It is possible to have confidence in Trevor Nunn’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, which has just transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre, before a single note has even been sung. This is for the simple reason that Robert Jones’ set hits the viewer as soon as they enter the auditorium. It presents a series of ramshackle wooden houses, the most prominent of which belongs to the milkman Tevye, alongside a set of external features such as water pumps and lanterns. In the background trees are silhouetted against an orange sky, while wooden fencing, above which rise spindly trees, continues right around the perimeter of the auditorium.
In this way, the audience is put right at the centre of Anatevka, which helps them to feel both the hustle and bustle, and the very soul, of the village. Characters often enter and exit via the auditorium, while the stage’s layout can present any location required by the drama with no more than the repositioning of a few props.
If the set design enables a slick staging, the variations in mood are rendered extremely effectively so that we really get under the skin of the piece. For example, in the run up to ‘Sabbath Prayer’ there are a series of short scenes between (for example) Tevye and Golde and Tzeitel and Motel where the smoothness of the turnaround from one to the next hands the drama a strong ‘in one door, out the other’ element. The song itself, however, is executed sensitively as the characters’ smiles and glances reveal both their connection to God and their own interpersonal relationships. Then, as soon as it has finished, virtually the entire cast has descended on the stage to move the props around for the next scene, and, in the process, enhance the sense of this being a community.
Fiddler concerns the relationship between the Jews and Russians, and this is explored in particular in ‘To Life’, which, like the end of Act I of Der fliegende Holländer, is sung by the somewhat offbeat pairing of a prospective groom and his future father-in-law. While the Russians assert their dominance by supposedly showing magnanimity in congratulating Lazar Wolf on his engagement, the dancing, which uses Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, renders all of the subtexts in a highly dynamic way. Not only are the virtually acrobatic movements executed by the Russian characters highly skilful, but the way in which the Jews reveal a sense of defiance with their own dancing makes for a thrilling routine as it feels as if it could spin out of control at any moment. After the song finishes, we see the men staggering out of the inn, with it really seeming as if they have spent several intervening hours drinking, before the appearance of the Constable then changes the mood entirely.
The cast is sometimes broken down into subsets of around six. This is most noticeable in ‘Tradition’ when in turn the fathers, the mothers, the boys and the girls sing, but ‘To Life’ also introduces this by pitting the older Jewish men against the younger Russians. However, because they fill the stage so much while the sound they make is so great, it is easy to forget that there are really not so many of them. The closing images, in which all of the characters cross the stage on their respective journeys out of Anatevka, also really give the impression of a mass exodus.
It is impossible for a production such as this to muster the same musical forces as, for example, Grange Park Opera’s 2015 version, which enjoyed a full orchestra but only ran for ten performances. However, the eight-strong ensemble, directed by Paul Bogaev, is extremely accomplished while the production does see the Fiddler (Darius Luke Thompson) actually play on the roof at the start of each act. Other instrumentalists also grace the stage to become a part of, for example, the scenes in the inn. Sometimes when the entire chorus sings the results can feel a little overbearing and unrelenting because of the amplification, but no-one can doubt the quality of the sound being produced.
At the centre of the evening stands Andy Nyman’s Tevye. His singing voice is adequate, rather than outstanding, and when he duets with Dermot Canavan’s Lazar Wolf in ‘To Life’ and Judy Kuhn’s Golde in ‘Do You Love Me?’ both reveal stronger underlying techniques than his. However, what really makes him a great Tevye is his ability to command the stage while also delivering a performance of the utmost sensitivity. He steers clear of presenting quite so stereotypical an image of the Jewish father as one might imagine the role demands, especially in ‘If I Were a Rich Man’, and his conversations with God feel highly personal rather than run of the mill.
Similarly, while Topol in the film version delivered the ‘On the other hand’ speeches snapping from thought to thought, there is a strong air of thoughtful consideration underpinning Nyman’s words. The line ‘There is no other hand’, which is normally delivered as a monumental cry to conclude all of these speeches, is here simply uttered with inconsolable sadness. Nyman, however, is only one member of a cast, which includes Molly Osbourne as Tzeitel, Harriet Bunton as Hodel and Nicola Brown as Chava, that is strong all round, and who together help to make this Fiddler on the Roof feel as profound as it is undoubtedly entertaining.