Fiddler On The roof – West End
Playhouse Theatre, London’s West End Tuesday 16 April 2019
Review by Emma Shane © April 2019
So I went to see the show, which has now transferred to the West End.
The show retains its fringe style opening with many of the cast milling around on the stage at the start, before the house lights dim and the opening number Tradition starts. This is just as good as it was at Menier. In a way even better in the bigger space, where one can focus more on the number as a whole, without getting distracted by cast members standing at the sides of the stage (when not involved in the number). But I liked it in the fringe too. It’s just different.
Number over, time for the first scene of the show, Yente the matchmaker visiting Golde. Tonight I almost immediately found this scene to be a little different to when I had seen it at the Menier. though having First Cover, Gaynor Mills on as Golde might have had something to do with that. I also noticed (which might have been the case before) that while she was talking Louise Gold used her expressive hands a lot, in that very typically Jewish way while speaking, It’s something I remember seeing her brother do when he played the role of a Jewish playwright in Dreyfus at The Tricycle Theatre Theatre nearly 20 years ago). What was especially noticeable about this scene tonight was the way right from the moment she came on stage, Louise Gold dominated the scene. I remember when I first started seeing Louise on stage and also television back in the 1990s, I couldn’t help noticing how she would often command a scene, regardless of whether or not her character was meant to do that. It was only when I saw her in Mamma Mia that I realised it was perfectly possible, as long as the lead actors could stand up to her stage presence and command the stage just as well as she can. In more recent times, when I have seen her on stage she seems to have mostly been teamed with actors who can at least cope with her presence. Yet I could tell immediately that will delivering a perfectly satisfactory and convincing performance as Golde, Gaynor Mills seemed to be getting rather overshadowed by Louise Gold’s Yente. Fortunately as far as the integrity of the plot is concerned this doesn’t actually matter. I actually found it rather interesting and perhaps a bit amusing, to see Louise Gold so true to form managing, perhaps almost unintentionally to steal a scene from another performer. After all Louise was not doing anything in the least naughty with her part, she just had her glorious stage presence turned well on, and that is perfectly natural for her. I rather liked that.
Moving on to the girls: Tzeital, Hodel and Chava singing Matchmaker Matchmaker we find that although it is two of the same performers: Molly Osbourne, and Harriet Bunton, only with Kirsty Maclaren replaced by Nicola Brown, we find that Molly Osbourne has does a slightly different interpretation of the song to the one she did at Menier. Whereas before she did the matchmaker part in it in what might be the style she would do it in if when she is older she ever plays the matchmaker, tonight instead she plays it very much as a young girl making fun of the general character of the matchmaker. This works perfectly well, and is again a complete contrast to the version I saw in Dartford many years ago, when the girl playing Tzeitel did it as very much an imitation of Myra Sands’s performance of Yente. Somehow in this production I think Molly Osbourne is wise to avoid that route (as with Louise Gold playing Yente it probably wouldn’t work – Louise Gold is a bit too unique for that sort of thing).
We come to Andy Nyman singing one of the great classics, If I Were A Rich Man, just as good a performance as at Menier. Very commanding, though his diction did not seem to clear in some places. I wonder if he might be one of those performers who has poor diction when they are tired, or if it is just his interpretation of the song. Actually, apart from the first verse, it seemed a little better than when I had seen him do it at the Menier.
We move on to Tevye inviting Perchik to join them for the Sabbath, and Motel also turns up for the sabbath, and so Andy Nyman and Gaynor Mills lead the Sabbath Prayer, this was entirely satisfactory. It is noticeable that the production has transferred with many of the same or at least similar fringe-style make shift props. the boxes and boards that can do duty as tables, beds benches etc depending on the scene.
Moving on we get the scene between Tevye and Lazor Wolf at the Inn, when Tevye thinks they are talking about his new milk cow rather than his daughter Tzeitel. I did not find Dermot Cannaway’s Lazor Wolf to be at all likeable, but then the character is not meant to be liked, so that works perfectly well. This leads into the rousing To Life, which the male company perform very well, including the ones playing Russian Soldiers, who manage to make the most of their bit of the number and make it very noticeable.
On to Tevye’s monologue wondering whether to allow Tzeitel and Motel to marry. Andy Nyman does just as good a job as he did at the Menier. This leads swiftly on to Joshua Gaynon performing Miracle Of Miracles. Somehow this seems to be even better than when he did it at Menier. Or maybe I just noticed it more (because I wasn’t distracted by any distracting audience members).
We come to one of the most mysterious parts of the show, Tevye’s dream. This is done in a very similar way to how it was done at the Menier. With various probably younger members of the company dressed as the spirits on stage, and two off-stage singers. I assume it was Ellie Mullane as Fruma Sarah this time (as Gaynor Mills was busy playing Golde). Meanwhile Grandma Tzietel is uncredited and I don’t know who plays her on stage, but her off-stage voice is immediately recognisable as Louise Gold puts her powerful pipes to such good use. It’s always a thrill to hear Louise Gold use her big glorious voice like that. She is an extraordinary performer (what with her stage presence and her strong clever hands) but perhaps the thing I like best about her is that marvellous voice, and it makes this scene something special.
