Chichester Festival Theatre

Review: Fiddler on the Roof ★★★★ - Raising the roof at Chichester Festival Theatre

I am grateful to my Bubbe, who arrived in London from the Pale of Settlement in 1890, cradling the first of her 10 children, my beloved grandma. And equally to the paternal grandfather I sadly never met, who made his painful way to Britain from Bobruisk, Belarus, despite his gammy leg. Thanks to them my family thrived here rather than perishing in a pit in the Holocaust. But did they leave voluntarily, or were they pushed out like the Jews of Anatevka?

Daniel Evans’ beautifully thought-through production made me ponder this question more than any previous incarnation of this much-loved musical, based on Shalom Aleichem’s equally-loved tales. Gloriously funny though it may be when appropriate, it provokes thought as well as sentimental tears, starting with the eloquent opening, which actually has these Jews arriving to set up home in Anatevka from wherever else they have fled or been ejected.

Each carries some form of luggage – a metaphor for emotional baggage, somehow simultaneously obvious and subtle. For much of the evening designer Lez Brotherston offers little more set than these precious objects, both sentimental and practical, accompanying their owners to change each scene (the Sabbath table is extended to accommodate visiting student Perchik by adding a trunk covered with a tablecloth).

So as they dare to put down tentative roots in Anatevka, instead of the opening number Tradition bursting brashly onto the stage, its performers earn the right to share the significance of their traditions with their audience.

It makes the humour of Omid Djalili’s splendidly warm and rounded Tevye all the richer and more nuanced. Iranian-born Bahai Djalili is no stranger to playing Jews. On his CV are Fagin in Oliver! and a Muslim who discovers he was born Jewish in Infidel – you could now add he was born to play Tevye. He splendidly embodies the conflicted milkman torn between the security blanket of tradition and losing his daughters if he won’t face up to the changes their generation embraces. And he effortlessly laughs with his audience at himself and that dilemma, coining anew those catchphrases: “On the one hand… on the other hand…” and “As the Good Book says…” so you feel his God might laugh sympathetically too.

He’s well-matched by Tracy-Ann Oberman’s brisk, dry-humoured, long-suffering Golde, especially in their touching “Silver Wedding” duet Do You Love Me? (“after 25 years it’s nice to know!”).

The show’s elegant structure has each of his three oldest daughters push the boundaries a little further. Tzeitel gets her father onside so she can marry her poor Jewish tailor rather than wealthy widower, the butcher Lazar Wolf. Hodel and student revolutionary Perchik will marry without Tevye’s permission if necessary. And Chava must accept that she is dead to her father if she marries ‘out’ – her beloved Fyedka is a Gentile. All are strongly cast here. Simbi Akande’s Tzeitel is touchingly single-minded in her love for Jos Slovick’s doggedly determined Motel. Emma Kingston’s spiky Hodel vividly charts her awakening love and awareness of a world outside Anatevka, as she falls for Louis Maskell’s ardent, assertive Perchik. And Rose Shalloo’s vulnerable, bespectacled Chava is heartbreaking, pleading for acceptance of Luke Fetherston’s sensitive Fyedka.

Watching the “little unofficial demonstrations” that the local militia are ordered to carry out against their Jewish population, starting with the chilling disruption of the joy and emotion of Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding, you can understand Tevye’s tipping point.

Set pieces like the wedding and Tevye’s dream conjuring Grandma Tzeitel (Mia Soteriou) to speak for Motel and Lazar Wolf’s formidable late wife Fruma Sarah (Laura Tebbutt) to forbid her husband’s remarriage are imaginatively realised, the latter with stunning lighting (David Hersey) and fiery effects. And Alistair David’s choreography has Anatevka’s Jews hold themselves with an authentic upper-body erectness, proud and graceful, whether in a circle dance for both sexes or the famous men-only bottle dance.

So if you’ve ever sniffled your way through what you thought was a schmaltzy musical, this production earns real tears alongside the gales of laughter, above all as those battered bags come out again when Anatevka’s Jewish population receives its marching orders. Here are the parallels with today’s migrations.  May tomorrow’s loyal citizens look back with love and admiration at the brave forebears who made perilous journeys to uncertain futures in the West.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Johan Persson

Fiddler on the Roof runs until Saturday 2 September. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (various Wed, Thu & Sat; phone to confirm). From £10. Chichester Festival Theatre, PO19 6AP. 012 4378 1312.

Click here to listen to Emma Kingston, who plays Hodel, talking to Judi Herman on JR OutLoud.

