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Imagine This

Posted on September 23, 2010

It’s hard to imagine fun entertainment based on the subject matter of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. But in Imagine This, the premiere of which I saw at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, a love story unfolds while a play within a play is performed. The cast struggles against adversity to transform the greyness of life in the shadow of the SS into a colourful fantasy.

This is an all-singing, not-much-dancing production, and with choreography by Adam Cooper there was promise of some smart moves on stage that never materialised. Compared to his electric performance with Adventures in Motion Pictures and the Royal Ballet, and his exciting choreography for Singin’ in the Rain and On Your Toes, his work here spans a sad Egyptian slave number and some stylized stepping through power poses, and is generally disappointing.

Thank goodness the singing was spectacular. Peter Polycarpou and Gina Beck were magnificent and ten-year-old Kurtis Manhood was cute. (Disappointingly, Bran – the German shepherd – never made it on stage as listed in the programme.)

More a play with songs than wall-to-wall music, Imagine This is laden with hard worked profundities such as “it’s better to die upright than live on your knees”. The set and costumes are bleak and bare, reflecting the austerity of the time. As the play about Masada – an epic tale when Jewish Zealots fled Roman persecution to a mountain-top fortress – gets underway the space fills with the warmth and colour of the imagination.

The concept of using actors as characters is more than theatrical conceit: the Ghetto had six active theatres staging both classic productions as well as plays dealing with the reality of life there. The Romans in the play and the Nazis of the musical are closely linked with “Hail Cesar” and “Heil Hitler” being interchangeable. The message is, “love conquers all”, and the dignity of the individual versus the blind power of the state is the recurring theme.

It is a challenge and takes some hutsba to make such a gruelling topic entertaining. But some good borscht-circuit, Catskill Yiddish shtik infuses humour into the production. As animated history about the harshness of the Ghetto with the threat of concentration camps and insight into Warsaw Uprising, Imagine This is illuminating. The singing is excellent. But I will be wary about equating Adam Cooper with good dance in the future.

Imagine This plays at the New Theatre London from November 4 and this version will be directed by Timothy Sheader, with scenic design by Eugene Lee, costume design by Ann Houd-Ward, choreography by Liam Steel, lighting design by Tim Mitchell, orchestrations by Chris Walker and musical supervision by Phil Bateman.

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