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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Imagine This
New London Theatre November-December 2008

A musical set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 - this was clearly never going to be Mary Poppins or Mamma Mia.

But as a musical drama, a sort of B-grade Les Miserables, this project developed at the Theatre Royal Plymouth is quite respectable. I can't see it having a very long run, but it has a lot to offer discerning audiences.

The creative team are almost all new to the West End, coming from film, television and pop music, and from the USA and Israel. But Imagine This is clearly a labour of love, and that gives it a solidness and sincerity that are quite powerful.

Glenn Berenbeim's book has a Jewish family troupe of actors performing in the Ghetto even though they realise they are playing into Nazi hands by distracting and pacifying the inhabitants.

They resolve the dilemma by putting on a play about the Masada uprising of 70 AD, when a small group of Jews held out against the Roman army before committing mass suicide rather than surrendering.

The roles they play give the actors the strength to take a heroic stand in the real world. (Historically, a performance of a Masada play is credited in part for inspiring the Ghetto uprising of 1943.)

There's a romance, of course. It would be a bit much to have the Jewish girl fall for a Nazi, so she's paired off with a Jewish resistance fighter hiding among the actors and taking the role of the Roman general in the inner play.

Shuki Levy's music is a bit more memorable than David Goldsmith's lyrics, which tend to be too specifically tied to the plot to have much life of their own, though the music is full of borrowings and influences, and you are likely to hear melodic echoes of Ragtime, West Side Story and Les Miserables.

The title song, about the world without hate and war it would be nice to believe in, is a bit too close in subject and language to John Lennon's similarly-titled anthem to stand out.

Peter Polycarpou plays the father-director-star with warmth and authority, and Leila Benn Harris and Simon Gleeson are satisfactorily attractive and tuneful as the lovers. Michael Matus has good moments in the comic role of the most frightened actor playing the most cowardly character.

Timothy Sheader's direction utilises the set's multiple levels well and gets people on and offstage efficiently enough for rapid costume and character changes, though Liam Steel's choreography consists mainly of stylised close-order drill for the Roman soldiers.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Imagine This - New London Theatre 2008