Review: Fiddler on the Roof at Playhouse Theatre

Earlier this year, only a few weeks into the Menier Chocolate Factory run of Trevor Nunn’s critically acclaimed Fiddler on the Roof, its West End transfer was confirmed. Yesterday, a mere couple of days after the show opened at the Playhouse Theatre, it was announced that booking has been extended to September. And it’s not hard to see why.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Set in 1905, Fiddler on the Roof tells the deceptively feel-good story of Tevye (Andy Nyman), a Jewish patriarch in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka, whose determination to abide by tradition is repeatedly tested by the insistence of his strong-willed eldest daughters (Molly Osborne, Harriet Bunton and Nicola Brown) on choosing their own husbands. But as Tevye himself explains in the show’s opening monologue, the lives of the Jewish community in Anatevka are as precarious as a fiddler on a roof; no spoilers here, but let’s just say anyone hoping for a happy ending to the show is in for a bit of a shock.

And yet, in a way, it’s not such a shock. This is a story that shouldn’t strike any kind of chord for a supposedly enlightened 21st century audience – yet tragically (and incredibly), it still feels all too relevant, and the final scenes all too inevitable. The production very deliberately immerses us in the life of Tevye and his community, with Robert Jones’ stunning set design wrapped all the way around the theatre, and the actors frequently walking among the audience to enter and exit the stage. Having joined them for the Sabbath, for a wedding and a joyous, alcohol-fuelled celebration of life, the show’s heartbreaking conclusion becomes all the more impactful, not least when you acknowledge it’s based on historical fact.

Andy Nyman is an absolute natural as Tevye; from the moment he arrives on stage, he has such energy, wit and warmth that it’s impossible not to like him. Tevye as a character provides plenty of opportunities for humour – always quick with a witty retort, not afraid to give God a good talking to, and amusingly full of bluster while he secretly lets his wife and daughters walk all over him. But as the show goes on the role calls for much greater emotional depth, and Nyman is absolutely on the money on both fronts. Alongside him, Judy Kuhn is similarly captivating as his wife Golde, and the two have touchingly believable chemistry as a husband and wife who may not have married for love, but have discovered it together over the past 25 years.

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s score is one that most people will be familiar with, even if you’ve never seen the show, and it boasts some excellent tunes. Despite their catchiness, though, the musical numbers shouldn’t be dismissed as simply a singalong opportunity, and seeing them performed – without exception, brilliantly – in the context of the production lends them layers of new meaning. The choreography, by Jerome Robbins (who directed and choreographed the original Broadway production) and Matt Cole, is sensational to watch and performed with such enthusiasm and joy by the whole cast that it becomes utterly infectious.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Oh, and did I mention the production is gorgeous to look at? Robert Jones’ set overflows from the stage to take in the whole of the Playhouse (now starting to get a bit of a reputation for its incredible transformations) – and it’s exquisite in every detail, from the dim, smoky atmosphere that envelops you as you walk in, to the simple rustic homes of Anatevka and the trees silhouetted dramatically against the subtly changing light as day turns gradually to night.

Funny, heartwarming, fascinating, tragic and devastating, Fiddler on the Roof is an unusual but hugely powerful musical, and this production brings out the very best in it. The previous run at the Menier was a sell-out, and this one looks set – and deserves – to go the same way. So get yourself a ticket while you can; this triumphant revival is not to be missed.

Fiddler on the Roof is now booking to 28th September at the Playhouse Theatre.

Review: An Inspector Calls at Playhouse Theatre

Stephen Daldry’s groundbreaking production of An Inspector Calls acquired legendary status when it was first performed at the National Theatre in 1992. Having completed yet another national tour, it’s now back in the West End, and as powerful and relevant as ever. In fact if anything, given the current sorry state of the world, the play’s message of social responsibility speaks to us now even more than it did 24 years ago.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Though J.B. Priestley’s story is set in the early 20th century, the brilliance of Daldry’s production and Ian MacNeil’s astonishing set is that the events unfolding before us could be taking place anywhere, at any time. In 1912, the well-to-do Birling family are enjoying a dinner party in their elegant home, which resembles a large dolls’ house perched precariously above a dark, rainy street from the 1940s, when the play was written. But the family’s celebration of daughter Sheila’s engagement is interrupted by the arrival of a police inspector, bearing the tragic news of a young woman’s suicide… One by one, the mysterious Inspector Goole forces each member of the family to confess his or her part in the woman’s downfall, and draws them away from their luxurious surroundings to face judgment from a silent audience of “supernumeraries” – men, women and children to whom the Birlings would never usually give a moment’s thought.

The pouring rain, creeping mist and Stephen Warbeck’s ominous music help to build the tension towards an explosive climax and a final direct plea from the Inspector, delivered with genuine emotion by Liam Brennan as he begs us all to remember the responsibility we have to each other. But the story doesn’t end there, and a glimmer of hope can be found in the despair of the Birling children as they stand alongside the family maid Edna (played with quiet dignity by Diana Payne-Myers) and watch the others climb, cackling like pantomime villains, back into their wrecked house.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

As the Inspector, Liam Brennan embodies the very heart of the play, a gruff Scotsman who both ridicules and rages at these people who seem so stubbornly unaware of the damage they’ve caused. Clive Francis cuts a frail but defiant figure as the patriarch Arthur, and there are strong performances from Barbara Marten and Carmela Corbett as mother and daughter – one refusing to acknowledge her guilt, the other readily embracing it with appalled horror.

J.B. Priestley’s political stance as a socialist is well-known, and not at all glossed over in this production. But the story is not just about politics; it’s about humanity. This is the third time I’ve seen the play, but without a doubt it’s the most powerful. Priestley might perhaps have hoped that by 2016 his play would be redundant, but the events of this week show it’s anything but. We live in a world where intolerance and self-interest are increasingly the norm – and as long as that’s the case, this play will continue to resonate.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