Tradition! What is it and what does it mean, they all ask in the opening song. ‘I don’t know,’ answered Tevye, the dairyman and star of this rather uplifting – in a downbeat way – production of Fiddler On The Roof writes Michael Holland.
In a small Russian village the Jewish community are trying to carry on in their old ways as best they can, even though word is on the wind about racial unrest in the towns. Part of their traditional life is asking someone in the sky for horses, husbands and riches, as well as bring bad luck to those they do not like. One scary villager is Yente, the traditional matchmaker, who pairs up old men with young girls for money, so when Tevye’s five daughters see her coming with her black book of names it spreads panic, because these were changing times and the girls did not want to stay stuck in a tradition that was going to leave them unhappily married.
A stranger appears in their midst, Perchik, who tells the men to stop calling down curses from above that don’t work but to do something practical – prepare for the pogrom he knows is coming. Perchik’s big city ideas has him quickly deemed a ‘Radical’. Tevye, however, allows him to tutor his daughters in exchange for food.
In time Yente pairs one daughter off with the old butcher but when the girl says she loves a poor young tailor Tevye sees how much happier they will be, so gives his blessing to the wedding. When another daughter falls in love with Perchik and follows him to Siberia, he is not so happy. When the next in line is enamoured with a gentile he is absolutely livid and forbids the union, but that didn’t go well. ‘Love is the new style,’ says the father as his traditions slowly get eaten away.
Fiddler On The Roof is about traditions and how they change with time and circumstance. Director Trevor Nunn draws every nuance of perceived Jewishness out of his cast with black humour used to get through the eternal hardships: ‘So happy they don’t know how miserable they are’. Song and dance appears to be how the village survives, even when the bully boys start their intimidation during wedding celebrations. But, over a century on from when the play was set, and 60 years since the play premiered, we laugh while knowing anti-semitism has been hard for Jews, and is again on the rise. Plus, arranged marriages is still a problem over many cultures. Nunn, however, ensures this is not one big happy wedding party so sends the audience home content, but with a lot to think about.
Andy Nyman is fantastic as Tevye; the whole cast are wonderful; the singing is a joy, the choreography is a miracle for what is performed in this small space. Yes, there is not much to smile about in the story, but there is much to be pleased with after seeing this great production.
Fiddler on the Roof is on at The Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, SE1 1RU until 9th March. Times: Tues – Sat 8pm; weekend matinees 3.30pm.
Admission: £45 – £57.50. Phone: 0207 378 1713.
Photos: Johan Persson