Review: Mack & Mabel – Jerry Herman's love affair with the silent screen is a thrill

Rebecca LaChance (Mabel), Michael Ball (Mack) and company in Chichester Festival Theatre production of Mack & Mabel © Manuel Harlan Although I've seen two terrific small-scale productions of Jerry Herman's musical biopic, this is the first time there's been a chance to see just how this love song to early movie pioneers would work on the big stage – and with enough money to throw at it to exploit the idea of actually making and showing "tribute" film footage. And before the lights went up, I realised there was another vital element of this great big show that was going to make all the difference – a big band with a wonderfully big brassy sound! So my feeling of well-being began with the overture. A trio of big, familiar numbers at the top of the show serves as a delicious reminder of Herman's lush score – at the same time sophisticated, yet drawing on that evocative minor "Jewish" fall.

Once the lights go up on the deserted movie lot about to be vacated by studio boss Mack Sennett at the end of his career, you won't be disappointed either. For of course book writer Michael Stewart's device is to have him look back over his long career and especially to the glory days that began when fresh young Mabel Normand tripped into his studio to deliver a lunch snack. She came in an unknown delivery girl and, well, you can guess the rest.

So the production revels in recreating the glory days of Sennett's Keystone Studios, spiritual home of the silent comedy two-reeler, complete with custard pie fights (apparently invented by Normand) and yes, you've guessed it, comic Keystone Cops capers and chases. These routines and more are lovingly recreated on stage with great brio by a company of triple threats (they sing, they dance, they act, and that applies to both principals and ensemble). They are not only spectacularly choreographed by Stephen Mears, but also so well drilled in physical comedy by Spymonkey's Toby Park and Aitor Basauri that they look as if they can actually afford to revel in what they are doing too.

Jack Edwards (Fatty) and the Keystone Cops in Chichester Festival Theatre production of Mack and Mabel © Manuel Harlan

One of the greatest delights of the storytelling is the recreations of silent movie footage: frames and frames of Mabel (played by Rebecca LaChance) are eerie and touching, as well as convincing. By the time the footage reappears at the end of the story, it has earned the emotional punch it packs.

The story of Mack & Mabel, as told by Stewart and revised by Francine Pascal, is of an uneasy working relationship that soon developed into an on-off romantic relationship – the latter summed up by Herman in Sennett's gloriously unromantic romantic manifesto, 'I won't bring roses', which is probably the show's best-known number. Sennett looks back in sorrow at how he missed his chance with Mabel and lost her to rival filmmaker William Desmond Taylor, a sinister character, who is shown encouraging her drug dependency to ensure she becomes dependent on him.

Although it makes a good story, the reality, according to a revealing programme note by Film Lecturer Rebecca Harrison, is that Normand was an accomplished writer/director/ producer herself. It does seem a shame that Stewart, and especially later reviser Pascal, did not tell the story of the rather stronger more empowered woman who was the real Mabel Normand.

Michael Ball (Mack) in Chichester Festival Theatre production of Mack and Mabel © Manuel Harlan

Still it would be churlish to cavil too much, just because there is so much to enjoy here. Michael Ball is on top form as Mack Sennett, a detailed portrait of a man used to having his own way. After his last triumphant appearance at this address in Sweeney Todd with his outstanding Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, it seems likely that he will follow her into the West End, where she is currently repeating her stunning 2014 Chichester success in the title role in Gypsy. Rebecca LaChance proves a fully justified American import to play Mabel, with a performance that manages to be both gutsy and ethereal at the same time.

Anna-Jane Casey, whom I had seen at the Watermill as a marvellous Mabel in their more chamber version of the show, shines again here as Lottie, the star already in residence at Keystone, who seems to have become Mabel's bosom friend. Her tap routine leading the whole ensemble in 'Tap Your Troubles Away', the show's 11 o'clock number, is simply breathtaking and joyfully life-enhancing. It's a real treat of a spectacle, entirely dressed in black and white with artful touches of scarlet. Designer Robert Jones uses the device of monochrome to great effect throughout the show to pay homage to black and white film both scenically and often with the terrific costumes too. The way he makes full use of the huge thrust of the Chichester Festival Theatre is a real joy.

There's strong support from the rest of the principals too, especially Jack Edwards as co-star of the Keystone stable Fatty Arbuckle. And then of course there is that orchestra under musical director Robert Scott, the very backbone of this great big glorious show.

By Judi Herman

Photography © Manuel Harlan

Mack & Mabel runs until Saturday 5 September. 7.30pm & 2.30pm. £8-£45. Chichester Festival Theatre, PO19 6AP; 012 4378 1312.