Fiddler on the Roof

Book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Empire Theatre, Sunderland: on tour
(2003)

After I first reviewed Fiddler on the Roof quite a number of years ago, I was accused by one reader of being anti-Semitic, because I was "denigrating the Jewish experience". This was not true: I simply found the show dull. Subsequent productions I have seen have served to confirm that impression - until this evening.

And yet I felt this particular production had another strike against it: I could not see Paul Nicholas as Tevye at all. Exactly the wrong person to play the part, I thought.

I now fully admit that I have been wrong for all those years: it wasn't the show that was at fault, but the various productions which simply didn't do it justice.

There were things I didn't like in this production: when, oh when will directors abandon that overused device of having figures (usually female for some reason) rushing across the stage in semi-silhouette, meeting, conversing with exaggerated gestures (both hands in the air, brought down quickly to emphasise a point), then rushing off again, as a link between scenes? And snapping from one lighting state to another, which is totally diffierent, between verse and chorus of solo songs is a big no-no! It simply distracts the attention from the song: it certainly doesn't add to it. And surely the use of follow-spots (especially as insensitively handled as they were at times this evening) should not be necessary with all the resources lighting designers have nowadays?

But the show itself...

I found it moving. I was involved. The characters meant something to me, as they never have before. And the reason for this is that they were played as human beings first and Jews second. Focus on the Jewishness and you have a political tract, a bit of agit-prop: emphasise the characters' individuality and you have a human tragedy.

Paul Nicholas set the tone here. His Tevye is not heavy, not serious, not self-consciously representing a people, but an individual with a twinkle in his eye and a deep concern for the happiness of his family, which made his rejection of Chava - and the agony it obviously caused him - the more telling, and showed the depths of his convictions and his sense of identity. His "on the other hand... there is no other hand", although delivered without emphasis, was almost unbearably painful.

The songs, I still feel, are not particularly strong individually and, apart from "Matchmaker", "Sunrise, Sunset" and - of course! - "If I Were a Rich Man", are not really melodic, so that, when treated as set-pieces, they fail to make a real impact. However, when, as here, they are used in a kind of Sondheim-like way, as support to the spoken word, they suddenly become meaningful and, indeed, powerful.

I may well have been unlucky in the productions I have seen in the past, so I am very pleased that I decided to overcome my aversion to the show and see it this evening. It was a revelation - and now I really do feel the Jewish experience and don't just have an intellectual understanding of it.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan