Thursday, July 20, 2017

Half a Sixpence: two proposals and a wedding in BSPA’s rags to riches musical tale

Half a Sixpence is the rags to riches tale of Arthur Kipps, an orphan who is separated from his childhood friend Ann and becomes an apprentice in a Folkestone drapery shop.

Can the cockney couple rekindle their friendship? Or, egged on by an aspiring thespian, will the young lad’s attention be distracted by high society Helen Walsingham who runs evening classes for the underprivileged in the “town of vulgar prosperity”?

Throw into the mix a sudden fortune and a few swipes of fate and you have a two hour, class-riven musical with song, dance, and costumes galore.

With a cast of thirty 8–16 year olds, and only two weeks of rehearsal, director Peter Corry together with choreographer Gemma Quigley-Greene, musical director Thomas Brown and the back stage crew pulled off a minor miracle with the nearly word-perfect musical which had two public performances earlier this week.

Other than pantomime, the size of Northern Ireland audiences and venues dictate that very few performance have more than six actors in a production.

So it was a treat to have the MAC’s stage full of colourful talent for this Belfast School of Performing Arts summer show.

“Once a boy gets whiskers on his chin / He will soon start falling into sin”

Fresh back from The Voice Kids UK, Nathan Johnston’s voice found its confidence part way through the first half to deliver a sure-footed performance (that included tap dancing!) in the lead role which kept him on-stage for virtually the whole show, singing in nearly every number including solos and duets.

Victoria McClements blended her voice beautifully with Kipps/Johnston during Ann’s duets and delivered a stunning solo I Know What I Am, keeping up the Cockney accent throughout the entire show.

Her rival Helen Walsingham was played by Leesa Seffen, at first gracious and kind before toughening up under the influence of her stern mother (Ellen McAdam).

Glenn Parkinson’s camp Harry ‘Biff’ Chitterlow had the audience roaring with laughter (even when only his silhouette was visible pulling the curtain across the stage in the dark).

Four junior narrators provide frequent updates for anyone in the audience who has missed a vital plot point. Louis McCartney and Young Walsingham Michael Nevin (about takes up his scholarship at Winchester College Chapel Choir in September) deserve a mention as talented trebles who also added much to the humour of the show.

Peter Corry didn’t often let the action drop its pace, creating a remarkably tight and ambitious production. The live band hidden behind a curtain at the back of the stage stayed within earshot of the performers and some beautiful trumpet tones cut through above the rest of the soundtrack.

With only two performances and such a short time for tech, the odd issue with sound and mics are inevitable in this kind of production. Yet to the credit of the cast, they didn’t miss a beat and carried on regardless: good training for their future stage careers. (And it’s a good reminder that modern performers – young ones and older more established ones too – still need to be able to project their voices out into an auditorium and not always rely on amplification.)

The Half A Sixpence musical that I sat through several times as a child – enjoying performances by Ulster Operatic and other amateur groups – was revamped in 2016 and the version performed on the stage of the MAC this week is substantially less dated, while maintaining the turn of the last century feel of HG Wells’ novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul.

BSPA’s junior summer show was quite a treat, and the standard of the ensemble as well as the principals bodes well for the health of musical theatre in Northern Ireland. Keeping up the Tommy Steele theme, BSPA will be back in the MAC between 23 and 26 August with their senior show: Singin’ In The Rain.

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