Bultitude whose character, shall we say, endures the biggest journey of the night. It’s a great role and shows off a number of Mr Conroy’s entertaining talents.

Ben Fox There were a couple of minor hitches; a few lines got garbled here and there, and Mrs Chrisparkle felt it was a little overamplified for a theatre as small as the Royal. True, I did occasionally have difficulty deciphering some of Wilf’s lines (the very funny Ben Fox) because his microphone was drowned out by the sound of the musical instruments, especially in the first act. But that’s not what you remember from the evening. You take with you the memory of some wonderfully funny musical numbers – Ali Baba’s Camel, I took my Harp to a Party, for example; you remember how the show created a convincing wartime vibe, and you revel in some first rate performances that made you laugh and smile all the way through. Abi Grant’s book is really funny and well written, and the whole thing is basically a delight. Don’t think that this show is just for Oldies – it’s irresistible entertainment for everyone and I’d definitely recommend it.