Fiddler On The Roof
Menier Chocolate Factory, Tuesday 19 February 2019
Review by Emma Shane © February 2019
I had seen a touring production of Fiddler On The Roof about eighteen years ago in Dartford. It was interesting to me to notice a few subtle differences between that and this new production at The Menier Chocolate factory.
While the audience are still taking their seats on the somewhat cramped seats of the Menier’s auditorium some of the actors provide distraction by milling around on the stage as villagers. This added to the scene setting and general enjoyment of the show. A few of them also have to bring various props into place. A little after the advertised start time (sorting out the seating takes time) the actors take up their positions at various corners, leaving Andy Nyman alone in the middle of the stage to start the show. He is soon joined by Darius Luke Thompson perched on the roof of one of the set’s “houses” as the Fiddler, and then leads the company with Tradition, which all the company join in at their respective points. The older men for “The Papa”, the older women for “The Mama”, the younger men for “The Son” and the younger women was “The daughter” , each group returning to their positions at the side of the stage when it is another group’s turn. Such is the powerful stage presence of one of the older women, standing at the corner nearest to where I was sitting, I found that almost overshadowed the performance of the younger men. Ok I am a bit biased there. Some parts of the number involve the whole, or most of the company down on the stage as an ensemble, and here I noticed a lot of arm raising in the choreography. At which point it is as noticeable as ever that Louise Gold always does this sort of stuff especially well, even raising her matchmaker’s book (in her powerful left hand), but then she is more accustomed then most actors to working with her arms up like that. It always amuses me when she gets to do that in a musical. The opening number also gives various characters their own special piece to do. Noticeable among these, not least because of her extra strong stage presence is Louise Gold’s Yente describing a match for someone’s son with someone else’s daughter who has poor eyesight “The way he looks and the way she ee’s it’s a perfect match”.
Into the show proper, we have Tevye’s three elder girls, Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava, played by Molly Osbourne, Harriet Bunton and Kirsty Macclaren respectively doing their chores and into Matchmaker Matchmaker. This produced a highly interesting performance from Molly Osbournce, a distinct contrast to the way it was done in the production I saw in Dartford. Back then, at the point where Tzeitel does an imitation of The Matchmaker, the actress playing Tzeitel had done it as an actual imitation of the way Myra Sands played Yente in that production. Molly by contrast does something different, her imitation is not an imitation, it seems to be more an interpretation of perhaps how if in many years time she ever plays that part it’s how she would want to do it, totally not the way the part is played in this production. While the way I saw it done in Dartford might be normally the right sort of way to do it. For the purposes of this production I actually felt that Molly did exactly the right thing. Because when you have such a very unique actress as Louise Gold to play Yente who tends to act things in very much her own almost unique style anyway, it could just be wrong to try (and fail) to imitate that. Molly Osbourne shows a lot of good sense in doing her own thing in this production. The number also of course serves to highlight the feelings of young people in a society that expects arranged marriages.
Moving on, we have a scene in the house, where Golde is preparing for the Sabbath, with her daughters. But she had to get them out of the way when Yente calls to see her. Yente has news of a match for Tzeital, it is Lazar Wolf the butcher. Here we learn the sometimes one-sided nature of The Matchmaker’s job. “Lazar Wolf” has his eye on Tzeitel, and has evidently told Yente he wants to marry Tzeitel. .
Meanwhile Teyve is still trying to get all his milk deliveries done before the Sabbath, complicated by his horse needing to go to the blacksmiths. At which we have one of the great classic songs of the show If I Were A Rich Man. Andy Nyman acted the song well. I was not so sure about his accent though, some of his pronunciation seemed a little odd to me. But his acting put the song across. Dealing with the various customers whose order he has forgotten (owing to the problems with his horse) brings Tevye into meeting a stranger in town, the somewhat radical student Perchik, whom he ends up inviting to his home.
Back home we find preparations for the Sabbath in full swing, with everyone having to help, and no reading for the bookish Chava. All five girls, along with Tevye, Golde, and their visitors Motel The Tailor as well as Perchik are there too join in the Sabbath Prayer. This works quite well, and in fact doing this in fringe theatre is really good because you can see all the intricate detail of the staging so clearly. The scene ends rather quickly, some audience members found its rapid ending and the sudden switch to a scene on another day at the Inn a little confusing. Here we have Lazar Wolf speaking of his intentions to remarry, at which someone, quite possibly Robert Maskell as Mordcha the Innkeeper offers his skills to lead the dancing at the wedding, for a fee of course. When Tevye enters we have the very funny scene between Tevye and Lazar Wolf where Tevye at first does not realise that Lazar Wolf wants to marry Tzeitel, and thinks he wants to buy a milk cow. Once he does understand pretty much the entire male company launches into the impressive number To Life. This is one of two number s in the show that retains the original Jerome Robbins choreography.
