“there is a joy in seeking out the satirical bites beneath the whimsical coating”
Michel Legrand, who sadly passed away at the beginning of the year, was a prolific composer who, having written over two hundred film and television scores, only made his theatre debut in his late sixties with his musical fantasy, “Amour”, as it has come to be called. Bearing all the hall marks of a labour of love, it started life as a bijou musical based on the short story, “Le Passe Muraille”, by Marcel Aymé. A hit in Paris, it unfortunately didn’t travel well when it was given the Broadway treatment. Despite Jeremy Sams’ reshaping of the operetta, its modesty and style couldn’t really cope on Broadway and it closed after two weeks. It is essentially a chamber piece, and still remains so, which is why its Gallic charm fits perfectly under the arches of Charing Cross Station.
It is beautifully staged here by director Hannah Chissick and it certainly recaptures the show’s original dreamlike and wistful atmosphere. Sung through entirely, we rely on Sams’ libretto for the story, in which an unassuming office worker becomes a modern day ‘Robin Hood’ folk hero. Arriving home after work one evening, Dusoleil (Gary Tushaw) discovers he can walk through walls. Although initially seeking a cure for this from his doctor, he decides to use his powers to his advantage; stealing bread and jewels to give to the whores and street vendors of the town, but ultimately to win the heart of his beloved Isabelle (Anna O’Byrne).
The surreal and fairy-tale atmosphere is matched by Legrand’s hypnotic melodies while Sams’ lyrics are crafted to perfection; bristling with internal and external rhymes. But just when you think you are getting too much tongue-twisting cleverness, we are soothed by the legato of a love song. Tushaw leads the show with a presence that has hints of Chaplin and Tati, yet his voice has its own character entirely, simultaneously clear as cut-glass but smooth as an oak-cask single malt. Similarly, O’Byrne’s soprano is the perfect accompaniment. Although essentially the story of the man who walks through walls, Tushaw generously doesn’t pull focus, and the ensemble nature of the show lets us have a taste of each character; from Claire Machin’s tart-with-a-heart through to Alasdair Harvey’s chief prosecutor with a shady past; Jack Reitman’s dodgy doctor and, of course, the Gendarmes. Like the story that, thankfully, avoids a predictable ending, the medley of stock characters avoid caricature – testament to the uniformly strong and nuanced performances.
On the surface this could appear overly lightweight, yet there is more to it than meets the eye and there is a joy in seeking out the satirical bites beneath the whimsical coating. It is an engrossing production, with definite surreal touches, enhanced by Adrian Gee’s set and costume design that befittingly evokes a Magritte painting. Yet as witty and thought provoking as it is, the underlying love story doesn’t quite pull at the heart strings quite as it should, although the endearing qualities of this mad cap musical certainly warm the heart.
“despite the epic themes, the staging of this production lends real intimacy to a thousand seat venue”
Almost before Trevor Nunn’s “Fiddler on the Roof” opened last December at the Menier Chocolate Factory, it had ‘West End Transfer’ stamped all over it. Tickets were almost impossible to come by during its four-month run, but those disappointed will do well to move fast to catch its inevitable, yet richly deserved relocation to the Playhouse Theatre. The shift to the larger space has lost none of the intimacy and passion: there is always the fear of over-projection, but the subtlety and attention to detail of this production is beautifully intact, gently immersing the audience into the small Russian village of Anatevka in 1905.
Designer Robert Jones’ set – a ramshackle Jewish shtetl – spills out into the auditorium; the smokey darkness of the crooked wooden buildings backed by a foreboding bank of bare woodland, yet overlain with folk-tale lanterns and Tim Lutkin’s time-shifting lighting that conjures both the chilly light of an uncertain dawn with heart-warming twilight. A true reflection of the town folk’s stoicism in the face of their impending resettlement.
Based on the stories of one of the most famous and beloved of all Jewish writers; Sholem Aleichem, the story centres on Tevye, a poor Jewish dairyman, forever questioning ‘Tradition’, and the mysterious ways in which God moves. A patriarchal figure, his refusal to bend to the changing times is slowly eroded by the strong-willed actions of his daughters, who rebel against the custom of arranged marriage and choose to marry for love. Although he never quite lets go, Tevye’s grip on his heritage is increasingly fragile. Andy Nyman gives a stunningly natural and captivating performance of this central role. Whilst making light of his plight with precision-timed quips and asides, we are also continuously aware of his fear of the threat of exile and, more poignantly, his love for his wife and daughters.
Judy Kuhn, as his wife Golde, is the perfect complement that no Matchmaker could cap. Their onstage chemistry evokes the hard-won intimacy built from the ups and downs of a twenty-five-year marriage; culminating in the tender self-realisation of their duet “Do You Love Me?”. In fact, the entire company do wonderful justice to Jerry Bock’s sumptuous score, with a sensitive, but never sentimental, interpretation of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. Molly Osbourne, Harriet Bunton and Nicola Brown as the daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava respectively give heartfelt performances, accentuating the satire often missed in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”. The choral numbers are sung by the company quite beautifully, an inevitable highlight of which is the achingly angelic “Sunrise, Sunset”.
But beneath this musical portrait of family and community is the solemn undercurrent of violence, anti-Semitism and persecution; sadly still all too pertinent. Matt Cole’s choreography, paying homage to Jerome Robbins’ original, shows how rapidly high spirits can descend into oppressed chaos, particularly when a vodka-soaked wedding dance is broken by the arrival of a vicious tsarist pogrom at the close of the first act. A threat that is taken to its tragic conclusion in the final scenes.
The human touch easily sits alongside the disturbing historical commentary. Yet, despite the epic themes, the staging of this production lends real intimacy to a thousand seat venue, and by avoiding the temptation to overplay to the rafters the emotional impact touches the heart with much more force. Its message is clear; but what is equally clear is that this is quite simply a triumph of a show. Musical theatre at its best. Matchless.