“This odd diversity of misery and joy”
The Great British Songbook series of concerts, devised by Neil Marcus, have previously featured Maria Friedman and Kerry Ellis in the past and now it is Jill Halfpenny’s turn to present her interpretations of British songwriting, both old and new, at Wilton’s Music Hall as part of their cabaret programming, Live at Wilton’s. Halfpenny has taken a few days leave from her regular gig in Legally Blonde and also nabbed her co-star Chris Ellis-Stanton for moral and vocal support.
hings got off to a shaky start: her version of ‘Pure Imagination’ was not the strongest and awkwardly stretched across her range (also not helped by my memory of a recent superb version by Anton Stephans) but when she did the whole cheesy welcome bit in the middle of the song and then continued singing, my heart sank as it felt like this was going to be a glossy, overly polished cabaret act, completely ill-suited to the venue. Fortunately, the end of the second song saw her revert to a pleasant normal personality whilst chatting to the audience but for whatever reason, this resulted in me ending up being hypercritical for most of the show and my notes were almost all negative.
Some things were minor irritants and personal things: choosing the sanitised PG-rated version of The Beautiful South’s ‘Don’t Marry Her’ which just loses the point of the song and yanking the key change out of ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’ But others were more serious: a gorgeous version of Karen Carpenter’s take on ‘Ticket To Ride’ was mashed up with random verses from ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’: maybe it’s a personal point of view but I really feel celebrating the Great British Songbook should involve respecting the songs and so I didn’t appreciate the mash-up here at all. And more importantly, the over-amplification and electrification of the sound failed to take advantage of the wonderful acoustics in Wilton’s and showcase the intricacies of Halfpenny’s vocal talents, for the most part it sounded like we could have been anywhere or even listening to a CD.
There did come a point where I wondered if I was being too harsh but then with the final number, it felt like all my concerns were being recognised and consequently addressed, with an absolutely stunning acoustic rendition of Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears In Heaven’. Without a microphone, without any of the showiness, just a heartfelt dedication to her father and a real emotional honesty, she brought the house down with a stunning rendition which made me long for what could have been with the rest of the show.
That is not to say it was without its delights, not at all. ‘This Time’, a Gary Barlow song written for Shirley Bassey’s new album allowed for some great belting, she captured the acerbic bite of the sharp duet ‘A Little Time’ well and the wistfulness of the 1930s numbers like ‘Mad About the Boy’ with skill. And she did wonders with the lesser-known songs too: singing a witty song written by a Geordie friend songwriter and a lovely Richard Rodney Bennett song, ‘Funny Thing’. It really was a much better show with the quieter, more intimate numbers and I wish the focus had been more on them.
I don’t know how these things work or are put together, but someone really needs to look at how these shows were priced. A star-studded night in aid of charity at the same venue cost just £30 yet the main hall ticket prices here were £35 which seems exorbitant, even more so given that the show was 90 minutes with interval and padding. Throwing in a dance with Ellis-Stanton to the tune of ‘Paint It Black’ was a nice touch (although I would have much preferred to see her reprise her epic jive to ‘I’m Still Standing’, possibly the best moment Strictly Come Dancing will ever come up with) but giving her guitarist a solo spot and allowing Ellis-Stanton a go at Radiohead’s ‘High & Dry’, whilst well performed, was just frustrating, given the overall short programme length.
So ultimately a frustrating night for me, as it was clear how much potential there was here for a stunning representation of Halfpenny’s considerable talents which were only allowed to shine through for a criminally short length of time. I feel there needs to be less attention on changing dresses and cheesy cabaret chat-up lines and more on conveying the real emotion that clearly lies behind the song selection: overpriced, overamplified, overdone.
Running time: 90 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Pure Imagination (from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley)