sun 21/04/2019

Fiddler on the Roof, Playhouse Theatre, review – energetic production whips up an emotional storm | reviews, news & interviews

Fiddler on the Roof, Playhouse Theatre, review – energetic production whips up an emotional storm

Fiddler on the Roof, Playhouse Theatre, review – energetic production whips up an emotional storm

A spikily poignant reminder of humanity in politically dark times

Foot-stompingly, fist-wavingly triumphant: the castJohan Persson

In an age where political, social, and gender norms seem to be in perpetual meltdown, it should be pretty much impossible for a musical that begins with a song celebrating ‘Tradition’ to strike a chord. Yet from the moment that the cast of Trevor Nunn’s foot-stompingly fist-wavingly triumphant Fiddler on the Roof launches into the opening number, it’s clear that they have the energy and chutzpah to whip up an emotional storm.

The musical ­– the latest West End transfer from production powerhouse, the Menier Chocolate Factory - is famously based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about a Jewish family living in a shtetl in Imperial Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. While it had plenty of awards thrown at it when it debuted in 1964, several detractors denounced it for sentimentality with the late Philip Roth going as far as to decry it as shtetl kitsch.

However, at a time when anti-Semitism is prevalent everywhere from the gilets jaunes protests in France to the shameless anti-Soros campaign in Hungary, what might once have been dismissed for saccharine emotion now comes across as a resonant celebration of humanity. That’s due not least to Andy Nyman’s robustly fallible incarnation of Tevye, the poor Jewish milkman with five daughters who makes garrulous appeals to God about everything from his horse’s lameness to whom he should accept as a son-in-law.

Robert Jones’ ingenious design welcomes the audience into the shtetl from the word go, by extending the bare-branched trees and wooden fences along the edges of auditorium. On the stage itself, the grey-roofs of the settlement huddle together almost as if they had sprung up from the forest floor. The use of the auditorium to extend the stage space works particularly strongly when the villagers go into exile, and we watch them forming a long procession through the snow. Tim Lutkin’s deftly deployed lighting enhances this powerful stage picture, illuminating both the hostile winter elements and the sense of how endless the path is that must be trod by the characters as they contemplate their uncertain future.

Nunn’s co-ordination of the cast is beautifully echoed by musical director Paul Bogaev conducting of the orchestra. In both the predominant enjoyment is in the sense of vigorous defiance embodied by the ensemble, though this does not stop the solos ringing out with a combination of plangency and humour. As the evening progresses, gradually each individual starts to score themselves on our hearts, whether it’s Joshua Gannon’s self-deprecating tailor, Motel, Judy Kuhn’s long-suffering Golde, or Molly Osbourne’s Tzeitel, terrified of being married off to an old rich butcher. As one of the least sympathetic though most comedic characters, Yente the Matchmaker, Louise Gold puts in a sterling performance as a gossipy hypocrite whose miserable former marriage does not stop her from wanting to subject others to similar miseries.

Like a bearded, more generously proportioned Hamlet: Andy Nyman as TevyeWhile the threat of persecution constantly hangs over a community bound together by its rituals and impoverishment, it is also continually challenged from within by that greatest of all disruptors, love. Perhaps Tevye’s greatest charm – expressed in those monologues to God in which the lighting changes, and he wrestles comedically with his conscience like a bearded, more generously proportioned Hamlet – is the fact that, with one significant exception, he generally ends up acknowledging love’s importance. Characteristically of this production, love is expressed as movingly by the whole community as it is individually, and the joy running through Nunn’s staging of the Jewish wedding between Motel and Tzeitel, complete with bottle dance, is tangible. Being a drama, it’s the tension that makes it as much as the unity – and the moment when Stewart Clarke’s revolutionary Perchik crosses the barrier between the men and the women to dance with Harriet Bunton’s Hodel is one of the most resonant moments of the evening.

There comes a point when you realise that most of the greatest artistic works are those that – rather than firmly categorising different aspects of life – wake us up to our humanity, with all its cracks, flaws, and fallibility. It’s perhaps in the moments when Fiddler on the Roof celebrates the vulnerability in all of us that it is strongest. Like the point when Golde expresses her amazement that the child she remembers carrying in her womb is now getting married, or she and Tevye sing about the more mundane aspects of long-term love. This is what it’s really about to be alive, and this production captures that with full-blooded humour.

This, then, is an evening to be celebrated as a spikily poignant reminder of what it is to be human in politically dark times. Both whirlingly energetic and achingly moving, it marks itself out straight away as one of the most uplifting nights possible to be had in the West End right now.

@Hallibee1

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