Fiddler on the Roof
Menier Chocolate Factory
Reviewed – 6th December 2018
“warm and intimate, yet vast and epic at the same time”
“Fiddler on the Roof” is based on the stories of one of the most famous and beloved of all Jewish writers; Sholem Aleichem, who came to be known as the ‘folk singer’ of the Russian shtetl. Written between 1894 and 1914 the stories were a series of stand-alone monologues told by the character of Tevye to the reader. Aleichem had started to amalgamate these into a dramatic adaptation but died before he could finish it, but what he had already managed to do in his tales was to capture the hunger and the passion of his people trying to survive under desperate circumstances, but also the humour and the irony.
The often-staged musical has reflected this with varying degrees of success, but it is safe to say that Trevor Nunn’s revival hits the notes perfectly with a truly magical mix of mockery and menace. The story centres on Tevye, the father of five daughters, and his attempts to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions as outside influences encroach upon his family’s lives, not least of which is the edict of the Tsar that evicts Jews from Russia. At the same time, he is coping with the strong-willed actions of his three eldest daughters who wish to marry for love and whose choice of husband moves further away from the customs of the faith and heritage that he is, sometimes reluctantly, clinging onto. This production brings to the fore the deeply rich humour of Joseph Stein’s book. But we are never quite allowed to escape the shadow of the impending threat of exile.
Andy Nyman makes this show his own with his portrayal of the patriarch ruled by his wife, Golde (a perfectly pitched performance from Judy Kuhn). Nyman’s effortless stage presence sculpts a wholly heartfelt and honest portrayal of his character, veering between tradition and compassion, and bending his beliefs, where necessary, for love. He knows exactly when to switch on and off the comedy, a skill matched by the entire ensemble. The same sensitivity is applied to Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. Often unfairly branded as kitsch, the poignancy and the irony are accentuated by the fine performances. And combined with Jerry Bock’s sumptuous score, orchestrated for an eight-piece band, it is an exceptionally moving piece of musical theatre.
Choreographer Matt Cole remains faithful to Jerome Robbins’ original which is a feast for the eye. In fact, all our senses are treated to this outstanding rendition. Full of belly laughs it is a cry from the heart. The gorgeous strains of “Sunrise, Sunset” segue into a euphoric wedding dance which, in turn, is broken by the arrival of a vicious tsarist pogrom.
It is warm and intimate, yet vast and epic at the same time. It speaks softly to each of us yet its message shouts out to all of us. The source material is over a century old, but it is still sadly topical and the final scene where the villages flee their homeland is breathtakingly stirring. The musical ends not with a bang but a whisper. Not with a chorus line but a band of silent souls heading towards an uncertain future. The lone fiddler is beckoned, and he steps down from the roof to follow them.
All that can follow this is the standing ovation this production deserves. A production that is heading towards a far from uncertain future.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Johan Persson
Fiddler on the Roof
Menier Chocolate Factory until 9th March
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Harold and Maude
Charing Cross Theatre
Reviewed – 26th February 2018
“Southerland’s presentation remains faithful to the original while adding a few eccentric touches of his own that enhance the narrative”
You know the comedy is going to be black when the play opens with the young lead placing a noose around his neck and hanging himself. His mother’s reaction to finding him suspended is shockingly hilarious, and I imagine more so if you are not already familiar with the original seventies cult film.
Incorporating dark humour and existential drama, “Harold and Maude” revolves around the relationship between the young, morbid Harold and the carefree, septuagenarian Maude whose outlook on life takes quirkiness to a whole new level. Through Maude’s influence, Harold loses his obsession with death and embraces life.
Written by the late Colin Higgins, who also wrote the screenplay in the early seventies, Thom Southerland’s presentation remains faithful to the original while adding a few eccentric touches of his own that enhance the narrative, steering it well clear of whimsicality. There are shades of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” in Southerland’s direction and, with Francis O’Connor’s primary coloured set, the surrealism is set in stone, giving us license to enjoy and find humour in the characters’ psychotic tendencies.
Sheila Hancock is charismatic, effervescent and totally mischievous as Maude. She sweeps the audience along in the wake of her comically carefree truisms, yet, in the later scenes hints at a sadness that simmers just below the surface. The energy of her onstage presence would shame many an actor half her age. Except Bill Milner, of course, who has the unenviable task of winning over the audience as Harold. But he does this with ease, convincingly portraying his journey from morose alienation towards self-realisation. It is a touching performance and consequently we find that his fondness for a woman sixty years his senior does not seem unhealthy. The attraction is romantic, yes, but not physical which heightens the tenderness. “The main thing in life is not to be afraid to be human” Maude tells him. Disarmingly she follows this up with the assertion that “over time clichés become profundities, and vice versa”. It is this self-deprecation in the writing that thwarts any accusations of mawkishness.
But the two leads do not monopolise the show. The ensemble cast, who rarely leave the stage throughout the evening, all add sparkle. Rebecca Caine is tremendous as Harold’s domineering mother who has decided that it is time for him to get married. Enrolling him into a dating agency gives extra comedy mileage when we are introduced to Harold’s prospective dates – all played with show-stealing versatility by Joanna Hickman.
The icing on the cake is the live music, scored by Michael Bruce. When not directly involved in the scenes the actors are underscoring the dialogue or deftly linking the scenes; on clarinet, cello, double bass, piano, accordion, guitar and banjo. There is a wonderful moment, too, when the cello replicates the manic voice on the other end of a telephone line. It’s these little touches that add to the magic, such as costume designer Jonathan Lipman’s decision to dress Harold and his shrink in identical jacket and tie.
The humour is matched by the compassion. In the second act when it shifts from surrealism to realism the final dialogue between Harold and Maude is both moving and life affirming. The resounding message is exemplified by Maude’s provoking question: “Are you going to do it or are you only going to hear about it second hand?”
I’d urge you to see this production. Don’t be content with just hearing about it second hand.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Darren Bell
Harold and Maude
Charing Cross Theatre until 31st March