A Priceless Experience: A peek backstage at Half A Sixpence

01 Sep
Posted in: Features
Author: Becky Wallis
Backstage at Half A Sixpence...

For avid theatregoers, a night seeing their favourite musical on the West End can be tantamount to a religious experience! An even rarer treat however, and one many can only dream about, is the chance to go backstage and...wait for it...meet the cast!! Becky Wallis, a theatre blogger and self-confessed HALF A SIXPENCE superfan, was one of the lucky few to take part in a MasterCard experience which involved just that, and shared her experience along with some cool insights into the production most of us weren't aware of...

MasterCard Priceless is a company that offers incredible experiences to MasterCard users and whilst I have followed the company for a while and looking at what they had on offer, this was the first time I booked an event with them - and it was an event I simply could not miss. It took a lot of planning, including a worrying wait to see if I could get the day off of work, and it didn’t come cheap including the hotel and the train, but it was so incredibly worth it. Because with this event, I was able to go back stage at my favourite ever show, HALF A SIXPENCE!

After enjoying yet another brilliant performance - my seventh visit to the Noel Coward Theatre for this production - everyone at the event gathered in the stalls for the after show Q&A with members of the cast. As we waited, there was a undeniable buzz of excitement in the auditorium as Charlie Stemp (Arthur Kipps), Alex Hope (Sid Pornick), Devon-Elise Johnson (Ann Pornick) Jaye Elster (Mrs Wace/dance captain), Ian Bartholomew (Chitterlow) and Gerald Carey (James Walsingham/Photographer) came into the room for the Q&A session (a blog about this will be coming soon).

After the question and answer session with the six cast members, which was incredible and full of amazing new information and funny stories, the rather large group was split into two smaller groups to be taken backstage. The excitement mounted as we were lead through the door up onto the stage. I was walking the same route taken by cast members and I simply couldn’t stop smiling!

My group was first taken into the stage-side dressing room where the majority of the show’s multiple quick changes take place. We were talked through the process of how the show made the move from Chichester to the Noel Coward, and how it was a struggle to fit everything in. The festival theatre was much larger, with more space backstage allowing for the many costumes, back stage team and cast. Here, wooden panels acted as makeshift walls for hooks and rails in the dressing room, as because of the rules on changing the building itself, nothing could be hung directly onto the freshly wallpapered walls.

When the production team were first told that their London home would be the neat yet rather small Noel Coward, there were doubts that everything would be able to fit, but with some careful planning, they made it work (although they admit that it is still some struggle with quick changes and the movement of set pieces). We were told that the quickest change is about 27 seconds, but not told who this was for. I imagine that it was one of Arthur’s quick changes or perhaps Buggins’ change from his pyjamas to his drapery uniform.

After a good look around the dressing room, the two groups swapped places and we were taken up onto the stage itself. What a dream come true, standing on a West End stage looking out at the auditorium. Absolutely incredible, such an amazing feeling! Once on the stage we were talked through the process of setting the stage and how set pieces are used and stored. On the stage itself, the large bar/shop counter set piece was pushed to the back of the stage, laden with multiple props including bar stools, drink pumps and pieces from Shalford’s Bizarre. The grass matting from ‘If the rain’s got to fall’ was rolled out covering the stage. This piece has to be left out overnight to dry.

As we crossed the stage I caught a glimpse of one of the most iconic costumes from the show, Arthur’s blue and white striped coat and hat, hanging on the wall at the side of the stage. We were led behind the screens where more props were stored. From here, it was clear just how tight for space everyone is in this production. Shelving units stacked with props lined the back wall and the table from the hotel scene was in the corner complete with all its props. It was great to see the photographer’s camera leant against the wall, waiting for Flash Bang Wallop. In a small and crowded room beside the stage, racks lined the wall, containing all of the cast members' banjos for the finale. Each cast member has their own banjo to use and a graph pinned carefully to the wall explained where each performer had to place their banjo so that it is always known which one is which.

There was one banjo that is not stored in the racking with all of the others and that is Charlie’s banjo Babs. This special instrument is stored on its own, on a stand kept safely at the edge of the stage behind the dress dummies used in ‘Look Alive’. Everyone was very excited to see it - yes it’s only an instrument but its famous in the eyes of HALF A SIXPENCE fans! Also stored safely at the side of the stage on pegs are the white lace umbrellas used throughout the show.

As part of the talk, we were told about how the doors used throughout the show are stored under the stage ready to rise up and it takes a small team to change each door quickly. The water tank is also stored under the stage. Getting this show into the Noel Coward was not an easy job. The entire theatre was given a makeover with the auditorium floor lowered and the pit removed to make for a larger stage. The whole idea was for the stage to look like a bandstand, with the large canopy installed over the stage allowing for the bandstand sides to move around with the rotating stage floor.

I will never forget my trip backstage and the feeling of standing on that stage surrounded by set pieces and props from my favourite show. Thank you to MasterCard Priceless Experiences for giving me the opportunity to have this experience.

This article was originally posted on Becky's own blog Musical Theatre Lives In Me.