The Theatreguide.London Review
Noel Coward Theatre Autumn 2016 -
This revival and revision of the popular 1963 Tommy Steele vehicle was a big hit in Chichester earlier this year, and although it is only scheduled for a limited London run, there is no reason to doubt that it will be a successful crowd-pleaser here as well.
It's got a nice old-fashioned romantic story, songs (like the title song and Flash Bang Wallop) that have become part of our cultural DNA, and a star-is-born performance by the immensely charming and talented Charlie Stemp at its centre.
On the other hand, it is a very old-fashioned musical (and was in 1963), some new songs added here are not up to the standard of the original score, and not everything about the production is as good as it is at its best.
For this version book-writer Julian Fellowes has bypassed the 1963 script by David Heneker and Beverley Cross to go back to the original novel by H G Wells, resulting in a show that is not quite as dominated by the star as the Tommy Steele version was.
The story remains intact – poor shop assistant inherits a fortune, is dragged into high society and torn between his childhood sweetheart and a posh girl - but the subplots and secondary characters are developed more here than they were in 1963.
The posh girl, for example, is no villain – that's her gorgon mother – but a nice young woman who was attracted to the hero even when he was poor. So the question of which girl he should choose is really left open until very late in the show.
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have written seven new songs, largely to serve the newly deepened characters and plot situations. These new songs achieve their purpose, but are not likely to become as classic as some of the originals.
Pick Out A Simple Tune, with the hero winning over the stuffy rich folk with his banjo, is the occasion of a big production number to hold us while we wait for Flash Bang Wallop, and A Little Touch Of Happiness is the slyly witty lament of a couple of women momentarily man-less.
But the songs that you go out humming will be the ones you came in humming, Half A Sixpence, If The Rain's Got To Fall, She's Too Far Above Me, and Flash Bang Wallop. They are, simply, much better than the additions.
At the show's centre, if not quite overpowering things as Tommy Steele was allowed to do, newcomer Charlie Stemp (lately in the chorus of Wicked) shakes hands with stardom.
He sings, dances, acts, charms the audience with a dazzling smile, and sets and sustains the show's tone with a little skip to his step when his character is happy and a puppy dog hugability when he's sad.
Emma Williams sensitively lets us see that the posh girl is not for him while keeping her thoroughly sympathetic, while Devon-Elise Johnson makes the poor girl spunkier than you might expect.
If there is a weak link to the show it is in the staging of director Rachel Kavanaugh and choreographer Andrew Wright.
The Noel Coward Theatre's stage is not particularly large or small, but it too often looks empty when there are two or three people on it and crowded when there are any more than that.
The big dance numbers in particular never seem able to find any balanced and attractive shape, but look like too many people constantly in danger of getting in each other's way.
That they don't is a credit to Andrew Wright's precision, but that they look like they might deprives even Flash Bang Wallop of some of its fun.
Still, great songs, great central performance, simple and sentimental story, and a finale that sends you out humming a song you were born knowing – I suppose you could ask more than that of a musical, but it would be churlish.
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Review - Half A Sixpence - Noel Coward Theatre 2016