London has not seen Fiddler on the Roof in many years, and this revival by Lindsay Posner starring Henry Goodman as Tevye, the impoverished dairyman in the Russian shtetl, or small town, of Anatevka in 1905, arrives from the Sheffield Crucible as a mixed blessing.

It confirms the 1964 musical’s staying power as a lament for Russian Jewish life before the pogroms in the plangent, rhythmic and insinuating score of Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics). But the set by Peter McKintosh – the shtetl is crazily nailed together with more boring wooden planks than in ten timber yards – and the stranglehold of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography (which comes as part of the licence) obviate any sense of a “new look”.

Admittedly, the Robbins choreography is worth seeing. The company snakes on, liltingly, hands raised and joined, knees flexed, in the rousing opener, “Tradition”. And certain numbers, such as the famous “bottle” dance at the wedding and the violently invasive Cossack dance that prefigures the later ransacking, could hardly be improved. But the tone of the production, relentless and reverential, is defined by the necessity to recreate an interpretation.

At least Henry Goodman avoids the ingratiating sentimentality of Topol, the first London Tevye, to such an extent that you could say his performance lacked charm altogether. He refuses to milk the songs the way he milks his cows, immersing himself rather in a rapt intensity that spills over into anger and subsides into his chopped logic monologues. But, boy, is he Jewish. He never stops kvetching, gesticulating, or shooting God a dirty look over his shoulder. He mutters prayers in Hebrew, pulls at his threads, bangs his head and removes the mezuzah from the door post before pulling his cart and family away to their new life.

Beverley Klein as his wife Golde (repeating her fishwife performance at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 14 years ago in Matthew Warchus’ brilliant, more adventurous, staging), is almost low key in comparison. In the central dream sequence, the couple are swept up in visions of a flying ghost and villagers rising from their tombs as a justifying prelude to the “Sunrise, Sunset” wedding feast of Tzeitel (Frances Thorburn) and her cut-price tailor (Gareth Kennerley), and their own marriage is touchingly renewed (“Do You Love Me?”) as a result.

Two other daughters – Alexandra Silber’s well sung Hodel is particularly impressive – exasperate Tevye by falling in love with “unsuitable” men, an educated radical and a Gentile. These developments are accepted by the matchmaker (Julie Legrand) and the rabbi (Vincent Pirillo) in dance sequences that express a secularisation of rigid orthodoxy, notably when the radical Perchik (Damian Humbley) removes the gender-dividing rope and dances with Hodel at the wedding.

Fiddler is less of a “show” than a serious musical. The first act is too long, the second too bleak. Yet it works magnificently, despite this hide-bound presentation with its lone fiddler miming to a pit musician, the limitations of the design, the unevenness of Peter Mumford’s lighting and the hideous sound system. In an evening full of shouting, the microphoned edge to the voices becomes severely irritating. Still, Goodman can take pride in his performance, and perhaps even enjoy it a little more.

- Michael Coveney

(As of Friday 1 June 2007, Sue Kelvin plays Golde for five weeks while Beverley Klein goes Into the Woods at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio.)

NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from December 2006 and this production’s original run at Sheffield Crucible.

Fiddler on the Roof is firmly in the great tradition of Yiddish literature, being based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem and the stage adaptation, Tevye the Milkman, a staple of Yiddish theatre in the inter-war years. It’s also a product of Broadway musical theatre in the 1960s. This contrast is the source of its unique strength, but also of potential problems.

Joseph Stein’s book (with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) is commendably honest, even brave. Setting the musical in 1905, the year in which Aleichem himself left Russia for New York, Stein dares to end with the Jewish villagers leaving, victims of a Czarist pogrom. However, this sits uneasily with some of the cosy stereotypes, the quaint customs presented with affectionate parody, in the entertaining, if overlong, first half.

The violent intervention of the Russian police in the wedding party finale crowns a first act where attention has been focussed on matchmaking, romance, celebration, bearable poverty and subversion of the tradition so boldly proclaimed by Tevye. The second half, in contrast, tackles much meatier subject matter briskly, occasionally perfunctorily, with fewer memorable songs.

This dislocation of tone is not really solved in Lindsay Posner’s production which contains too much over-emphatic gesture and too few rounded characters. It also places a huge load on Tevye himself; luckily, Henry Goodman rises to the challenge magnificently. Slipping into grandiloquent caricature, but always grounded in reality, undercutting his own bluster, confiding nonchalantly in God and audience alike, funny and moving in equal doses, he commands the stage.

Only Beverley Klein as his wife Golde inhabits the same plane of heightened reality and exhibits the same control of tone. For all that, a large and talented cast works energetically and produces some spectacular dance routines as well as setting Tevye up for the one-liners which Goodman delivers with panache and expert timing.

Sheffield Crucible’s Christmas musicals are always opulent and assured affairs and Fiddler on the Roof is no exception. Peter McKintosh sets the production against a medley of wooden roofs and beams (like Chagall minus the colour), leaving wide open spaces fore-stage for Kate Flatt’s choreography to cavort in. Dane Preece has an eight-piece band to put over Jerry Bock’s music, with Tamar Osborn’s clarinet and Zivorad Nikolic’s accordion doing full justice to the specifically Jewish elements.

Accomplished and enjoyable, with a towering performance at its centre, this is a production that doesn’t quite solve the conundrum at the heart of Fiddler on the Roof.

- Ron Simpson