Review: Pure Imagination ★★★★ – Judi Herman enters the tune-fuelled world of Leslie Bricusse

© Annabel Vere If like me, you relished the toothsome trip round Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory in the 1971 movie musical of Roald Dahl's dark and delicious children's classic, you'll have no problem identifying the title of this equally moorish compilation of the words and music of Leslie Bricusse.

Gene Wilder's pitch-perfect Willie Wonka sang the song like a silky caress in the film and, as the programme informs us, it's been covered by stars including Michael Feinstein, Sammy Davis Jr, Jamie Cullum and Mariah Carey, and featured on TV shows ranging from Glee to Family Guy.

The joy of the man's genius, as explored and celebrated in this warm hug of a compilation show, is not just the range of fine singers attracted to Bricusse's work – it's the range of the work itself. The palpable delight in the auditorium comes as much from surprise at the rediscovery of yet another all-time favourite from the composer/lyricist's extraordinary back catalogue, as from the execution and charm of these five well-chosen performers.

Think Bond themes ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’ (written with John Barry and Anthony Newley); cheerful, upbeat numbers like ‘On a Wonderful Day Like Today’ and ‘Out of Town’ (Housewives' Choice memories anyone?); inspirational anthems like Nina Simone's spine tingler ‘Feeling Good’ and Sir Harry Secombe's feel-good hit ‘If I Ruled the World’. There are also comedy novelty numbers, including Oscar-winning ‘Talk to the Animals’ from Dr Dolittle and ‘My Old Man's a Dustman’, which topped the charts on three continents; and of course there are the love songs, often with a specific original context, such as ‘Can You Read My Mind?’, the love number from the film Superman.

It’s good to be reminded not just of the man's music but also of his musicals. Bricusse seems to have a penchant for Victoriana and the Edwardian age, for his musicals on stage and screen include the Julie Andrews vehicle Victor/Victoria, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dickens adaptations Scrooge and Pickwick. Then there’s Sherlock Holmes – The Musical, which yields a great excuse for a jolly old Cockney knees-up with showstopper 'Down the Apples 'n' Pears'.

But this show is stuffed with showstoppers and wonderful curiosities. Did you know that Bricusse wrote clever lyrics to Henry Mancini's Pink Panther Theme? It's wonderfully realised here as a segue from ‘Talk to the Animals’, where designer Tim Goodchild thinks pink and lithe Giles Terera glides round the stage lashing his tail while pursued by the rest of the company – complete with raincoats and magnifying glasses of course. The man writes lyrics to die for – perhaps literally in ‘Goldfinger’  – "He's the man, the man with the Midas touch, a spider's touch, such a cold finger … For a golden girl knows when he's kissed her, it's the kiss of death from Mister Goldfinger".

© Annabel Vere

Happily all five members of the company – Terera as the Joker (a character from The Smell of the Greasepaint – The Roar of the Crowd), Dave Willetts as the Man (adding a lovely depth of emotion and gravitas in numbers including ‘Who Can I Turn To’ and ‘Once in a Lifetime’), Siobhan McCarthy as the Woman, Niall Sheehy as the Boy and Julie Atherton as the Girl – make sure their audience can hear every precious word. And they all manage to work up a head of emotional steam in the brief connections they have with each other, song on song. Versatile Terera is not just a performer with emotional depth (as seen during the number ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’) and a lovely sense of fun (‘The Candy Man’) but a lovely mover too and Matthew Cole sets numbers around him to give him his head (or should that be feet!).

The powerful six-strong band, arranged to the side of the stage, feels like part of the cast and does Bricusse’s wonderful range of styles proud. MD Michael England, while at, and occasionally away from, the piano takes centre stage, generously sharing his stool with the performers.

So although designer Tim Goodchild has provided a swirling backdrop that can frame video and still images and morphs usefully to suggest the Bond credits, he has wisely kept the scenery simple to frame the talents of the cast – a swirl of music round the edge of the stage floor, reflecting the backdrop, to suggest the size of the composer’s oeuvre, and angular chairs in different styles and poster colours.

The evening aroused my curiosity about early shows such as The Smell of the Greasepaint… along with Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, surely due for a revival. And it’s great to report that the man is still writing. I’m just as curious to know more about his as yet unperformed new musical Sunday Dallas after enjoying the fun of ‘Hollywood Wives’, a number from the show that evokes the late great Jackie Collins, as it’s staged here featuring a Hollywood Diva and her claque, pursued by adoring males seeking selfies with her. I'm also happy to say that Bricusse’s 2009 biographical musical Sammy, about his friend and fine interpreter of so many of his songs, Sammy Davis Jr, is bound for London. Meanwhile there is this chance to get to know and enjoy a terrific selection from Bricusse’s songbook – even though it does not feature his 1973 song ‘Chutzpa’!

By Judi Herman

Pure Imagination runs until Saturday 17 October. 7.30pm & 2.30pm. £15-£50. St James Theatre, 12 Palace St, SW1E 5JA; 084 4264 2140.