We simply loved it.
Walking into the Menier Chocolate Factory is like walking into a shtetl in early 20th century Russia, dark and smoky. The wooden slats and gable-roofed shacks of Robert Jones' set embrace you. Alongside you, stand figures in well-worn black, dusty brown and gray, their heads covered, their prayer aprons poking out from their heavy coats. Every detail has a texture, a delicacy and authenticity.
With its story of generational conflict and the battle between tradition and change, this crowd-pleasing musical, based on a group of stories by Sholem Aleichem, has become one of theatre’s hardy perennials — often professionally revived on both sides of the Atlantic, endlessly staged in American high schools, and even startlingly popular in Japan.
Combining an ebullient score by Jerry Bock and sentimental lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, it’s sometimes knocked for being kitsch. But in Trevor Nunn’s polished revival, which boasts a cast of nearly thirty and an excellent eight-piece band, it’s at once a feast of dance, a bouncy comedy and a defiant portrait of Jewish resilience.
Andy Nyman plays Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman living in the fictitious Ukrainian village of Anatevka with his stoical wife Golde (Judy Kuhn) and their five daughters. It’s 1905, and the threat of anti-Semitic violence hangs in the air. But Tevye has more immediate worries, as his daughters seem intent on marrying men he doesn’t favour — an unsettling sign for him of how customs are giving way to modern ideas of progress.
From the very start, Nyman's Tevye, finds his own way through the milkman's conversations with God, about his life and his troubles. The famous opening line of "If I Were a Rich Man" becomes a combination of a wish and a grumble about the pain in his back; as he negotiates the song those little "daidle deedle daidle" fillers become different statements of his mental state, until they break out finally into an exuberant dance, and Nyman powers round the stage, arms raised.
Proud, put-upon and addicted to misquoting the scriptures, Tevye is a romantic. Nyman’s performance is contagiously amusing, yet it also has soul and an earthy sense of precariousness. One song contains the lyric "Life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us". Although at first the bruises don’t look that dark, we come to see that Tevye’s family is at risk of being displaced as a result of the Tsar’s brusque directives.
Nyman is the show’s anchor, but there’s vivid work all around him — from Dermot Canavan as amorous butcher Lazar Wolf, Joshua Gannon as timid tailor Motel and Stewart Clarke as Perchik, an educated outsider whose radicalism unsettles Anatevka’s norms. All the while Darius Luke Thompson as the titular fiddler stalks the periphery, a symbol of the world’s fragile balance.
This is a show famous for its set-pieces. The choreography is by Jerome Robbins and Matt Cole, and the highlight is a sequence in which four villagers spectacularly advance across the stage with bottles poised atop their heads. Nunn’s interpretation revels in this heightened physicality, but it’s also thoughtful, warm and intimate.