Fiddler on the Roof
Chichester Festival Theatre
Tuesday, July 18 2017
The lone fiddler, perched atop a black, empty stage, opens the show.
All at once doors open, light spills out and on come the residents of Anatevka, the little Jewish settlement in 1905 Russia where this story is set, for the opening number Tradition.
It sets out the importance of family, of heritage, of clinging hold of beliefs and ways despite being surrounded by a different and often hostile culture. But the tradition so powerfully sung about here (when all the voices are raised together in this show, it’s like a wall of sound – thrilling) is under threat, not only by the ruling forces but also from modern ideas, represented by the student Perchik. These ideas, about women and arranged marriages, politics and faith, disturb the delicate fabric of this mini-society, before the Russians rip it apart wholesale by forcing the Jews to get out of the country en masse.
It all seems very apposite – transpose Islam for Judaism, Syria for Russia, and you start to see some similarities: people ousted from their homes, the fear of ‘aliens’ and their strange customs, mistrust of other faiths and languages, refugees, the fear of mass migration…
As Tevye, the dairyman, Omid Djalili is spot-on casting. The comedian brings a self-deprecating warmth and a wry nod to the audience as if to say ‘families, eh? they’re all the same’.
There’s a subtle approach to this production – it seems underplayed slightly; more realistically perhaps than I’ve seen it performed before. The accents do seem a bit, well, varied, but that’s a minor quibble.
Tracy-Ann Oberman plays Golde his wife with assurity. The three main daughters – Simbi Akande as Tzeitel, Emma Kingston as Hodel, and Rose Shalloo as the bespectacled Chava all seem a little unsure of themselves – I wasn’t really feeling the emotion if some of their scenes. But they’re young, which might explain it.
The dream sequence was, in complete contrast, totally prog rock, over-the-top, panto style with flames and smoke and Thriller zombies – Laura Tebbutt screeching and wailing as the butcher’s dead wife. Very funny.
Some highlights for me include Gareth Snook as a really creepy Lazar Wolf the butcher – “but I liiiike her…”; the Russian soldiers’ dancing and the ridiculously extended note sung by one of them (apologies for not recalling which of the actors); the ensemble scenes when the vocal power could have knocked over an army; the beautiful Sunrise, Sunset song which had me in tears, and the incredibly poignant final scene with the cast tableau in front of huge photographs of the actual Jewish emigrants trying to start a new life in America, in ragged clothes, with haunted dark eyes, staring ahead. A waterfall in front of them represented… what? A barrier? A veil? A clean start? A sea of people, little droplets falling together to make a huge stream? Whatever it meant, it was very effective.
This a production that will no doubt head for the West End, as so many Chichester shows have done. There was a standing ovation on the night I attended – well-deserved. Get a ticket if you can.