A pile of coats lies gently steaming in the corner of the rehearsal room as I enter, thoroughly drenched by the glorious British Summer time, for the first day of rehearsals for Half A Sixpence. We’re rehearsing at a brilliant place in the London Bridge area called the Jerwood Space. Large light rooms, great acoustics and Dame Judi Dench as the voice of the lift. I kid you not. It’s theatrical heaven. There are witticisms on the walls, a lovely little café and even an art gallery – it’s well worth a visit should you get chance - and for the next five or so weeks it’s going to be the launchpad for our brand new version of Half A Sixpence written by the incredible team of Julian Fellowes, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
Familiar faces accost me almost immediately. Some I know from working at Chichester before on Love Story, some I’m currently working with on Mrs Henderson Presents (as I’m doubling up until June 18th!) and some are friends from my time working as a temp in the offices of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd. But that’s a whole other story…
We grab our coffees and croissants, throw our coats on the pile of drying outerwear, and head upstairs to the enormous main rehearsal space we’ll be using, where the air is buzzing excitedly. Almost 100 people from all areas of the production pile into the room, which has already been laid out with a large ring of chairs ready for the script read. We form a circle two people deep because of the numbers, and slowly go round announcing who we are and what our relationship is to the show. By the fortieth person I’ve already forgotten where we started and am thinking about campaigning for name badges. Even the headshot sheet I have of the cast isn’t a massive amount of help, as we rarely look exactly like our photos!
Rehearsal clothing? 'Corset' is!
Speeches from outgoing Artistic Director of Chichester Festival Theatre, Jonathan Church, and co-producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh follow, and Cameron explains to us quite why Half A Sixpence is not only important to him but everyone in the room. The original show was a catalyst in his meeting Stiles and Drewe, who are providing new music and lyrics to sit alongside the well-known tunes in this revised production and as we sit down to read and sing through the show, with Julian Fellowes’ brilliant new text, it feels like a deliciously new and exciting rendering of an old favourite.
The cast are reading aloud these scenes and songs for the first time, as much of the material has been revised since our auditions. We’re sight-reading from scores that are still slightly damp from the printer and it’s terrifying and exhilarating. You’re trying to do your best with text that’s unfamiliar and yet it’s so easy to get caught up in the story and watch, rather than read, that one of two times we miss cues for being enthralled by our fellow performers. At the ‘interval’, as it were, Julian gives us a couple of pronunciation notes and we hastily scribble these down, grabbing a quick refill before act two commences.
I have a feeling I’ll be 87% caffeine for most of the next few days as I try and get to grips with my new character, like most of the cast. Rehearsing any show is hard work but creating a brand new show, particularly based on something incredibly well-loved by the public, has a whole other set of challenges and it will require immense determination, dedication and creativity from everyone involved. By lunchtime we start to get a sense of the task ahead of us and burst into the fresh air to clear our heads and replenish our energy for the afternoon session, which will commence with the model box showing.
I LOVE a model box. Truly. They’re the grown up, theatrical equivalent of dolls houses in many ways. Miniature versions of the set and characters in exquisite detail, which are used to demonstrate to the company how a show is going to look without having to spend a fortune on a full scale untested version. Designer Paul Brown’s beautiful set is awash with resplendent colour and historical touches which conjure up a real sense of early 1900’s Folkestone, where the show is set. Indeed Rachel Kavanaugh, our director, and Paul took trips to Folkestone for inspiration whilst they were developing ideas for the production.
Tiny reams of fabric from Salford's Bazaar.
Along with the sets, Paul is also designing the costumes and displays some of his stunning artwork to give us a sense of the piece, each design beautifully rendered in watercolour and ink on parchment. It will be amazing to see these designs come to life over the next few weeks. For now we are restricted to basic rehearsal corsets and skirts to at least give a sense of how it will feel to walk, sing and especially dance, in such restrictive clothing compared to our modern day garb.
The afternoon is rounded off by a singing session with Graham Hurman, our Musical Director. Although many of the cast were involved in group audition calls, this is the first time Graham gets to hear all of our voices together. The score is frequently sung in 4 and 6 part harmony so the most important thing is to designate those parts appropriately. It’s a gentle process of balancing out the sounds and Graham takes his time until we are all placed into a group which makes the most of our vocal qualities, whilst also ensuring covers don’t have to learn several different singing tracks. It’s difficult enough having to play a different role but having to swap vocal parts can be extremely tricky even at the best of times!
At the end of the first day, we roll out into London overwhelmed and shattered and that’s before Choreographer Andrew Wright has starting putting us through our paces physically! There’s a lot to do but with the right amount of graft we’ll get it done in a Flash (Bang, Wallop)!
A Jerwood Space bit of wit and wisdom!