REVIEW: Pure Imagination, St James Theatre ✭✭✭

Pure Imagination at the St James Theatre
The cast of Pure Imagination. Photo: Annabel Vere

Pure Imagination
St James Theatre
29 September 2015
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Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination…

Words from one of the prettiest, most thrilling songs ever penned by the team of Lesley Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Used in the key moment in the 1971 film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, Pure Imagination has become an anthem for the glory of faith, honesty and hope, for the endless possibilities which are available to the human spirit. In one way, the song is an exemplar of Bricusse’s work: a soaring, effortlessly beautiful melody coupled with beguiling, delicious words. A work of simple genius.

In another way, Pure Imagination, like most of Bricusse’s work, is a trap for unwary performers, because unless the style of delivery is right, it will fall flat. In that vein, choosing Pure Imagination as the title and guiding motif of a revue featuring Bricusse’s work as Lyricist and Composer is both brave and foolhardy; without formidable style and vision, the trap becomes a pit – of quicksand. It can be negotiated, but only with the greatest care, attention and skill.

Now playing at the St James Theatre is the premiere production of Pure Imagination: The Songs Of Lesley Bricusse, a revue devised by Bricusse himself, director Christopher Renshaw and producer Danielle Tarento. As staged by Renshaw, assisted in the movement department by Matthew Cole, this is more a case of Poor Imagination. Long, repetitive and, largely, bland as unsalted butter, the production makes clear the vast contribution Bricusse has made to popular music and standards, largely by reminding one of how good the original versions were. What it doesn’t do is fizz and spark in its own unique way.

It is impossible not to be impressed by the breadth and variety of Bricusse’s work; as composer and/or lyricist he has written for great shows (The Roar Of The Greasepaint, The Smell Of The Crowd to name his best), great films (the Bond franchise, Doctor Dolittle, Victor Victoria, and Willy Wonka) and great stars (Placido Domingo, Matt Monro). He has at least two new musicals in the works, Sammy (about Davis Jnr) and Sunday Dallas (about a Broadway understudy who has to go on for three stars at once) and turns out to be partly responsible for the jaunty hit, My Old Man’s A Dustbin (who knew? He used a pseudonym).

Bricusse’s output is so prodigious and so tuneful that only the tone deaf would not find lots of numbers here satisfying and delicious. Many will find something to enjoy in every song, and certainly Musical Director, Michael England, does a terrific job accompanying the singers with a six piece band (including England on piano) that does real justice to England’s arrangements. As ever, there could have been more strings to swell the underscoring, but that is a small quibble.

Pure Imagination at the St James Theatre
Julie Atherton in Pure Imagination. Photo: Annabel Vere

This is not a revue which seeks to reimagine Bricusse’s music generally, unlike the recent Bacharach hit at the Chocolate Menier. Nor is it a revue in the style of Side By Side By Sondheim or As World Turns Round, both of which took the repertoire of specific composers, Sondheim and Kander & Ebb, added some pithy connective patter, and made audiences consider compositions afresh, as performance pieces or standards, or even as surprise twists on the original settings.

Here, the creators have adopted a looser style and rely entirely on Bricusse’s songs and lyrics; there is no explanatory patter to set songs, explain their purpose or create anticipation. Loose themes link hits.

Pure Imagination starts proceedings and is returned to often; usually its presence indicates a slight change of pace or mood or style. A dramaturg of skill could make proceedings tighter, judiciously cut a few unnecessary numbers – 50 songs are sung over the course of two hours, not all of them familiar. Clever cohesion would be a real advantage.

Not enough use is made of combinations of the five soloist’s voices. There are many solos and duets when real surprises and rewards could come from different combinations or performances which are unexpected. Sometimes, a great sight gag is permitted to overcome the beauty of a vocal line: while there is a certain drollness to Dave Willetts’ sexagenarian 007 delivering Goldfinger, the sensual, electric passion that only a female voice can bring to the song is sorely missed. One character serves as a kind of narrator/watcher/commentator but this notion, regrettably, is not properly explored or given serious focus.

Given that Bricusse is a lyricist, and much of his work concerns words, there is a surprising lack of diction, especially in songs with which the audience may be unfamiliar. Very few words were discernible in The Dream (Bricusse’s setting of The Nutcracker Suite), The Pink Panther (still very funny despite this), Down The Apples And Pears or Thank You Very Much to name a few. This was not a question of balance; it was down to the performers and Renshaw’s directorial vision.

Matthew Cole’s choreography was occasionally zippy but for the most part did not infuse the presentation with sufficient verve or spirit. The chief exceptions came in The Pink Panther routine, the finale for Act One, The Good Old Bad Old Days, and the Oompa-Loompa Doompadee-Doo celebration; each sparkled nicely. Some of the other routines were dreary, some misjudged (the back-up support for Siobhán McCarthy’s nicely judged Le Jazz Hot was one such moment).

Tim Goodchild’s set was odd. At first, it seemed slightly magical, with sheet music falling from the Moon, but as proceedings progressed it seemed flatter and less captivating than the music deserved. There was a complete disjunction between the majesty and sweep of the music being shown off and the manner of presentation. Rather than glamorous costumes throughout, Ben Moriah presents some folksy outfits, some more glitzy, but the overall sense of razz-a-matazz was oddly absent. One smiling lady remarked to the aged gent in front of me at interval that the “whole thing was charming”: a comprehensive indictment. Bricusse’s music is thrilling and any presentation of it should be thrilling, and revelatory, too. For the most part, sadly, Pure Imagination was not thrilling.

Pure Imagination at the St James Theatre
Giles Tererea in Pure Imagination. Photo: Annabel Vere

But, happily, there were exceptions: The final five-part harmony version of Pure Imagination; Giles Terera’s silky smooth The Candy Man; the powerful In His Eyes from Jekyll & Hyde; the ensemble version of Talk To The Animals; a stirring The Joker (Terera again); the rambunctious Thank You Very Much/The Good Old Days which ended Act One and the rousing Feeling Good which closed the show. Each was excellent and if the standard evident in each was present throughout, this would be a truly remarkable show.

Julie Atherton was really the only performer willing to bring her eccentric individuality to her performances. The result was everything she sang was fresh and interesting, and each time she came on stage, the mood lifted, the energy heightened. McCarthy did not have quite the same opportunities to shine, given the tunes she was assigned, but she approached her task with gusto and skill and used every part of her considerable range. When Atherton and McCarthy sang together, the result was brilliant, the stuff of ovations.

Terera did good work throughout, some truly excellent work and some not so excellent. Occasionally his performance was too self-indulgent, but when he hit his stride he shone. His virtuoso delivery of What Kind Of Fool Am I? rightly brought the house to ecstatic rapture.

Both Willetts and Niall Sheehy were not really up to the demands of the form or the music. There was a lot of loud singing, some awkward falsetto passages and a deal of tiresome amateur dramatics from both and, really, only the occasional verse of true interest.

Yet, for all these reservations, Bricusse’s music shines. Although not all the tunes are his, there is a kind of uniformity of excellence about pretty much everything with which he has been associated. This pulsates from the music played in Pure Imagination, regardless of the paucity of Renshaw’s vision. Over the course of the two hours, there were several outstanding performances, many good ones and a few very dull ones.

Yes, it could be performed better, and it could certainly be directed and choreographed far better; where it should be constantly energised and thrilling, it often lags and trembles. But the genius of Bricusse keeps one engaged, recognising old favourites, contemplating new melodies, new words, and feeling good.

Pure Imagination runs at the St James Theatre until 15 October 2015

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