Following a hit run at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Half A Sixpence bursts onto the London stage with a flash, bang and wallop! With 5☆ reviews across the board, the show tells the story of Arthur Kipps (Charlie Stemp) who finds himself caught in the middle of two worlds and two women: Ann (Devon-Elise Johnson) and Helen (Emma Williams). Devon-Elise spoke to me about her career, characterisation and corsping.
Rona Kelly: Thanks for talking to me today! Can you tell us a bit about your previous experience – how did you get into musical theatre?
Devon-Elise Johnson: I had a bit of strange career actually! I started in musicals when I was thirteen, in Billy Elliot the Musical and I got to play Susan Parkes. My Mum got me the audition and I thought, ‘Go on, get off your arse! Go do it!’ And I got it and it was incredible! It wasn’t actually until then that I thought, ‘I can do this’. I was performing at the Victoria Palace in front of 1500 people, and although it was nerve-wracking, I loved the buzz. The applause and the buzz: it’s what I live for.
And then I went to a couple of dance colleges, which was when Spring Awakening came up. I was fifteen years old when I started the process; I never expected anything and got down to final two. It was between me and the amazing Charlotte Wakefield, who got it. And then after that I was asked to workshop Bridget Jones with Sheridan Smith, which was exciting. And then I actually ended up playing Wendla in Spring Awakening! I got to go to Frankfurt and worked with Ryan McBryde [Director], which was incredible and one of my most treasured times. I absolutely adored that musical – I had to do it!
Then I went to the London School of Musical Theatre, for a one year extensive course. I really wanted to take that time to improve and become the actress I wanted to be. Since then, I’ve done Taboo which is my favourite musical ever and I got to play a goth! I also did Saturday Night Fever and the international tour of Mamma Mia, where me and Charlie [Stemp] both worked together for the first time. So to go from both being in the ensemble to now leading this production, it’s pretty amazing! And he is so nice.
RK: It’s lucky you two get on then: two shows in a row!
DEJ: Ha! Yes, can you imagine if we didn’t!
RK: And Half A Sixpence has just got an extension in the West End!
DEJ: Yes, so even more time together! When we got the news, we were absolutely buzzing. We all enjoy the show so much, we wish we could actually watch it one night!
RK: This is a reworked version of the original, with Stiles and Drewe’s score and Jullian Fellowe’s book. Were you familiar with the show before?
DEJ: I actually wasn’t, but I had done one of the songs before: ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’. We did it when I was thirteen at a family event and I thought it was a great number…it had sequins, so of course I thought it was great fun! But I had no idea where the song came from. It wasn’t until the audition came through that I actually found that out!
I watched the movie and I absolutely fell in love with it. But it’s so different to our version. In the original, ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ is in the middle and I think that’s so weird! It’s very strange and then afterwards you see Ann and Arthur’s relationship go into turmoil and it feels kind of like it’s going down-hill. So putting it at the end in ours makes it a much happier ending!
RK: What were your initial impressions of Ann? Have these changed as the productions gone on?
DEJ: She really goes through hell in the musical, but she is very feisty! She puts up a big fight and lets you know how she’s feeling and when you’re not doing something right…
RK: She even has that song to Kipps: ‘You Never Get Anything Right’!
DEJ: Exactly! She’s not your typical romantic lead, and she gives Kipps a good run for his money.
When I was initially approaching the character, it was actually quite weird. Cameron [Mackintosh] said to me he wanted me to be myself in the role, because when I walked through the door I was Ann to him. As an actress, I don’t know how to be myself! We get wigs and make up and you get to play this other part. But when someone asks you to be you, it can confuse you! I was thinking, ‘Would I do that? Would Ann do that? Would I-as-Ann-as-me do that?’
So at first it was a bit confusing, but that has settled down a lot. I can see there’s a lot of me there in the role. And what I love about her is that she’s so normal, and I think that’s what every girl loves about her. She’s a grounded, articulate, emotional, all round a nice person.
RK: Yes, and you can see how much fun you’re having with the role; you get to play a little bit of everything. From love songs like ‘Long Ago’ to the hilarious song with ‘A Little Touch’.
DEJ: God I absolutely love that, both those songs are brilliant and ‘Long Ago’ is such a ballad, I adore singing it.
Her journey in the show is like real life: she’s not stuck in one emotion, it is a roller coaster. At first, she’s young and she gets a sixpence from Kipps and she holds on for hope there is something there. Then years later Kipps comes back and then runs off and she’s like, ‘All right…I thought we were something…apparently not’. Then she gets ‘A Touch of Happiness’, which is a laugh about blokes and how useless they are. And then she catches him marrying Helen and it is completely heart-breaking. Seeing someone you like getting engaged where you work, what a kick in the stomach! And then there’s ‘You Never Get Anything Right’. Like I said, she doesn’t take anything and tells you how it is!
RK: Do you have a favourite moment in her journey or a favourite song?
DEJ: ‘A Touch of Happiness’ is probably my favourite to sing, and I love being on stage with Beth Huckle [Flo]. She is incredible to work with and we have such a laugh on stage! And it’s sort of a moment in the show in itself. You get some relief, some naughtiness, some raunchiness! And you kind of forget the rest of the story and hardship for a second, and it’s nice.
RK: I would struggle to keep a straight face with some of those lines!
DEJ: I do too! And I’ll tell you something: the other day we nearly couldn’t! It was during the song and I’m supposed to say, ‘Oi, what postcard?’ But it came out as ‘What poistcard?’ And I could see Beth smile and trying not to giggle and we hadn’t even started singing yet! She was just looking at me like, ‘Please don’t make me laugh, I’m going to die!’ It was so hilarious!
RK: Like a New York ‘poistcard!’
DEJ: Exactly – ‘Poistcard, what postcard?!’ Beth’s Face was a picture!
RK: And finally – if you had money to burn, a whole in your pocket, what would you do with it?
Oh my god! That’s a question – that is a good question! I would travel the world. I love travelling and on the Mamma Mia international tour I got to visit places I’d never been before. So I’d absolutely love to travel the world, that and retire my parents.
Half a Sixpence is now booking until 22nd April 2017, at the Noël Coward Theatre. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the Half a Sixpence website.