On to the Wedding Scene. First up we have the little interlude (which must surely be an audience calm down and concentrate mechanism) of Adam Margilewski’s Bagel Seller. As with his performance at the Menier, while it is not bad, I still feel that his dialect is not quite right for the character. Why does he keep pronouncing them “Baay-gels” when they are “B-ei-gels”. I know that Fiddler On the Roof is an American musical, but I still think that word should be pronounced properly, as it is set in a Jewish community. However it is a very minor detail. The company enter for the wedding. At which point, I think Louise Gold, for once, turned her stage presence down, and slunk on stage rather more subtly and initially stood quite calmly during Sunrise Sunset, that I wasn’t totally sure where she was, although figured out she was probably standing near the back of the stage during the ceremony. She is so tall one can sometimes tell by her height. It was only when the scene changed from the ceremony to celebration I could tell clearly, as soon as she walked across to put a lamp she had been holding into its position, then went to fetch the dividing rope and put that on it’s hook (just like she had done at Menier) and finally take up her position at the back of Tzietel’s chair for the moment when the bride and groom are each carried aloft on their chairs. Louise clearly putting her height and strength to good use holding the back of Tzeitel’s chair. After this she takes up a position down stage, on the women’s side of the rope, as though keeping a watchful eye on the younger girls, as with more space than at Menier, things are more spred out, so Golde, Tzeitel and Motel’s mother have seats at a table towards the back of the stage. During the arguments with the Butcher, I couldn’t help noticing Yente’s loud voiced contribution talking about her grandfather “Moredechhi” Interesting Jewish name that one.
A group of four of the male company performer The Bottle Dance, with it’s impressive reproduced original choreography. Here too I noticed something very interesting about Louise Gold’s performance. She is following the action with her eyes and head and occasionally even her hands. It fits the character, but it’s also very her, and seems terribly familiar, after a moment or two I realised it reminded me very much of Annie Sue Pig in the Marisa Barensen episode of The Muppet Show, during the “Silly Wedding Sketch” in that Annie Sue spends a lot of time following the action with her eyes just like that. So this is a remarkable piece of back-translation on Louise Gold’s part, from her left hand to her own eyes. And I’m sure I’ve seen her do that once before as an actress, now when on earth was that! Then of course we have the scandalous episode of Perchik dancing with Hodel, backed up by Tevye dancing with Golde. At which Yente rather dramatically announces she’s going home and storms off. I don’t remember her doing that do dramatically at Menier. But maybe I wasn’t paying as much attention during this rather long first act.
The violent disruption to the end of the Wedding from the Russian soldiers seemed to go faster than I remember it. It was all over quite quickly. and the act came to an end.
The second Act opens, as before, with Tevye alone on the stage, explaining that Tzeitel and Motel have now been married two months, and work hard but are poor. The action swiftly moves to Hodel and Perchick’s interest in each other. Harriet Brunton and Stewert Clarke do just as good a job with this as they did at Menier. In fact I thought their performance of Now I Have Everything may even be better than it was, or at least just as good. Then there is Tevye’s Rebutall of their choosing for themselves. But he does give them his blessing. He then asks Golde Do You Love Me. This number was while entirely satisfactory perhaps not quite as impressive as at Menier. But it was certainly not at all bad. Andy Nyman and Gaynor Mills sang and acted it with reasonable conviction. It was perfectly acceptable. It was also rather eclipsed by the ensemble number which followed it. The Rumour. This a very strange number. Yente who’s number it is supposed to be starts it off at the beginning, and finishes it at the very end, yes she has the last word, but for the rest of the number she is off stage to make her entrance at the end from a different point on the stage. Nevertheless Louise Gold and the company all perform this Chinese whispers of a number well. But the thing I noticed most about it was Louise clambering onto the water pump to sing the final line, and another company member giving her a hand down afterwards. This leads quickly to Hodel’s Far From The Home I Love. Which Harriet Bunton does just as well as she did at Menier.
A swift change of scene, has various members of the company talking about “a new arrival at Motel and Tzietel”’s this turns out not to be the new baby, which they also have, but A Sewing Machine. Not only do all the Jewish people of the village come to see it, but Fyedke also comes, to collect a shirt he ordered. He wants Chava to take their relationship further. She tries to talk to Tevye and is told very firmly no. She is not marrying outside of her religion.
Tevye in his fury still insists on seeing the sewing machine before going home to dinner.
A scene change or two, and Tevye with his cart, wondering why his horse’s leg is still bad.
And then Gaynor Mills makes her most surprising entrance, calling for Teye, and rushing on stage, to tell him that Chava has left home this morning and she’s been looking all over town for her, she even went to the priest, who told her that Chava and Fyedke were married this morning. Tevye decides that Chava is now dead to him, as that goes against everything in believes in. He sings Chavaleh (Little Bird).
