One of the most successful musicals of all time has made its way to the Menier for the Christmas/New Year slot, and is now sold out for the entirety of its run, right through to March 9th, so it’s got to be doing something right! The familiar old story of Fiddler on the Roof, with the cantankerous but lovable Reb Tevye, his devoted but not uncritical wife Golde, and their five daughters, three of which are of marryable age, has delighted millions since it first appeared on Broadway in 1964; and yes, gentle reader, I was lucky enough to see Topol in the part – although not until an early 1980s revival. Since then, I’ve seen the surprisingly superb Paul Michael Glaser in the role, and the unsurprisingly brilliant Omid Djalili. And now, this new production at the Menier, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn no less, stars Andy Nyman as the poor dairyman/philosopher/wannabe rich man.
However, unfortunately Mr Nyman, who I understand is excellent in this role, was not performing on the matinee of Sunday December 30th, and his understudy Robert Maskell took the part. Because any production of Fiddler relies heavily on this vital, central performance, I’m going to find it difficult to give a useful review of this show, as I sense the performance I saw was possibly quite different from what everyone else has seen.
I go to the theatre to have a good time so let’s dwell on the positives. Firstly, if you’ve never seen it before, Fiddler on the Roof is a brilliant show, you can take that as read. Even though all the best songs and scenes come in the first Act, so that the show feels slightly top-heavy, it’s still a strong and engrossing story with many larger-than-life characters. In the intimate environment of the Menier, it’s the music that really takes charge, with a fantastic performance from Paul Bogaev’s band, and absolutely stunning vocals and harmonies from the ensemble cast. It truly is a feast for the ear – if ears can indeed be feasted.
I always admire lively choreography, particularly when it’s crammed into such a small space as the Menier. Matt Cole’s expressive and inspiring routines work brilliantly intertwined with some of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, and they were all danced with exquisite knife-edge accuracy. In particular, hats off to everyone involved in the To Life scene, with the great Cossack dancing and its enormous sense of happiness. For me, that was the most enjoyable scene in the show.
However, much to the surprise of both of us, we were left strangely unmoved by this production. When we saw it in Chichester in 2017, I swear we both had to wipe away the occasional tear. However, in this production, not at all. Despite all the obvious opportunities for an emotional reaction, it just didn’t do it for us. The scene where Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding is disrupted by the first signs of violent oppression by the Russians, came across as simply bad behaviour from some ruffians rather than heart-rending destruction. Similarly, when the end comes, and the pogrom clears them all out of Anatevka, we just didn’t feel the distress or devastation. It felt more like a simple administrative relocation. Sorry, your Anatevka branch has now closed, your nearest branch is now 500 miles away. The only time I felt a true sense of emotion was in that wonderful little and easily overlooked song, Miracle of Miracles, when the ecstatic Motel – Joshua Gannon on magnificent form – can’t get over the fact that he’s finally going to get married to Tzeitel. Even the normally floodgate-opening Sunrise, Sunset only came across as a passive observation of others in love, rather than an overwhelming appreciation of how love carries on from generation to generation. Beautifully sung, but strangely cold.
So I’m left to wonder if this lack of emotion came from missing Mr Nyman. You expect – and need – your Tevye to be the most larger-than-life character of all; a big man, with a big heart, and a big voice, and a big load of cheek that he shares with everyone from God downwards. Tevye is a man whom, if you dare to cross him, should make you quake in your boots. That’s why it’s so funny when, having given his approval to Motel and Tzeitel to marry, he worries about what Golde will say – the big boss man, classically under the little woman’s thumb. However, Mr Maskell’s interpretation of Tevye stressed his more lovable side; his is a kindly, softly-spoken, Big Daddy-type of Tevye. When he sings of God’s vast eternal plan (in If I Were a Rich Man) it feels less like an earth-shattering, divisive dispensation of justice and more like a well-maintained Excel document. He was gently amusing, but nothing more, I’m afraid. It’s true, he does have beautiful vocal purity; but shouldn’t Tevye have more raucous power, dominating the proceedings right from the start? For me, his whole interpretation felt like it lacked something.
Elsewhere in the cast there are some enjoyable performances from Judy Kuhn as the much-tried Golde, Louise Gold as a particularly scatter-brained Yentl, Dermot Canavan as a rather well-mannered and reasonable Lazar Wolf, Harriet Bunton as a spirited Hodel and Molly Osbourne as an enthusiastic Tzeitel. However, despite these good performances and the superb ensemble, I did come away from this show feeling slightly flat and a little disappointed. Sometimes 5 star-hype, such as accompanies this production, only sets you up to being let down. Nevertheless, it’s fully sold out and I heard a rumour of a West End transfer, so what do I know?
P. S. Maybe some of my disappointment at the show could be explained by, once again, being surrounded by some audience members distinctly lacking in the manners department. Again, we encountered a refusal to move when trying to leave or return during the interval (in fact, the woman next to me, when she saw I wanted to pass, actually stood up and blocked my path, so I had to go the longer way across the stage). She spent a lot of the show explaining to her son what was happening in the story (clearly he wasn’t using his listening ears). Another extended family group decided it was a good idea to feed their children a picnic during the performance, with all the rustling, munching, squeaking and chomping that entailed. When they weren’t doing that they were lolling all over the seats or explaining the plot animatedly to their children whilst the actors were performing right in front of them. Sigh. Modern audiences are turning me into a Grumpy Old Man.
Production photos by Johan Persson