Celebrating difference - Fiddler on the Roof at Playhouse, London
PUBLISHED: 07:00 10 April 2019
TIM WALKER gives his review of Fiddler on the Roof at Playhouse London, which is running until September 28.
Familiarity can breed contempt with even the greatest shows, so it’s just as well that Sir Trevor Nunn has thought outside of the box with his revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Even the Playhouse’s large stage cannot contain his deliriously expansive, fresh and original take on the old classic with the theatre reconfigured so that a winding path runs through the middle of the stalls to the Russian shtetl of Anatevka, where the long-suffering Tevye (Andy Nyman) lives with his wife Golde (Judy Kuhn) and their five daughters just after the turn of the last century.
Bearded old men, fresh-faced young ladies hoping for the best from the ‘matchmaker’ and grim-faced Tsarist Russian soldiers periodically run straight down it, making everyone in the auditorium feel like extras. I yield to no man in my admiration for Sir Trevor, but on this occasion I must acknowledge the genius of Robert Jones as a set designer: he makes the audience not observers of Anatevka, but inhabitants of it. This is what immersive theatre is all about.
The story turns on Tevye having to accept that his daughters get to make their own decisions about who they love and marry, but also identity and Jewishness and defiance. I’ve personally always loved difference in others (largely because I find myself so boring), but vast swathes of the population are now of course being encouraged to be repulsed by it. I think therefore I’m entitled to use that old cliché so beloved by theatre critics and say that this production is indeed relevant.
Happily, the design pyrotechnics do not distract from the humanity of the piece. Tevye’s rendition of the big showstopper If I Were a Rich Man is wonderfully punctuated by twinges of arthritis and Do You Love Me? – the duet he sings with his wife – is accomplished with almost unbearable poignancy.
Nyman and Kuhn are on great form as the world-weary couple at the heart of this drama, but they are part of a uniformly strong ensemble. Stewart Clarke makes a particularly strong impression as the idealistic Perchik, who has fallen in love with Harriet Bunton’s lovely Hodel, and there’s an affecting turn, too, from Fenton Gray as a sorrowful old rabbi.
I doubt anyone has ever – or will ever – make a better job of staging this show than Sir Trevor has here. Above all things, he gets the bigger picture. What is the song Sunrise, Sunset saying if not that we all live, we all die, and we might as well try to get along and make the best of things?
I’d add that Will Self’s takeover of this great newspaper last week leaves me with scant space to acknowledge some other productions I’ve seen lately, but it’d be remiss of me not to pay tribute to Miles Jupp’s immensely moving performance as the Mary Poppins star David Tomlinson in The Life I Lead at the Park Theatre in north London and Tom Hiddleston’s icily cold portrayal of a man struggling to breathe in a relationship based on secrets and lies in Betrayal at the Harold Pinter.