Trevor Nunn’s gloomy ‘Fiddler’ is classy but not always fun
'Fiddler on the Roof' transfers to the West End's Playhouse Theatre in March 2019. This review is from December 2018.
Hanukkah might be upon us but don’t go expecting too much light from the Menier’s revival of the ‘Fiddler on the Roof’.
The venerable Trevor Nunn is helming the boutique venue’s big seasonal musical for the first time, and he’s keeping things gritty. With the exception of a colourful dream sequence, there’s more black here than a goth convention: everyone wears the colour, all the time, in designer Robert Jones’s earthy evocation of the Russian shtetl.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is a funny old show, an in many ways anachronistic musical about Tevye, a hard-grafting Jewish father who finds the winds of change overtaking him as his daughters make unconventional matches, and the local Russian soldiers make increasingly alarming noises.
Based on the stories of Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein's ‘Fiddler’ partly endures as a nostalgic origin story for America’s Jewish population, who would go on to found – amongst many other things – Broadway after quitting Europe in part because of the events depicted here.
It also has a still-banging songbook, and in Tevye one of the great musical theatre characters.
Still, it’s a slightly thin and rambling story, and there is a central irony that a show about the implacable tides of progress has now substantially become a nostalgia piece.
That’s not to say Nunn’s production is cosy. Far from it: he’s taken a game stab at a sort of brooding naturalism, with the orchestra hidden, the lighting in a constant state of murk, and the accents flinty and harsh. In our present era of anodyne musical theatre ballads, there’s something appreciably, thrillingly different about the guttural syllables of the joyous opener ‘Tradition’.
Menier regular Andy Nyman is a very decent lead as Tevye: he’s not really a quintessential musical theatre actor, but being a bit rough around the edges helps his cause here. With a magnificent beard and a stack of charisma, he puts in a hugely dedicated performance as a wearily loving father trying to do his best to bend with the tides of history.
It’s good, then, but also pretty dour. Nunn’s scrupulous attempts to evoke the grime of the shtetl are all well and good, but it’s very noticeable that the entire show kicks up a notch when Jerome Robbins’s joyous, completely unnaturalistic original choreography is busted out during a couple of scenes. It could maybe have done with a few more spoonfuls of sugar like this.
I realise there are some restrictions that apply when staging ‘Fiddler’, but this finely crafted revival feels both entertaining and somewhat lacking a sense of purpose. The musical is unavoidably now a nostalgic one, but Nunn’s dark-tinted revival stops it from wallowing. But what end is achieved by the grit? At a time when antisemitism is on the rise globally, there’s certainly the potential for a politicised ‘Fiddler’, but that’s not what we get here. It feels more like the naturalism is an aesthetic challenge Nunn set himself, which is fine, but his ‘Fiddler’ feels more like a carefully restored museum piece than the vibrant thing a more radical production might have been.
|Venue name:||Playhouse Theatre|
|Opening hours:||Check website for show times|
|Transport:||Rail/Tube: Charing Cross; Tube: Embankment|
|Price:||From £20. Runs 2hr 50min|
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