Musical: Titter ye not. This is serious

THE LEGENDARY GOLEM NEW END THEATRE LONDON

THE BOSNIAN actor Velibor Topic is an extraordinary sight. Tall and shaven-headed, he combines some of the beauty and brooding presence of the young Brando with an altogether more hulking, extraterrestrial quality. One would think twice about ever giving this man a bad review. In fact, the chance to gawp at him for extended periods of time is one of the few perks of sitting through The Legendary Golem, a new musical by Sylvia Freedman and Cathy Shostak. Topic excels as the title character, a Frankenstein-like figure fashioned from the elements by a chief rabbi to defend the Jewish ghetto from race hatred in 16th-century Prague.

You might think from such a summary that the show would be a sort of My Fair Lady meets Fiddler on the Roof, the hubristic, presumptuous creator and his coerced, unhappy creation, transferred to a context where the desperate fight for cultural survival gives the whole business an ambiguous justification. This is clearly the musical that Freedman and Shostak have set out to write. The trouble is that they have hedged their bets so much on sugary love interest (the number "Love Turns the World" should be retitled "Love Turns the Stomach") and formulaic father/son conflict, that the key issues don't loom large enough.

Or coherently. When the Golem, crazed with frustration at being an outsider- slave, runs amok and kills one of the Christian guards who are terrorising the ghetto, David Burt's dignified, dark-voiced rabbi kneels and sings a song about how he now recognises himself and his own capacity for violence in the Golem. Given his previous pacifism, this makes as much sense as giving Professor Higgins a ditty about how Eliza's example has made him realise that, deep down, he's always had a hankering to be a lady.

That's not the only puzzle. I failed to work out why, in a Prague where the Jews are constantly harassed about their identification papers and there's a virulent drive for racial purity, an eye-catching alien like the Golem can go around with apparent impunity.

The production boasts a large, talented cast which director Brennan Street steers around the tight, two-tier base with some fluency and visual flair. But the songs, with their banal rhyme schemes and unarresting music, don't rise to the occasion. A number about the impulse towards ethnic cleansing should not, by rights, make one titter, but it's hard not to when you hear that "Living is delightful/If only the frightful/Are kept in their places" (or words to that effect), while a lot of monks chant Latin.

The 1580 plot is framed by a story also set in Prague at the start of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Parallels between these two examples of oppression transcended are under-explored in favour of uplift and the muzzy message that "Legends lead us from despair/Golems can be shaped from fire and air". Which may be true, but as expressed here, just sounds a bit of a miss.

To 17 Jan: 0171-794 0022

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