Imagine This: an original new musical opening in the West End, one not based on a book, a film or a band’s back catalogue, and not a transfer from Broadway. It has been a rare occurrence of late, but it happened last night at the New London theatre.
A cold winter light streams through the broken panes of glass in the disused train depot of Eugene Lee’s set. It is in this cold, damp, cavernous space that a group of Jewish actors, corralled by the Nazis into the Warsaw Ghetto of 1942, live and rehearse, hoping for the end of their torment.
Led by actor-manager Daniel Warshowsky (Peter Polycarpou), they are preparing a play – which they will perform to their fellow ghetto residents – that tells the story of the siege of mountain fortress Masada in 70AD, where 960 rebel Jews held out against an invading Roman army until finally choosing to commit suicide rather than being captured and enslaved.
As Daniel says, “it’s got singing, dancing and all the Jews die in the end”. Not a particularly cheery play to be presented to Jews living under Nazi persecution. But in Daniel’s eyes it symbolises the strength of the Jewish spirit in the face of adversity, something which is important from the outset, and becomes vital as the actors learn the sickening truth about the Third Reich’s plans for them.
This musical within a musical structure means all the cast play characters within Imagine This and within Masada, drawing parallels between the two. Leila Benn Harris is Daniel’s daughter Rebecca in reality and Tamar, daughter of Daniel’s rebel leader Eleazar, in Masada. As Tamar falls for the Roman General Silva in the play, so Rebecca falls for resistance fighter Adam (Simon Gleeson) in reality, and the pair’s love story intertwines around both stories.
Centred on such a horrific piece of world history, Imagine This has to tread the line between respecting the subject matter and providing an entertaining night at the theatre. Glenn Berenbeim’s book manages to inject some Jewish humour into the show, and Michael Matus’s Christian slave Pompey from Pompeii provides comic moments in the Masada story. The play within a play also allows the characters to poke gentle fun at their past enemies, the Romans, in place of their present persecutors, the Nazis. “Have a grape,” says Caesar on greeting General Silva in Rome.
Timothy Sheader’s production is characterised by the choreography of physical theatre practitioner Liam Steel. In a ghetto with limited resources, a number of scenes in the Masada play are created using suitcases, household items and long sticks, which is particularly effective in depicting the Roman army advancing up the mountain in Judea.
Shuki Levy’s music and David Goldsmith’s lyrics are akin to the style of traditional epic West End musicals, providing a number of memorable tunes, particularly love duet Far From Here, Far From Now and the rousing title song, which tops and tails the musical.