Fiddler on the Roof ★★★★★

Extraordinarily fresh and intimate account of the beloved story of Tevye the milkman

Fresh from a richly evocative tour of the ‘real Anatevka’ led by Sholom Aleichem himself (aka Saul Reichlin in his one-man show), I find myself in the heart of the shtetl again. Here at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a huddle of dimly-lit run-down dwellings embraces villagers onstage and in the audience alike, on designer Robert Jones’ imaginatively inclusive set. Director Trevor Nunn’s revival takes full advantage of the intimacy of the space. Seated around the thrust stage, the audience finds itself at the heart of the action, in the home of henpecked Tevye the milkman, a party to his negotiations and remonstrations with his wife Golde and five daughters, and to the efforts of those daughters to follow their hearts and find love, despite parental opposition. We are excited wedding guests then horrified onlookers, at risk of being victims of a pogrom; and finally feel we are joining the huddle of apprehensive exiles, bravely facing an uncertain future.

Never before have I been quite so affected by this musical, which charts the narrative of my own forebears and of so many others - and not only Jewish ‘strangers in a foreign land’. Led by Andy Nyman’s warm, mercurial Tevye, Nunn’s magnificent cast rises gleefully to the challenge of sharing the space with their audience. It feels as if Nyman, inhabiting Tevye with a natural charm, barely has to raise his voice to share confidences with us – or to talk to a God who is evidently omnipresent. You really feel you know the man, his numbers emerging effortlessly from those confided thoughts. Judy Kuhn’s Golde has none of the stridency that can characterise his put-upon wife. She is weary and resigned, but capable and resourceful – necessarily the head of the household in all but name.

All five daughters make an impression, for the youngest, Shprintze and Bilke, get their share of stage time before we even meet the lively trio of older daughters Molly Osbourne’s vivid Tzeitel, as realistic as she is lovelorn, Harriet Buxton’s mischievously intelligent Hodel and Kirsty Maclaren’s fierce, bookish Chava. Yentl the matchmaker, to whom they plead for husbands in song, is usually a larger-than-life character, but Louise Gold invests her with a real humanity – a woman who has found a lifeline in her life’s work, widowed as she is with no money left to provide for her. Magnificently larger than life though is Gaynor Miles’ genuinely alarming Fruma Sarah, Golde’s late mother, apparently visiting Tevye in a dream to warn him off marrying Tzeitel to widower Lazar Wolf the butcher. Costume designer Jonathan Lipman has dressed the villagers in monochrome until this moment, when a host of nightmare spirits burst into almost scary technicolour.

Dermot Caravan’s Lazar himself is a genuinely sympathetic lonely widower, who makes the most of his moment of drinking ‘to life, l’chayim’ with Tevye and his fellow customers at the inn.

All three suitors of Tevye’s marriageable daughters are convincing and subtly make their contribution to the elegance of the story arc, as Tevye is forced to make escalating concessions to the daughters who push the boundaries of the ‘tradition’ that has ruled their lives. Joshua Gannon’s respectfully determined and believably skilful tailor Motel will clearly build a Jewish home with Tzeitel. Stewart Clarke’s passionate revolutionary student Perchik discovers that Hodel can match fire with fire as they dare to dance together at Tzeitel’s wedding, fight for their beliefs and rise to the challenge of facing an uncertain future in Siberia. Matt Corner’s blonde, handsome Fyedka sings so sweetly to his Chava that it’s easy to see why she falls for this sympathetic ‘goy’ (non Jew), who chastens his fellow Cossacks for their antisemitic violence.

Fiddler 4 by Johan Persson.jpg

The mood onstage, that turns on a sixpence (or should that be a kopeck?) from celebration to horror, to uncertainty is especially powerfully evoked here, Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics seem newly minted and Jerry Bock’s music envelops the audience, thanks to the glorious singing and MD Paul Bogaev’s richly evocative orchestrations, played by the eight-strong orchestra he leads from the keyboards. The traditional strings, clarinet and accordion of the klezmer sound are filled out by brass (trumpet and trombone) and they provide an onstage klezmer band, at the inn and for the wedding. Tim Lutkin’s subtle lighting plays a vital part in creating the intimacy. Matt Cole’s choreography builds on Jerome Robbins’ iconic original moves, working wonderfully here in close-up (especially exciting in the bottle dance at the wedding). The ensemble is superb and the overall feel is of a company onstage thrilling to the story they are telling as much as their rapt audience. There will be other accounts of Fiddler, but this one will stay with me vividly and always.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Johan Persson

Fiddler on the Roof runs until Saturday 9 March. 8pm (Tue-Sat), 3.30pm (Sat & Sun). £45-£49.50, £39.50 concs. Menier Chocolate Factory, SE1 1RU. 020 7378 1713.

The show then transfers from Thursday 21 March to Saturday 15 June. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 2.30pm (Tue, Thu & Sat). From £20. Playhouse Theatre, WC2N 5DE.

Listen to our interview with Stewart Clarke, who plays Perchik, on JR OutLoud.