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Fiddler On The Roof

Chichester Festival Theatre's big summer production starring Omid Djalili

Chichester Festival Theatre’s big summer production opened this week, proceeded by a surprise serenade from the top of the cafe…

Yes, it’s Fiddler on the Roof, the musical most famous for its 1971 film incarnation, here starring comedian Omid Djalili, who  proved his stage credentials as Fagin in Oliver at London’s Theatre Royal.

Fiddler concerns a family in a shtetl – a small town in Russia at a time when Jewish communities were forced into enclaves from where they could be moved on at any time, or killed in violent pogroms.

Photo by Johan Persson

The musical is drawn from the turn of the century tales written by Sholem Aleichem about a real-life milkman Tevye who he encountered in such a shtetl and who used to humorously rail at God for his poor lot. The Tevye of the musical has five daughters to marry off with the help of the local matchmaker who believes any husband is better than no husband. As the story progresses three of his daughters confound him by making their own romantic choices which cross both the poverty line and strong cultural boundaries.

Photo by Johan Persson

Djalili is excellent, carrying much of the action on his shoulders. His stand-up experience is put to good use as he comfortably performs frequent monologues and asides directed to God or the audience. Though the story has serious undertones much of it is humorous and the power struggle banter between Tevye and wife Golde, played by Tracey-Ann Oberman of New Tricks and Eastenders fame, is particularly enjoyable.

Photo by Johan Persson

It’s not a musical you’d perhaps expect to contain special effects but there is a startling dream sequence at the end of act one and a beautifully effective use of real life photographs in the closing scene that had me shedding a tear. A revolving stage also adds movement at several points – just one part of Alistair David’s excellent choreography.

What I admired most was the great sense of depth and of community created in the production. This is achieved by a large cast of over 30 people that ensures the stage is often bustling, and by authentic touches like real food and candlelight. It is an important aspect as the theme of the tale is the loosening grip that Teyve and his fellow Jews have on tradition, home and family.

Photo by Johan Persson

Unlike some other musicals,  Fiddler on the Roof has few big catchy numbers. The famous If I were a Rich Man is a highlight, of course, the humour well drawn out in this production by Omid’s satirical mannerisms, but a lot of the time the cast has rather limper sung dialogue to elevate with fine voices –  Rose Shalloo who plays bookish daughter Chava is particularly noteable.

The orchestra above the stage and musicians at times on stage do however create a great atmosphere in many scenes, not least the wedding celebration, and I found the more incidental Jewish music most affecting, making me wistful for the brief time I myself played the clarinet.  The dancing also impressed, including some high kicking cossack-style turns.

Photo by Johan Persson

All in all, a warm, bittersweet production that fills the stage with the sense of a vibrant community under threat.

Fiddler on the Roof is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 2 Sept, tickets are from £10.


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