Monday, 30 October 2017

Imagine This

Maryam Philpott, a historian, regular blogger  and theatre reviewer. She now joins the TLT team and finds a musical charting one of the Second World War's darkest hours is hampered by a clumsy handling of its themes.

Imagine This
Book by Glenn Berenbeim
Music by Shuki Levy
Lyrics by David Goldsmith

Love Among The Ruins

One of the most terrible and doomed of wartime circumstances, The Warsaw Ghetto, provides the backdrop for the musical Imagine This.

War and theatre have of course a long history together through Julius Caesar to Journey's End and beyond.  Yet theatre has always also provided an outlet for raising the morale of those experiencing the conflict at first hand.

During the First World War, for instance, servicemen started concert parties, putting on a range of entertainments  including all-male revues and the Royal Navy even had dedicated theatre ships pulling alongside warships, allowing men to board and watch a show.

Book writer Glenn Berenbeim with composer Shuki Levy and lyricist David Goldsmith have taken the idea of theatre instilling hope for the civilians caught up in Nazi atrocities.

Daniel Warshowsky, the head of a family and a theatre company, is imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto alongside hundreds and thousands of other Jews driven inside its barbed wire by the Nazis.

In 1942 Daniel is spurred on by justified fears the Nazis have plans to crush them further. He encourages family and friends to put on a clearly allegorical play about the Jews persecuted by the mighty Roman Empire in the desert settlement of Masada.

Initially roused by the idea, the players start to hope for a better future. However their company is disrupted by the sudden arrival of resistance fighter on-the-run Adam.

They give him a starring role to shelter him, but he also forces them to confront stark realities and decide whether to continue with the play and its message of hope or to take another course of action.

Imagine This is a strange compression of two semi-independent stories as the audience watches the cast preparing for the show in the bleak surrounds of the ghetto and then putting on the Roman story as a musical within a musical.

Director Harry Blumenau manages the transitions fairly seamlessly, clearly emphasising the areas where art and life begin to overlap which adds moments of poignancy and purpose to the odd construction.

Yet the ancient story of the Jewish rebels somehow feels more believable and encourages greater audience investment.

Some of the songs here are well-staged including Masada in which the local community vows to defend themselves against the advancing professional army.

Kevan Allen’s choreography uses the rhythmic beating of sticks to suggest a powerful stomping force approaching, while the arrangement of the cast in the Union Theatre's small space gives the impression of greater crowds on both sides.

The rebel story also has a credible love story at its heart. Lauren James Ray is the young Jewish woman who, despite herself, falls in love with Shaun McCourt’s Roman General Silva, the two then togther attempting to prevent further bloodshed.

Their duets Far From Here, Far From Now and I Surrender have a sweet charm, lending genuine feeling to their romance. However, they are also the only characters the audience gets to know well, although Rob Hadden’s Rufus as the Roman Emperor's tribune does make an intriguing villain.

By contrast, the ghetto scenes have much less impact than the Masada musical-within-a-musical and feel much stagier.

As actor-manager Daniel, Nicky Wyschna has considerable presence and sings well. Nevertheless the non-musical acting between the songs is awkward, the scenes lack tension and any real sense of the danger they all face.

Jonny Muir’s Captain Blick skilfully manages to avoid Nazi stereotypes, suggesting a man who enjoys culture and has some feeling for Rebecca, but a collection of supporting characters barely make their mark.

While this is primarily a problem with the show itself (this is a revival following a shortlived première in 2008), it seems a shame the elements of a true story, filled with potential darkness and hopelessness, aren't used more meaningfully.

There are also times when the voices do get lost beneath the volume of the band under the direction of Alex Williams. Nevertheless there are some genuinely engaging moments, particularly when the company performs in unison with striking effect. 

The same harmony, though, eludes the structure and themes of the musical. Imagine This fails to exploit the constant battle between optimism and realism, embodied in the contrasting figures of the actor and the resistance fighter.

War and theatre may be closely linked, but Imagine This never manages to  reconcile its two plots satisfactorily, undermining the signficance of the musical's conclusion, and it's an amber light.

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