Back at the house, Yente calls on Golde, with a suggestion of two boys for the younger girls. Golde protests the younger girls are still so young. Yente suggests they can become engaged now then there will be “no looking around”. How Louise Gold makes the most of her lines. She’s a skilled actress and makes the most of her scenes. Her stage presence making her quite dominating.
Outside in the street, the other men ask Tevye if he has heard whether the rumours of an impending Program are true, at which point the Constable enters, looking for Tevye, precisely to inform him there is to be a progrom he has orders that all the Jews must leave in three days. This leads into the final song Annatevka. Then everyone goes to start packing.
The scene changes to packing, The younger girls go to help Tzietel with her packing. Yente comes, to say goodbye to Golde. How magnificently does Louise Gold dominate this scene. It’s very much her own, talking almost non-stop Yente explains how her husband came to her in a dream and told her where to go. Gaynor Mill’s Golde can hardly get a word in edgeways as she guess’s “You’re going to the holy land”. With her magnificent final scene concluded she departs. There are a few more loose ends to by tidied up. The younger girls are told they are going to stay with Uncle Abraham in America (Golde’s brother). Tzeitel explains that she and Motel are going to Warsaw in Poland but hope to save up enough money to come to America soon. a diversion is caused by Chava and Fydke entering. Tevye does not want to speak to them. But can’t help but here, they are going to Krakow, as they do not want to live in a place that treats other people like this. Finally with packing finished, Tevye, Golde and the two younger girls set off for the station. The show then concludes, just like it did at Menier, with a whole stream of characters departing with their baggage across the stage, a group of migrants or indeed refugees on the move to somewhere, who knows where. A moving finale.
On the whole this was very much like at Menier. A generally good performance, of a powerful show. I think it probably means the most to those of us who have Eastern European Jewish ancestry.
All the company were collectively pretty good. Of particular note Joshua Gannon seems to have grown into his role of Motel. While Stewart Clarke was a good as previously. Matthew Hawksley and Nicola Brown are just as good as their Menier counterparts. While Molly Osbourne and Harriet Brunton were just as good as previously, Harriet too seems to have grown into her role and is more effective.
Andy Nyman was just as good as Tevye, if anything the bigger stage may have even improved his performance giving him more scope.
Gaynor Mills delivered an interesting steady performance as Golde. She did jolly well, was completely convincing. My only criticism is she was a bit lacking in stage presence. As a result she got a bit overshadowed in three scenes by another performer, namely Louise Gold. But she’s in good company. After all if Ross Kemp could be overshadowed in an episode of East Enders by the villainous Duggie Briggs (played by Max Gold) , and if Anthony Booth could be acted off the screen in the first scene of an episode of Daziel and Pascoe by (the Unity Theatre veteran) Una Brandon-Jones, amongst many others, well is it really a problem? I don’t think so. As an actress Gaynor Mills is clearly a steady sensible performer, the sort who will play a part reasonably well, Not extraordinary brilliant, but she can be trusted not to wreck it. In a way she is very much like Myra Sands and Louise Davidson, in other words just the sort of person you need in the ensembles of big West End shows, to do duty as an understudy, someone who can get the job done to a reasonable standard.
As for Yente, well while I found Louise Gold’s performance good before at Menier. She’s always good. I think in a way doing it in a bigger space made it even better, you notice just what a shining performer she is even more. She has an amazing stage presence. Very much like that of Alfie Bass’s fellow Unity Theatre veteran Una Brandon-Jones. In fact it has been said that Louise is basically a more high powered version of Una Brandon-Jones, and that was very much in evidence tonight. Actually it was just Louise Gold playing a role in the way that comes most naturally and effectively to her as an actress. Of course she is only playing a supporting role. But boy does she make the most of it. I used to think you just couldn’t put her in a supporting role effectively, unless you wanted the balance of power between the characters to be very unbalanced. Her Lost Musicals performance of Diana Deveraux to Nicola Fuljames’s Mary Turner in Of Thee I Sing was a case in point. Over the years I learnt that it is perfectly possible to put Louise Gold in a support role, but if you don’t want her to steal the scene you have to have some pretty powerful leading performers to stand up to her distinctive acting style. People such as: Henry Goodman (in Of Thee I Sing), and the late lamented Louise Plowright (in Mamma Mia) were both splendid in that respect, as was Scarlet Strallen in Mary Poppins. Sometimes the nature of a particular show will also solve those sort of problems, whether it is musicals constructed around stars are constructed in such a way that one principal rarely interacts with another, Or musicals where it actually doesn’t matter which of several major characters are regarded as the leading characters, for example in Oklahoma!. Here in Fiddler while Tevye is clearly the Leading Man, it’s not necessarily entirely clear from the plot whole else come the principals come next in the hierarchy. Traditionally Golde, but with the three girls (Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava) also being very strong characters it is not necessarily clear cut. Throw into this mix Louise Gold being a very magnificent Yente and can you really say in the context of this show which of the five major female characters in it should dominate? Who knows.