Review – Fiddler on the Roof, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 22nd July 2017

FIddler on the RoofSometimes you look at a theatre’s listings for the season ahead and a show stands out like a beacon of must-seeishness. I’d seen Fiddler on the Roof twice before; once with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle in 1983 at the Apollo Victoria, starring the iconic Topol as Tevye, and once with Mrs Chrisparkle at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, starring Paul Michael Glaser (and damn fine he was too.) Professor and Mrs Plum (who accompanied us on our Chichester weekend) advised us that they’d seen it on Broadway starring Harvey Fierstein. Gosh! I bet he was amazing.

Fiddler - everyoneI’m sure you know the background to this musical. It’s based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem about Tevye and his daughters published in 1894. The author was born in present-day Ukraine, and moved to New York City after witnessing the violence against Jews in southern Russia in 1905. The stories have inspired plays, TV programmes and movies over the years – but none so prominent as Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye is the village milkman, with his own philosophy of life that is heavily based on his deep but informal relationship with God, with whom he chats all the time. An upholder and adherent of Tradition, the musical shows you how Tevye copes having daughters who know their own mind and are not afraid to carve out their own way of life. Will he stick with the time-honoured traditions, or will he bend the rules to accommodate their wishes? And what chance does tradition have when it’s up against the outside world of the Czar’s Russia and the violent pogroms of the time?

TevyeSometimes at a show you get that feeling about ten minutes into it when you say to yourself “Wow, I am really loving this!” Gentle reader, I got that feeling. And once that happens you can just sit back and wallow in the pleasure of the whole thing. With all the traditional hallmarks of his Sheffield successes already chalked up, Daniel Evans’ first big show for Chichester – choreography by Alistair David, set design by Lez Brotherston, and a fantastic band courtesy of Tom Brady – is every bit as good as you could possibly dream it might be.

Sabbath PrayerThat’s not to say that in any way it shies away from the harshness of the reality of Tevye’s life and the village of Anatevka. If anything, this was the least saccharine portrayal of their day to day existence I’ve seen. The disruption to Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding celebration, for instance, stops you dead in your tracks with its mindless cruelty. When the villagers are informed that they will have to leave everything and go away, their desolation is palpable. But so much of the strength of the show comes from that balance of emotions between the sweet and the sour. The strongest moments (and songs) combine that hankering after something you just can’t have (If I were a Rich Man), and making the best of the here and now (To Life). Add to that the blind optimism of Matchmaker, Matchmaker and Miracle of Miracles plus the wistfulness of Do You Love Me and Sunrise, Sunset and you have one of the strongest scores in the history of musicals. Obvious, I know, but it occurred to me that, every time you hear Sunrise, Sunset, you’re just a little – significantly – older than the last time you heard it. My reaction to the stunning performance it receives in this production was to feel remarkably mortal. But when some aspect of a show pulls you up short and makes you question your own reality, you know theatre is doing its job properly.

Rabbinical questionsThe production is notable for some mind-boggling staging moments. The Fruma-Sarah dream sequence is extraordinary, with the spectral old biddy hovering large above the bed like a Jewish Sword of Damocles, the eerie presence of an army of demonic ghosts, and at one stage I thought the entire theatre was going to go up in flames! It’s a breathtakingly brilliant scene. Also stunning, but in a much more reflective way, was how the backstage opened up during the Sabbath Prayer so that you could see the other households in the village all following the same tradition; that was extremely effective and rather moving.

Matchmaker MatchmakerOf course, a huge part of the attraction for this particular production is the inspired casting of Omid Djalili as Tevye. He’s a very accomplished stand-up comic – we’ve loved him both times we’ve seen him – who involves uninhibited physicality as part of his humour. He was always going to be perfect in this role and boy does he not disappoint. From the moment you first see him, he’s got that glint in his eye that says we’ve gotta show to do and we’re all gonna have fun whilst never ever coming out of character or indeed turning Tevye into any kind of pantomime.

Mendel, Motel and the boysIn fact, for a larger-than-life comedian, it’s astounding how ordinary and normal he presents the character – which is great, because it’s so much easier for the audience to identify with him. He is a real man, with real problems but also a real sense of fun. As you would imagine, he absolutely made If I Were a Rich Man his own, and every time he comes on he lights up the stage. Make no mistake; when he disowns Chava for marrying the Christian Fyedka, his face is like thunder and his fury is undeniable – this is a man pushed to the limit and, much as it grieves him, he is determined to stand by his God rather than his daughter. This unfatherly reaction is uncomfortable for the audience. Apparently not every problem can be solved by a show tune. He is desperate to put the past behind them; and we can see him start to soften when he reminds Tzeitel to say “and God be with you” when she and Chava part; but he never gives in. Stubborn? Pious? Simply human? Tevye has complex emotions and beliefs which Mr Djalili explores and expresses magnificently.

