Tag Archives: Julian Fellowes

“Half A Sixpence” at the Noël Coward Theatre

The Chichester Festival Theatre’s new version of David Heneker’s musical arrives in the West End trailing rave reviews. And rightly so. Surely some critics were aggrieved that producer Cameron Mackintosh, credited as co-creator, had already bagged the perfect description to promote his work – this really is a “flash, bang, wallop” of a show.

The simple love story of an apprentice haberdasher who comes into money and has to choose between his childhood sweetheart and a once unattainable upper-class lady gives us a pleasingly Pygmalion spin and a hero, one Arthur Kipps, every bit as endearing as Eliza Doolittle.

Arthur may be called Art by his friends, but it is his artlessness that makes him so appealing, genuine and infectiously joyous. Taking the lead has catapulted Charlie Stemp into the big time with a star-is-born moment that theatre goers will find electrifying. Stemp can sing as superbly as he can dance – and he can act, too. In short, he’s the real deal.

Ironically the big achievement of the show, with new music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and a book by Julian Fellowes, is to downplay Kipps’ part. Originally an uneven vehicle for Tommy Steele, the show has been recalibrated to allow the rest of the cast to rise to Stemp’s achievements. Both of Arthur’s love interests are superb. Devon-Elise Johnson plays the love-token-swapping parlour maid with credible vigour. The posh idol, Helen Walsingham, is Emma Williams, and, in a piece where toffs do badly, she’s still appealing, making Arthur’s decision a real dilemma.

Half A Sixpence praises working-class culture in a manner that is out of fashion and makes for a fresh change. Arthur’s colleagues in the shop are wonderfully delineated (praise for Sam O’Rourke, Alex Hope and Callum Train). As for Bethany Huckle’s Flo, Arthur may not fall for her, but I did, with an end-of-the-pier number about sexual frustration that makes the role stand out. This new song, ‘A Little Touch of Happiness’, perfectly embodies a postcard humour that makes many numbers here laugh-out-loud funny, with a sentimentality that magically weaves naiveté and nostalgia. All are combined to perfection by director Rachel Kavanaugh. And this is before the storming second-act number, ‘Pick Out a Simple Tune’, with one cast member literally swinging from a chandelier. What more could you ask for?

It isn’t just the deserving praise already received that gives the show its unbounded confidence. In Kavanaugh’s capable hands, taking a lead from the cleverly constructed new material, Half A Sixpence is akin to a theatrical comfort blanket. We know when to applaud – freeze frame on the action and get ready to clap – and when to give a standing ovation. With the keen-as-mustard cast delighting in its triumph everyone goes home happy.

Until 2 September 2017


Photo by Manuel Harlan

“School of Rock” at the New London Theatre

Since Matilda’s triumph, anyone putting kids on stage has more than ever to live up to. Even with credentials as impeccable as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, this film adaptation can’t be called the best thing in the West End. The fact that it is so predictable probably doesn’t matter – many like to see a movie on stage – and with some good songs added, one of which is still buzzing around in my head, this is a crowd-pleasing show.

It’s the story of a wannabe rock star, David Fynn, fraudulently becoming a teacher in a posh school. Too ‘hardcore’ to bother with ‘gold stars’, his attitude endears him to the privileged but ignored pupils and sets him in conflict with their parents. Recognising “soul brothers and sisters” in the children, he takes them to compete in a Battle of the Bands, fulfilling his dreams and engendering new ambitions in them. And there’s your structure. I can’t imagine Julian Fellowes, credited with the book, broke into much of a sweat, unless stubbornly refusing twists or complexity is difficult for him.

Dewey Finn takes the lead and is amiable, busy and charismatic. With the best will in the world, though, you can’t say the role belongs to anyone other than Jack Black who made the film a hit. The other adult roles are disappointingly flat. School of Rock tries too hard to get the kids on side for my taste, and parents get too rough a ride, but pandering to the young audience makes commercial sense and is done well. The children in the cast cannot fail to impress with their talent and energy, creating a palpable excitement. This pedagogical introduction to musical theatre, a well-trodden path for Lloyd Webber, is hard to dislike, but there’s little here for grown ups.

Until 14 January 2018


Photo by Tristram Kenton