THEATRE / Long day's journey into night: Paul Taylor reviews Fiddler on the Roof at the Palladium

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Mother Courage's wagon may be clocking up a fairly phenomenal mileage as it trundles round the world's stages, but it can't have covered anything like the distance of Tevye's milk cart in Fiddler on the Roof. When, in the latest revival of this musical at the Palladium, Tevye fixes God with that comically accusing stare and tells Him he's sick and tired of pulling the cart around, you wan't to say, 'Oh, come off it', for the star is once again Topol and, let's face it, tugging that thing after him on a stage - or on a soundstage - is not so much a chore he's grown weary of as a habit he can't kick.

It's 27 years since he created the part of the philosophical milkman in the first London production, and in the meantime he has repeated the role in Norman Jewison's movie version and in many revivals all over the globe. Though - or perhaps because - there was a period in my childhood when it seemed impossible to switch on a radio without unleashing Topol's version of 'If I Were a Rich Man', I've never seen the show before in any of its incarnations, and I must confess I didn't arrive at the Palladium expecting to have a good time.

There were many sound reasons for succumbing, though, Topol's performance high among them. Set in a Jewish village in Tzarist Russia and ending with its enforced dispersal by Cossacks, the musical dramatises the conflict between the old ways and the new. This is epitomised in Tevye, the milkman with five daughters, who is torn between wanting to cling to the close traditions that have ensured Jewish survival and consenting to his daughters' wish to choose husbands for themselves.

Whether showing the tragic or the clownish consequences of this tussle, Topol, with his endearing bear-like quality and reverberating bass, gives the role the sort of larger-than-life, but all-too-human aspect of a Falstaff. In his shrugging, wry, parodically intimate addresses to God, he seems to be saying, 'Hey, I thought you and me had a deal. But if this is what it means to be chosen, do you think you could choose someone else?' What's likeable about the character as Topol creates him is his comic transparency. Offered the hand of a Gentile, he doesn't refuse it exactly, but gives just the fingertips a squeamish shake. Posing as the patriarch, he'll get cold feet and perform the thing he's insisted on with such nervous, lightning speed that it amounts to a hen-pecked capitulation.

Patchily cast and sung, the production features some exhilarating large canvas sequences, as in the tavern scene when a stamping, shoulder-waggling Jewish chain- dance is rumbustiously invaded by a tremendous line-up of low- beamed, assertively kicking Cossacks, or in the diaspora at the end, when luggage-laden emigrants trudge in a large ring against the revolve and formally bow to one another before exiting.

True, the show is schmaltzy and has most of the simplifications which are built in to the genre. But there are moments which have all the advantages of the broad emotional brush stroke at the same time as being able to do subtle justice to the theme. Topol's eventual, fragmentary and very indirect acknowledgement of the daughter he disowned for marrying a Gentile is, in the painful pull it demonstrates between conflicting instincts, a good example of how Fiddler manages to be unashamedly sentimental without being shamelessly so.

'Fiddler' continues at the Palladium. Booking: 071-437 7373

(Photograph omitted)