GoldeThere’s also a tremendous performance by Tracy-Ann Oberman as Golde; funny, wry, spirited, bossy but essentially extremely kind-hearted, holding the household together whilst Tevye’s out working, or chewing the cud with God, or celebrating with Lazar Wolf. And of course she has a stunning voice that comes across so strongly, especially in the beautiful Sabbath Prayer sequence. Simbi Akande, Emma Kingston and Rose Shaloo make a great trio of daughters, presenting their father with challenge after challenge; they give us a fresh and funny Matchmaker, Matchmaker, and Emma Kingston’s Hodel sings a spine-tingling rendition of Far From the Home that I Love.

Motel and TzeitelI barely recognised the wonderful Liza Sadovy as Yente; as always, she gives the role a feisty and humorous characterisation. And I loved Jos Slovick’s Motel performing Miracle of Miracles – a couple of minutes of sheer reckless joy in what you sense is otherwise a fairly joyless life. Louis Maskell’s Perchik has just the right amount of confident and disdainful swagger to impress as the intellectual rebel without being a pain in the backside; and you just know that life is nevertheless going to teach him a thing or two as time goes on. And it was great to see Harry Francis again, as the rabbi’s son Mendel, brilliantly integrating outstandingly skilful dance moves into the big numbers.

Tevye takes them awayIt’s a huge cast, and everyone performs with absolute commitment and a sense of true enjoyment. It’s already been extended by a week, so the show now runs until 2nd September – but that’s surely not going to be the last we see of it? A credit to all involved. We all loved it.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Omid Djalili, Iranalamadingdong, Derngate, Northampton, 5th February 2015

IranalamadingdongThis was the second time we’d seen Omid Djalili do stand-up. The first was about ten years ago at the Oxford Playhouse, where I remember his material played a lot on the Western World’s insecurities with people from the Middle East and he nicely juxtaposed terrorists with delightfully middle-class north London types. Since then, sadly, terrorism hasn’t exactly gone away; and it no longer plays a central theme in his comedy. He does however still surprise and undermine our preconceptions with his ability to blend Western and Iranian characteristics in one big melting pot and come up with some revealing observations that challenge our suppositions with one huge belly laugh. The tone is set from the start when his introductory music to the stage is his beguiling vocal performance of the Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men only to realise that he enters the stage to the lyrics Iranian Men.

Boothby GraffoeBut I’m getting ahead of myself. We were unable to pre-order an interval Merlot because the first half would only last twenty five minutes or so. That can only mean one thing – a warm up act. And what a top quality warm up it would be in the company of Boothby Graffoe, darling of Radio 4 comedy shows, joke writer extraordinaire, and the only comedian to be named after a Lincolnshire village. He has a very welcoming and unthreatening style, appearing to take his material at a relatively gentle pace, coming across as thoughtful, and enjoyably self-deprecating where it comes to his musical prowess. The mouth organ is used only as a deterrent.

During the course of his short stay with us, he provides his own insight into the mind and working practices of TV medium Derek Acorah, during which he can also find out some interesting snippets about audience members should he be so inclined, delightfully revealing how the whole psychic stage thing is utter nonsense and tosh. He also has a rather anarchic sequence where he becomes a German mother talking to her French child; looking back on it I still can’t quite work out what all that was about but it was amusing anyway. Mr Graffoe is a very entertaining man – not a lot in the way of uncontrollable guffaws but a very wry and intelligent approach that makes you appreciate a lot of subtle humour.

Omid DjaliliFrom Boothby Graffoe’s quiet and slightly reserved approach, you can’t get much more of a contrast than Omid Djalili’s loud, uninhibited, joyous persona. Here’s a man who celebrates a corny joke by bursting into a mock belly-dance, limbs cavorting in a parody of I Dream of Jeannie, floppy microphone simulating an unrestricted penis rising and falling with the Aladdin rhythms. For a big chap, he’s quite a physical comic, with many a ridiculous sequence of movement that results in his breaking into a not insubstantial sweat. You’d think that he doesn’t really care what he looks like, but actually he’s turned out quite dapper in a smart suit – he really could be the legendary embarrassing dad dancing at a wedding. Above all, he comes across as someone who’s really comfortable as he is. There’s not an ounce of that comedy neurosis that characterises so many other comedians. He is what he is, and you take it or leave it.

Among his very enjoyable observations and sequences, he explains how a happy marriage can always be attained providing you accept that your wife always knows best; why he really enjoys visiting America; why he loathes being called a “Paki” (his word, not mine, I hasten to add); and the informal way in which an Iranian father will sit around the house, even if his new daughter in law is about to visit. It’s all insightful, clever, meaningful and thoroughly revealing; plus it has the benefit of being extremely funny.

Omid Djalili 2His routine ended with a Question and Answer session, the questions having been written on pieces of paper by members of the audience during the interval and then placed into a cardboard box for Mr Djalili’s subsequent consideration. Ever since Mrs Chrisparkle’s brother had been selected by the late Frankie Howard as a plant in the audience to ask one of a number of specially pre-rehearsed questions – his was “Do you ever ad-lib?” – I’ve been suspicious of Q&As with comics. I’m sure that a number of the questions Mr Djalili considered and replied were genuine inquiries from our audience; but I wouldn’t be surprised if a handful were fully scripted either. Does it matter? Probably not.

A very enjoyable night’s comedy from a comic who performs with splendid pace, a love of language and a sense of the ridiculous. Definitely worth catching as he tours the country!