Back home we find Tzeitel absolutely wretched at the thought of marrying Lazar Wolf. Then Mottel the Tailor turns up and asks Tevye if he can marry Tzeitel. His asking is very drawn out, which while looking a little tedious does serve to illustrate how nervous someone in his situation, doing something so unheard of would be. As Tevye’s Monogue explains. It goes against their traditions, but on the other hand consider what Tzeitel really wants. And when he does agree, well its Joshua Gannon’s turn to shine with the song Miracle Of Miracles, which he does rather well.
The company have some hasty set changing to perform, to construct Tevye and Golde’s bedroom scene for Tevye’s Dream. This is always one of the more impressive feats in productions of Fiddler. Apart from Gaynor Miles playing Frumh Sarah (Lazar Wolf’s first wife who died), the programme gives no information about who else in the company performs the spirits in this number. I find myself wondering whether one significant character, namely Grandma Tzeitel could actually be played by one actress (perhaps one of the younger ones) but voiced by another. Did I recognise that singing voice? It sounded uncannily like something I have heard before. If I am right, then this is kind of reminiscent (at least to me) of the way in The Muppets occasionally one puppeteer might puppeteer a character with another puppeteer voicing it. (like the time on The Muppet Show when Frank Oz puppeteered Annie Sue for a particularly complex dance routine, or, Louise Gold puppeteered a Viking Pig that Jerry Nelson was voicing because Jerry Nelson had his hands full with another character). Anyway, whoever was doing what the company managed this complex scene rather well. And a bit less scary than the version in the Dartford production, I think.
Somewhere around this time, we also see what is happening to Tzeitel’s next two sisters. Hoddel is beginning to notice Perchik, who teaches her a new dance from Kiev, she is reluctant at first, dancing with a man, but soon joins in. And then there is Chava whom one of the Russian soldiers has noticed buying books, an unusual thing for a girl at that time. He lends her a book.
With the preparations for Tzeitel’s wedding to Motel, we get Sunrise Sunset, which involves the whole company. Some of the men carry on the all important canopy. This seems to be a much more substantial but also perhaps more natural looking version than the one used in Dartford, it’s four poles looking actually like tree branches. All the company have their heads covered, and the older women (ie the ones who have at one time or another been married wear white headresses as well). Dressed in white Motel takes his place under the canopy, he is then joined by the Priest and then Tzeitel in her white wedding dress. Once they are married they go to wooden chairs on their respective sections of the stage, which has been divided by a rope, there is a larger Men’s section and a slightly smaller Women’s section. On to The Wedding/Bottle Dance which also uses the original Jerome Robbins Choreography. In their respective sections they are lifted up on their chairs and carried around by the rest of the company. Over in the Women’s section I couldn’t help noticing that fine madell Yente (as played by Louise Gold) helping with this, putting her strong arms to use holding the back of Tzeitel’s chair. Once the chairs are down there are speeches, and presentation of wedding gifts. Then on with the celebrations The men dance. This reaches an impressive climax when first three and eventually five of the men perform The Bottle Dance. Which is truly stunning to watch. Hodel clearly wants to join in with the dancing, and you can see Yente very firmly nudging her back away from the rope. But eventually Perchick horrifies many of them by deciding he wants to dance with Hoddel and is going to. Soon Tevye decides to support him and dance with his wife Golde. The rope is taken up. Things come to a dramatic end with the arrival of a group of Russian soldiers causing a bit of trouble, throwing things around. The Constable wades in (he knew that was going to take place – so he could show he was keeping law and order). The Jews are left to return to their homes, someone helps Perchik who has been injured, and the men help the women leave as well. It is a bit of a cliff-hanger ending to the rather long first act.
The second act is shorter, a little more than half the length of the first. It starts with the Entr’acte, and soon Tevye explains to the audience that two months have passed since the wedding. Motel and Tzeitel are poor but happy. Tevye is still having problems with his horse, which keeps going lame.
Perchik is leaving, he needs to return to Kiev. However, before he leaves he has an important political matter to discuss with Hodel. He might be a radical, but he does actually believe in marriage, if the two people are well suited to each other. He wants Hodel to get engaged to him before he goes away. Hodel agrees. Tevye is rather horrified, first Tzeital and now Hodle, and this time they are not even asking permission, but they would like his blessing. However he reluctantly agrees. Perchik is delighted ansd with Hodel sings Now I have Everything. Stewart Clarke does this jolly well. It’s a good number. Harriet Bunton also turns out a fine performance as Hodel.
Things get worse for Tevye though, now it’s Chava who wants to marry her own choice. She wants to marry her Russian soldier. To marry outside of her faith, that is one step too far for Tevye. He tells her straight away no, and that is that Tevye’s Rebuttle.
Tevyve begins to wonder about love, as Golde enters, there is trouble in the town, the incident at Tzeitel’s wedding was just the start. Tevye asks Golde if she loves him. She is surprised at the question. But they sing Do You Love Me, both Andy Nyman and Judy Kuhn do this song well. A portrait couple who had an arranged marriage and had not even met until their wedding day! Told by their parents they would “learn to love each other” Tevye now wonders have they done so? They decide that yes over 25 years of marriage they have come to love each other.
