With numerous successful musicals under his belt, actor Peter Polycarpou could be a good omen for new show Imagine This, writes Caroline Bishop, if only he remains in one piece.
The last time Peter Polycarpou worked at the New London theatre, it ended in “one of the most awful experiences of my life”. He broke his leg during a performance of Cats in 2003 and as a result was unable to work for six months. “I did it on stage and it was the worst pain,” he shakes his head at the memory. Apparently, he says, there is a theatrical superstition that if you fall over in a theatre you will go back to work there, so it seems fated that Polycarpou should be about to tread those same boards in new musical Imagine This.
When we speak, he has not yet performed on the stage where the accident occurred. We meet at the rehearsal rooms in Southwark, where the cast has just finished a run through and large pieces of set are being wheeled out to be taken to the New London. As we walk in the autumn drizzle to a local café, Polycarpou chats animatedly about his “very full on” role leading both the company of Imagine This and the play within it.
Set in Poland in 1942, Imagine This centres on a group of Jewish actors in the Warsaw Ghetto who stage a play about historic Judean mountain fortress Masada, where, two millennia ago, hundreds of Jewish rebels committed suicide rather than being captured by the Romans. The ghetto actors are led by Polycarpou’s character, actor-manager Daniel, whose aim in putting on such a production is to inspire some shred of hope and fighting spirit in the people who are living in the face of Nazi persecution.
“Daniel is a force of nature, he is one of those people who really believes in what he is doing, he believes that art is a force for good,” says Polycarpou. “He is quite a political man, in the sense that he writes something that he knows is going to be a challenge to the authorities. He’s energetic, he’s a driver, he is charismatic; he is all of the things that you would expect someone who is an actor-manager to be.”
“Live theatre should make an audience be involved. And I think this does do that”
Polycarpou, who has been involved in the musical since its beginnings at Theatre Royal Plymouth last year, has the same belief in Imagine This that his character has for Masada. Which is just as well, given the challenges the show faces in the current climate in the West End. From the moment it was announced this ‘Holocaust musical’ – as it has been dubbed – would follow Trevor Nunn’s ill-fated Gone With The Wind into the New London, raised eyebrows were sported by theatre commentators across the capital. Some months later, as it prepares to face the press, Imagine This has to contend with the doom and gloom of economic meltdown which could make theatregoers think twice about spending money to see a musical with such a harrowing theme. “Of course I’m nervous, I’d be foolish if I wasn’t,” said the show’s director Timothy Sheader in September. “One of the biggest titles of the 20th century and the greatest director of musical theatre in this country lasted for a few weeks in that theatre. Who do I think I am?”
Polycarpou, too, is not blind to the obstacles facing the show. Our chat, he points out, is one of several interviews he has given, well aware that the show needs press coverage to make people come. And he wants them to come, because he has total faith in the project and its appeal as a piece of musical theatre. “Our show will fall or stand not on what’s been before but on what it is, and I always knew that the core of this material, the reason I joined up with it in the first place and the reason I could put my name to it and committed myself to it in the way that I have is because I believe in the material.”
Though the book by Glenn Berenbeim is fictional, acting companies did actually exist in the ghettos and Imagine This draws on real events. It is undoubtedly a difficult subject to tackle in a musical, but Polycarpou feels that anchoring it in truth means the show will “honour the memory” of victims of the Holocaust and not trivialise their experiences.
“If we get it wrong then I’ve got it wrong,” he continues. “I think it’s not in bad taste. I think it’s right that art should stretch the boundaries, it shouldn’t have taboos. And this is, I think, great art in places. I hope that doesn’t sound w***y,” – and it doesn’t, because he isn’t the slightest bit pretentious – “but I just really believe in it as a piece of theatre.”
His passion for the material is something he has clearly channelled into his portrayal of Daniel, a glimpse of which was revealed to the press in September. The genial, friendly man I meet today seems quite unlike the intense and fiercely determined character I saw him become then. The actor’s performance has so impressed Berenbeim that he accosts me outside the rehearsal rooms to sing his praises, to the visible embarrassment of Polycarpou, who drags me away.
