Review: Imagine This

By John Nathan, November 20, 2008
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New London Theatre, London WC2

Peter Polycarpou (centre) leads the cast in a song in the Warsaw Ghetto-set musical Imagine This

Peter Polycarpou (centre) leads the cast in a song in the Warsaw Ghetto-set musical Imagine This

Rarely, if ever, have more doubts been expressed about a show before its world premiere. Doubts about the wisdom of opening a musical with an unfamiliar score in a recession; doubts about whether a largely non-Jewish audience will take to a story with Jewish heroes; but most of all, doubts about whether it is in good taste to set a musical in Warsaw's Jewish ghetto in 1942 with the Holocaust as the background.

Few have been reassured by the fact that the Los Angeles-based writing team, consisting of composer Shuki Levy, lyricist David Goldsmith and book writer Glenn Berenbeim are all Jewish. Yet although doubts will remain, for the most part, Imagine This fails to live down to expectations. The show is going to live or die by its ability to deal with its narrative without causing offence, and the depictions of Nazi brutality in the ghetto are handled by director Timothy Sheader with assurance.

And it is an enormous plus that Levy's score is tender and melodically inventive.

After a harrowing opening scene in which Jews are beaten and abused by Nazis, the action moves to a disused rail depot, a location that deliberately - and potentially crassly - resonates with train transports to the camps.

It is in this shadowy space that a Jewish theatre company run by Peter Polycarpou's warm-hearted Daniel Warshowsky attempts to stage a version of the Masada story in which Jews resist the occupying Romans.

On the face of it, it is a doubtful morale raiser, considering that the rebels killed themselves - though that ghost is largely laid when Daniel describes the show to a Nazi captain: "You'll like it. All the Jews die in the end."

But despite Sheader's obvious skills, Imagine This starts to show cracks when the stories of Masada's and Warsaw's Jews are conjoined. It is almost impossible to care about characters in a show-within-a-show while suspending empathy for the persecuted Jewish actors who play them.

The Warsaw narrative, which sees resistance fighter Adam (Simon Gleeson) seek refuge from the chasing Nazis in Warchowsky's company, is frustratingly put on hold while the action switches from 1942 to 70AD.

Adam is conscripted into the play, replacing the terrified Jacob who has been arrested by the Nazis. He will not talk, Daniel confidently assures the company, the first of several lazy plot points. "Are you kidding?" I wanted to shout. Five minutes in the hands of the Gestapo and they won't be able to shut him up.

There are other problems. Little things, like the love story between Adam and Warshowsky's actor daughter Rebecca (Leila Benn-Harris, who like Gleeson, sings very well) seeming a tad trivial compared to the gathering genocide. Then there is the side issue of the exploitation of the Holocaust for commercial ends.

I saw this show on the final preview night without the normal first-night audience. The auditorium was filled with most ages, and most races. Many were clearly moved. I remembered that ICM poll not long ago which revealed that one in seven Britons believe Jewish suffering in the Holocaust to be exaggerated. We are in trouble if we rely on a musical to educate. And those with first- or second-hand knowledge of the ghetto may well take offence. But on balance I reckon that this show does more good than harm.

(Tel: 0870 890 0141)

    Last updated: 5:23pm, November 20 2008