The action packed second half continues with The Rumour. The programme lists it as being performed by “Yente and Company” It actually appears to be more of an ensemble number, and if it were not for Louise Gold’s peculiarly powerful stage presence filled acting style (that is so akin to the the actress who played Queen Quarantine to Alfie Bass’s King Eustace in the legendary 1938 Unity Theatre Babes In The Wood) it would hardly be credited her number at all. Sure she begins and ends it. It starts with Yente delivering a letter to Hodel, the letter is already opened. You can’t help thinking, did Yente open it herself? The letter happens to include the information that Perchik has been arrested in Kiev. Yente, tells or rather sings to someone else that Perchik who scandalised them all by dancing with Hodel at Tzietel and Motel’s Wedding has now been arrested in Kiev. Yente exits and the person who was told the information then tells it to someone else, who then passes it on, who tells it to someone else and so on. But the retellings are Chinese whispers and the various permutations have all sorts of strange variations. At the end Yente renters, from a different position in the auditorium and standing up by a lamp, powerfully declares, in song the last line of the song “And that’s what comes of dancing”. It’s her big moment, and she makes the most of it, because of course Louise Gold always does her best to make the most of her moments in the spotlight. Yet there is a sadness too, at knowing this magnificent performer has had far greater moments then this to make the most of. I actually didn’t realise until looking at the programme afterwards that it was her big number. However, there was one moment, I think it was during The Rumour, who vocally Louise Gold came out with something that sounded very like one of cbeebies Furchester Hotel characters, most likely Funella, or possibly Funella’s Jewish Grandmother.
The action meanwhile moves swiftly on, with Perchik having been sent to prison in Siberia, Hodel decides to go to Siberia, Tevye insists of taking her to the station. and Hodel sings the touching Far From The Home I Love. Harriet Bunton does a good job with this just as good as her Dartford counterpart.
More bad news for Tevye, however, as Golde can’t find Chava, something has happened, it has happened, Golde even went and asked the priest. Chava has indeed gone done it, run away married outside of her faith.
The action moves swiftly on. Louise Gold gets another moment in the spotlight, bringing Golde an idea of two young boys who could be betrothed to the two remaining younger daughters. Golde isn’t sure because they are so young, but Yente explains how it will save a lot of trouble “no looking around”. However the trouble in the town gets worse, as the Constable tells Tevye and the others they have to leave, it is a pogrom. The final scenes are of all the Jews packing , and saying farewell to each other. Yente comes bursting in to tell Golde she’s decided to go to the Holy Land. Once again Louise Gold makes the most of her moment in the spotlight, and delivers her lines as brilliantly as ever. Where as in the Dartford Production, the song itself Annatevka was staged with characters departing at intervals, here they sing the song, and then have an extended scene of people, hoods pulled down so you can’t see who is who departing diagonally across the stage, a lot of them, was it just the whole company once? or did some go across more than once? We cannot tell but it depicts them very effectively as faceless refugees, when in fact we have just before seen their faces in the song. So the show ends on a sombre note, that should serve to remind us of people being driven from the land they call home by ethnic cleansing.
After the final scene, the company then return to the stage to take their bows.
I often avoid The Menier Chocolate Factory, unless it’s a show I really want to see, because of it’s seating. As it happens on this occasion my seat was fine, but I did notice some audience members in another row seemed to be having problems with the seating being too cramped.
I noticed that the Menier did not use a dialect coach for this production. I felt that some actors, noticeably Andy Nyman and Adam Margilewski might have benefited if there had been a dialect coach on the job. Whereas, others such as Judy Kuhn and Louise Gold for example can be trusted to find appropriate voices for their characters without any help from a dialect coach. (OK, so Louise Gold has been known to do characters with voices that are a little unconventional but they do always fit the character – her performance as Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a case in point).
The retention for two numbers of the original very impressive Jerome Robbins choreography was a lovely touch. It reminded me very much of another fairly recent musical revival which did that, namely The Chichester Festival Theatre ‘s production of Gypsy, where You Gotta Get A Gimmick was performed so brilliantly with it’s Jerome Robbins Choreography retained.
Interestingly I noticed tonight that Louise Gold put her clever powerful hands to very effective use, using them for emphasis when speaking. It’s an interesting trick, often considered a Jewish thing. and something which while I knew she sometimes does on the stage I’ve never seen her do quite so much of it in a show. As one might expect with Fiddler On The Roof, judging by their surnames, and other information, quite a number of the actors probably do have some Jewish ancestry and probably Eastern European Jewish ancestry at that. Many of them may themselves be descended from people who perhaps once had to leave a town like the one in this story and setting in “a strange new land”, which just goes to show that while the treatment of those who are racially different is wrong. Immigration can greatly enrich the culture of the new land in which the immigrants settle. .