Fiddler On The Roof

Lee Henry is left bemused but happy at the Island Arts Centre

These days, you’re more likely to struggle through a hollow Hollywood disaster flick on Christmas day than revel in the joys of a good musical. 

But for audience members of a certain age, Lisnagarvey Operatic Society’s production of Fiddler On The Roof recalls those moments of domestic bliss when, huddled by the fireside with tissues at the ready, families would congregate to laugh, cry and sing along to Norman Jewison’s cinematic version of the 1964 stage show.

Tonight, one of the best-loved musicals of all time is given new life at the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn. The curtain has barely drawn before the nostalgia hits home. There's a fiddler on the roof, and a cuddly old man with a beard and cap. I'm grinning like an imbecile, and I couldn't care less.

It’s summer 1905, and in Anatevka, the times they are a-changing. Young people are beginning to question the traditions of old. Yente the meddling matchmaker is going out of business. From the cities, enlightened voices spread anti-capitalist messages of the future. ‘Great things are about to happen.'

For our protagonist Tevye and his wife Golde, it’s a hard life but a contented one. Raising five daughters in accordance to his own, patchy knowledge of ‘the good book’ has taken it out of poor Tevye. All he and his wife want now is to marry off their elder daughters and live out their days in peace.

When Tzeitel, their eldest, refuses Yente's advice and chooses to marry the penniless tailor Motel over the affluent butcher Lazer Wolf, Tevye’s troubles increase. 

With news of anti-Jewish pogroms casting a cloud over the couple’s forthcoming wedding, the future for Anatevka looks bleak. Tevye’s dreams of becoming a rich man are fated to remain just that: the simple dreams of a simple man.

In his last production as chairman of the Lisnagarvey Operatic Society, actor Roy McIlwrath inhabits the role of Tevye, a character he was born to play. The man seems to be made entirely of tweed. With his greying beard and plebian garb, he grabs the audience's attention and never lets go.

The Island Arts Centre is a modern venue but intimate, making the influx of 50-odd actors onto the stage for opening song 'Tradition' something of a shock to the system.

There isn't much room for choreographer Gillian Jones to flex her muscles. There are misteps and nervous glances, but the cast get through one of the musical's best-known songs with chins cocked defiantly towards the rafters. It's a triumph.

As this is opening night, I don't think anyone bemoans the odd forgotten lyric or occasional loss of accent. Any slip-ups are balanced, however, by the effort put in by all involved. These guys and gals aren't pros, but they sure as hell have talent.

It's no surprise to read in the programme that Heather Campbell (tonight playing Golde) won 'Best Female Voice' four years running at the Northern Ireland Festival of Light Opera. Initally over-powered by McIlwrath, she comes alive during 'Sabbath Prayer' and brings the house down with 'Do You Love Me'.

Other individual highlights include the game Rea Campbell as the mouthy Mendel - a pro of the future if ever there was one - and Judith Hall as Hodel, the second of Tevye's daughters to marry. 'Far From The Home I Love' is a gift for any actress to sing and Hall does it justice and then some, her woodwind voice steady throughout.

This is an ambitious and heartfelt production from a modest company with big ideals and a lot of experience. Strange then that director Wilfie Pyper should commit such a glaring error of judgement with regards to the close of the musical. 

The Jewish population of Anatevka march into exile and disappear through a side door. The house lights go up. Musical director David Thompson and the twelve strong orchestra seem to know what’s coming. They’re jittery. After finishing their final piece to a resounding silence, they put their coats on. 

Failing to bring the actors back on stage after their characters have exited may have been a blessing, had the actors failed to enthral. But every one deserved the appreciation that the audience were so keen to show. 

It is as if by an act of existential transmigration the audience have become the characters themselves, refused the right to self-expression by some unseen Tsarist general. 

Our eyes wide with uncertainty, we begin our own march into the night, disappointed, disenfranchised, disowned. What a bummer. I hope this unfortunate error will be rectified for the benefit of future audiences. The cast and defenceless orchestra deserve better.

Fiddler On The Roof  plays at the Island Arts Arts Centre, Lisburn, until Saturday, April 12.