“Daniel is a force of nature, he is one of those people who really believes in what he is doing, he believes that art is a force for good”
As well as their leading man, the producers of Imagine This have more to be positive about. For starters, this is an original new musical, something critics of ‘jukebox’ musicals and reality-cast revivals have been screaming out for. And unlike its predecessor at the New London which was developed from scratch in the West End, Imagine This has already tested the waters in Plymouth. It has changed “enormously” since that dry run last year, says Polycarpou. “It was just a staging, it wasn’t really a complete [show]. So we needed to put meat on the characters, we needed to re-establish the relationships. I think we needed more songs, we needed some better material and we needed to make cuts and all of those things have been incorporated into this production. We’re in a very good place with it at the moment.”
But still, Hairspray it is not. Will theatregoers in these gloomy times want to see a show that won’t exactly leave them feeling warm and fuzzy? “Great theatre for me is about taking an audience through a story and having them empathise with either the characters or with that story and coming out feeling in some way slightly altered or changed at the end of the evening,” says Polycarpou. “That’s what live theatre should be – it should make an audience be involved. And I think this does do that.”
Nevertheless, Polycarpou wouldn’t dare to predict success for the show. As someone who was in the original casts of two of the West End’s most popular – and, as it happens, most ‘serious’ – musicals, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, you might think Polycarpou would get a feeling for these things. “No!” he laughs loudly when I suggest this. “No, I’m just an actor. I don’t know what’s going to be successful, I can’t tell you that. It’s like saying do you know who is going to win the Derby!”
“Maybe I shouldn’t say this,” he glances at me conspiratorially, “I remember one of the previews for Les Mis. I was standing backstage [with] one of the actors and I said to him, ‘we’re going to be out of work by Christmas aren’t we?’ And he said ‘yeah, it’s terrible’. We just didn’t believe it would work. Who wants to see a whole bunch of students build a barricade and get shot?!” he guffaws. “But that’s being actors who really didn’t see the fuller picture. I can’t see what the audience sees. All I can try and do is do my part to the best of my ability and if it moves an audience then fantastic, then I’m doing my job right. The audience is the missing ingredient; any chemical reaction that goes on, they are the catalyst. They make the play happen, we don’t, otherwise it’s just a rehearsal.”
“I don’t feel as though I exist outside my work really. If I’m not working, what can I do?”
He should know. In addition to Les Misérables and Miss Saigon – in which he created the role of John at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1989 – his credits include the Laurence Olivier Award-winning production of Oklahoma! at the National Theatre in 1998, plus stints as the masked one in The Phantom Of The Opera and the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And musical theatre is just the half of it. Polycarpou’s career also encompasses straight theatre and television; his face is still recognised by viewers of 90s sitcom Birds Of A Feather, in which he played Sharon’s jailbird husband Chris Theodopolopoudos for five years.
But the work he is most proud of is not the big musicals or the attention-grabbing TV role. Instead, a low key production of Leyla Nazli’s drama Silver Birch House at the Arcola in 2007 is a highlight. In a “towering central performance” as Lyn Gardner described it in The Guardian, Polycarpou played the father in a Turkish family swept up in events prior to the 1980 military coup. Though he was born in Britain (in Brighton), Polycarpou’s parents were Greek Cypriots who moved to England in the 1950s. “I had not worked with Turkish actors before and it was important for me as a statement, as a Greek Cypriot, to want to work with Turkish Cypriots,” he says. “I wanted to put my colours to the mast and say where I stood, because I think it’s really important that we are creatively working together between communities.”
Like Daniel in Imagine This, Polycarpou obviously holds great sway with the ability of theatre to do good, something evidenced by his work with school children in the Les Misérables workshops he holds in schools around the UK. “I absolutely love it, I get such a buzz seeing young people doing this work,” he enthuses. “Seeing the material through young eyes and ears and throats is just mind blowing. It gives me such pleasure, I can’t tell you.”
His passion for theatre is palpable; it sparkles in his eyes as he talks about it and spreads across his face in a wide grin. So it was a particularly brutal blow when he broke his leg in Cats five years ago and couldn’t work. “I don’t feel as though I exist outside my work really. If I’m not working, what can I do? I sit at the computer or I read a book or I play the piano; for me, that’s not living. I live through my work I suppose – that’s really being honest with you.” Though Imagine This deserves a little good luck to help it on its way, it would be flippant – though childishly irresistible – to tell this devoted actor to ‘break a leg’.