Pure Imagination Siobhan McCarthy, Dave Willetts, Niall Sheehy and Julie Atherton in Pure Imagination – The Songs of Leslie Bricusse
Photo: Annabel Vere

Pure Imagination – The Songs of Leslie Bricusse
St James Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell

At his induction into the American Songwriter's Hall of Fame Leslie Bricusse was only the fourth Briton to achieve such an accolade. The others being Noel Coward, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Unless you're a movie or musical devotee you might not realise the scale of his achievements and so this finely polished celebration of his work, packing in no less than 50 songs, is a useful reminder. It's devised by top director Christopher Renshaw, Bricusse himself and Danielle Tarento of Southwark Playhouse fame.

Bricusse is rare in that he often contributed all 3 roles (book, music, lyrics) but was also content to help with any one of the three if the collaborator was right. He worked with the best – Mancini, Williams, Barry, Styne etc. and at the start of his career it was his work with Anthony Newley which made his name. Their show Stop the World I Want to Get Off and the 'Best Song' Grammy winner from it, 'What Kind of Fool Am I', launched both of them in Hollywood where they took up residence in the early 60s. The then Mrs Newley aka Dame Joan Collins had pride of place next to him at this starry opening night. Bricusse went on to pen Bond themes and many film musicals such as Dr Doolittle, Goodbye Mr Chips and Victor/Victoria and his songs were covered by every great popular singer of the 20th century.

The tight stage of the St James is dominated by Tim Goodchild's glorious design - a vortex of sheet music rising up from a grand piano. This theatricality is curiously at odds though with the costuming, which has an attractive cast in frumpy casuals. Is this about "relating"?

Director, Renshaw, thankfully doesn't force the songs into a narrative but rather distributes them among four broadly outlined characters – Man (Dave Willetts), Woman (Siobhan McCarthy), Boy (Niall Sheehy), Girl (Julie Atherton) and Joker (Giles Terera) and the songs are effectively grouped by emotional theme. It doesn't really matter though with songs this good. The two West End veterans and three promising newcomers here are all great talents and so lots of superfluous 'business' doesn't really add much.

Pure Imagination Giles Terera, the 'Joker' in Pure Imagination
Photo: Annabel Vere

While the songs are just as good today the tone of this piece is on occasion curiously dated. The use of the only black character as a 'Joker' is dangerously close to 'Black and White Minstrel' territory and the corniness of some of the dance numbers is straight out of '60s light entertainment TV. Like The Mousetrap, they updated the clothes but not the sensibility.

The Act One finale is devoted to Cockney knees-up numbers, mostly from Sherlock Holmes, about which the less said the better and Act Two opens with the Bond themes, for he penned three. However it is in the up-tempo happy songs or the great love ballads where Bricusse comes into his own and you'll hear yourself muttering again and again "Ah, he wrote that!"

Sheehy is given 'This Is the Moment' from Jekyll and Hyde, which is probably the best anthemic bring-the-house-down number written in the past 50 years. Sadly, they fade it into 'When I Look into Your Eyes', which is the worst case of 'songus interruptus' (my term) I've witnessed in a long time. Anyway, it's a song that should be aired more often.

Adding to the finesse of the evening is the glorious orchestrations of MD Michael England whose six piece band could be a Hollywood orchestra. They finish with a rousing 'Feeling Good', a huge hit for Nina Simone, and everyone leaves humming. What more can you ask for?

Tickets: www.stjamestheatre.co.uk/theatre/pure-imagination

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