Review: Imagine This ★★★ – Brave revival of a musical celebrating courage in the face of persecution across two millennia

Imagine yourself imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942, facing the dilemma of whether or not to stand up to your Nazi persecutors. You are one of a company of Jewish actors confined there, determined to stage a play about the siege of Masada in 66BC. The siege ended in the mass suicide of the Jews defending the mountain fortress as the Roman besiegers stormed it, so it has long been a symbol of valiant Jewish resistance to persecution. A poem telling this story is said to have inspired the Warsaw uprising, and it’s upon this premise that Shuki Levy (music), David Goldsmith (lyrics) and Glenn Berenbeim (book) based this valiant musical attempt to bring the two uprisings together. Sasha Regan’s award-winning Union Theatre has a fine track record of small-scale musical revivals and it certainly succeeds better than the full-blown 2008 New London Theatre premiere.

A Jewish theatre company confined in the Warsaw Ghetto performs a play about the Jews of Jerusalem retreating to Masada, drawing the obvious parallel between their Nazi oppressors and the Roman invaders. Their director Daniel manages to sell this subversive show to Nazi Captain Blick: “It’s got singing, dancing and all the Jews die in the end”. He even manages to hide Adam, a fugitive resistance fighter from the Nazis (Shaun McCourt), by casting him as the humane Roman commander who falls in love with Tamar, daughter of the Jewish leader (Lauren James Ray). Of course Adam falls for Rebecca, Daniel’s daughter playing Tamar. And then the Jewish actors face an impossible dilemma, as Adam reveals the truth of the concentration camps…

Levy’s music can be attractive (the opening number recalling ‘The Last Day of Summer’ before the 1939 invasion of Poland, is a wistful earworm. The title song is a great vehicle for Nick Wyschna’s Daniel, keeping his company together against the odds and Wyshna himself is the vital heart of the production. The grim determination expressed in the defiant number Masada, though, becomes an unwelcome earworm, not least because it recurs once too often. Many numbers are simply too long, though all are beautifully played by the hard-working quartet of musicians (piano, fiddle, bass and drums), unaccountably not credited in the programme, apart from MD Alex Williams and musical supervisor Lee Freeman.

The 17-strong company work tirelessly in their roles both as Jews and Nazis and Jews and Romans. Kevan Allen’s choreography is a stunning example of what you can achieve on a simple set. Justin Williams’ multi-levelled platform makes a useful Masada and his terrific collection of crates make useful levels for that dynamic choreography. Harry Blumenau marshals his cast with verve and they tell the story with empathy and passion – and best of all, without microphones.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Nick Brittain

Imagine This runs until Saturday 18 November. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 2.30pm (Sat & Sun only). £25, £22.50 concs. Union Theatre, SE1 0LR. www.uniontheatre.biz