There’s a paradox at the heart of Fiddler on the Roof. While the show keeps coming back to this idea that progress is inevitable and tradition will always erode, the show itself is restricted in what it can do at the insistence of its authors and their estates.
That irony is particularly apparent in Trevor Nunn’s production, which is faithful to the original in the extreme. Jerome Robbins’ choreography is, space permitting, almost completely intact and the set a detailed representation of a ramshackle shtetl. Fifty four years after its premiere, it is now a show that’s at odds with its own story.
So in a way there’s not a huge amount Nunn can do with Fiddler except do it very well. And that’s what he does. The cast is incredibly tight, the movement slick. He also leans into the idea of Fiddler as museum piece, of the show itself as a slice of history just as much as the pogroms and evictions of Tsarist Russia that it depicts. By embracing the ossification, the production shows us precisely how far we have and haven’t progressed.
Nunn is a master of musicals, and one who knows the Menier space well. He builds a bustling village from nothing, whips up whirlwinds of motion and noise in split seconds, and makes the Menier’s dungeon-theatre look vast and liveable in, almost, with huts of wood and a yard of compacted dust.
Robert Jones’ design even has a forest fading into the distance at one edge of the stage. It’s at the other end of the spectrum from recent Fiddlers which have stripped the stage to the minimum, and erased the Chagall palette.
Andy Nyman’s Tevye is sanguine and resigned and looks very tired. His rendition of If I Were a Rich Man leaps up from a quiet mumble to himself – complaining about his lot, his aches and pains, turning the daidle-deedles into little involuntary expressions of pain – to a big and belting flight of fancy. He might not be the kind of singer who hits every note perfectly – not that the role requires it, really – but when he has a big note, he shows just what he can do.
It’s great to see Judy Kuhn on a London stage as Tevye’s wife Golde. She and Nyman get their rapport just right, which makes for a really sweet version of Do You Love Me. Kuhn’s face is full of confusion and agonising as this brand new concept of ‘love’ creeps into her marriage to Tevye.
But it’s Nyman is without a doubt the best thing about this tight, trad revival. There’s absolutely nothing showy about his Tevye. He doesn’t over-egg the comedy, but instead recognises – as the whole production does – that this is a serious and sincere piece at heart. Despite the cosy songs and one-liners, this is bitter history. Between them, Nunn and Nyman make that painfully and poignantly clear.