Tuesday 16th April 2019 at the Playhouse Theatre, London.
From Tradition to If I Were a Rich Man to Matchmaker, Matchmaker, most will know catches of a ditty or two of Jerry Bock’s music and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics from this show. After a knock out, sell out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory, this revival of the classic Fiddler on the Roof takes up residence at the Playhouse Theatre and it’s a worthy production absolutely deserving of this second life. As Mark Fisher declares in a programme feature ‘the persecution of Jews in a turn of the century Ukrainian shtetl may not sound like fitting material for a musical…’ but this musical, with Book by Joseph Stein based on The Sholem Aleichem Stories, takes that exact subject matter and makes something darkly and hilariously beautiful with it.
Set design (Robert Jones), Costume (Jonathan Lipman) and Lighting (Tim Lutkin) work hand in hand seamlessly to take us to a time long before the here and now, when Tradition means everything. The Papas make every decision for the children, propped up by the Mamas who meddle where they can, assisted by the Yentes who make the matches. Anatevka is a perfectly respectable Jewish community trundling along in an orderly manner. The Sabbath is celebrated. Men and women don’t mix. Men work, women keep the home. Tevye, his wife and five children are good, dutiful people living a righteous life and awaiting the time when each daughter will be matched and married off, as is tradition.
Tradition does not stand strong for too long however, and this is where the beauty and the comedy of the story lies. Being the lovable man he is, Tevye is gradually coaxed into giving his daughters more and more agency. What begins as a formulaic approach to life and marriage becomes altogether more free and exciting. There are however, limits to Tevye’s compromises and this is learned the hard way by one daughter.
To add more drama, into the muted domestic sphere of Anatevka arrive young men spoiling for trouble, encouraged by The Constable (Craig Pinder). Laughter ceases. Eyes drop to the floor. Shoulders sag and bodies twist away from the intruders who take pleasure in this reaction, but for a few who show real regret about carrying out given orders. When the dark clouds disperse, life continues and matches continue to be made – but bigger problems lie on the horizon.
This production features an excellent cast and Andy Nyman gives an incredible performance in the lead role of Tevye. He is hilarious in his conflicts and deeply sympathetic in the depths of his very real troubles. Nyman masters his musical numbers with earthy realism, taking the big showstoppers and bringing them into the dull domestic setting without damaging their shine. Instead, he gives them impressive natural credibility despite being brash musical interludes between cart pulling and daughter bartering.
Long suffering and dutiful wife Golde is given stoic solemnity and some brilliantly bracing humour by Tania Newton who is formidable and very funny in the role. Together, the pair are daily tried by five daughters, three of whom give the production its best narrative threads: Tzeitel (Molly Osbourne), Hodel (Harriet Button) and Chava (Nicola Brown). Osbourne gives Tzeitel a lovely combination of naïve idealism alongside sad realism as she enlightens her tragically innocent sisters about marriage. Button’s Hoda toes the line and flies the flag for intelligent females in a time of encouraged ignorance while Brown’s Chava gives a moving performance as the most ill-fated of the sisters.
Louise Gold’s Yente is the archetypal busy body and gets instant laughs. The suitors (Perchik (Stewart Clarke), Butcher Lazar Wolf (Dermot Canavan), Fyedka (Matthew Hawksley) and Motel -Joshua Gannon) invariably hang their humour on the completely inappropriate nature of their requests, with Joshua Gannon’s Tailor Motel being particularly brilliant when trying to just get the words out, poor boy. Fenton Gray is also wonderful as The Rabbi, hilariously bickering in the background as the scenes hurtle on.
Jerome Robbins’ choreography and direction from the original Broadway production is retained here, with Trevor Nunn directing and Matt Cole choreographing for this production. There are excellent, thrilling musical numbers with stunning choreography to be celebrated (To Life and The Wedding/ Bottle Dance being glowing highlights) alongside sentimental songs designed to remind us of the brutal truths held in the narrative – Chavaleh being a moving example.
Centring on one family within the shtetl is the defining factor of success for this show. The family unit and shifting dynamics within it gives us all the heart, hardship, heartache and hilarity we need to invest in the characters we see. The musical numbers are wonderful padding, but the pivotal pull of Fiddler in the Roof is the family and village at the centre of everything.
Fiddler on the Roof is a beautiful combination of credible drama, good clean comedy and vibrant musical. It’s a story about the textured tapestry of life and it carries relatable details for all to enjoy while also giving an insight into the history and traditions of a culture different to our own. This is a rich production with an excellent central performance and it deserves to play to packed houses.
Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Playhouse Theatre, London until September 28th 2019 and you can find tickets here.