Theatre Review: Candide - Menier Chocolate Factory ✭✭✭✭

Photo by Nobby Clark
Review by Sebastian Petit  

3rd December 2013: Poor “Candide” is, I fear, always destined to be the poor cousin to “West Side Story”. Compared with the faultless clockwork of the latter “Candide” is based on a sprawling, satirical novel which deliberately eschews any narrative thread or logic. Characters die horrible deaths yet smilingly reappear a few pages later, the hero’s journeying defies any geographical sense and, worst, the show’s accumulated revisions and additions are so numerous that, if performed complete, would probably rival “Parsifal” in length (if not in musical genius). Any director coming to the work is faced with a choice of either trying to impose a disciplined narrative thread on the work (don’t bother: it’s impossible) or just cheerfully going with the flow and asking the audience to accept twists and turns and constant character demise and resurrection. Judging from some of the whispers around me this was a step too far for some.
Director Matthew White, already with a strong Menier pedigree, wisely decided on the cheerful acceptance route and framed the action within a strolling theatre company setting. It’s a bit of a hoary old device but, in this case, works well. I was less happy with the in the round audience configuration. This imposition, intended to be involving and embracing, only works if all the audience are prepared to make the investment in full concentration. Unfortunately this was clearly asking far too much of many of the punters opposite me - Never have I been so painfully aware of so much fidgeting and shifting about. I’d particularly like to thank the gentleman in the front row who yawned hugely, without any attempt at concealment, at the start of the sublime “Make our garden grow” finale.

Scarlett Strallen (Cunegonde)
Photo by Nobby Clark
The Menier had assembled a strong, mainly unstarry, cast who made up a genuine ensemble, playing everything from monks to ship figureheads. The two big names are James Dreyfus as the eternally optimistic, blinkered Pangloss and also playing his polar opposite, Martin and, for good measure, Cacambo. Dreyfus doesn’t quite have the verbal snap, crackle and pop of the best interpreters but the loss of “Dear boy”, one of the wittiest lyrics in the show, was a cruel cut and deprived his character of a chance to shine in act 1. Scarlett Strallen, on the other hand, brought the house down with “Glitter and be gay”. In her hands what can be either an empty showpiece (see various opera stars’ renditions) or a duck-for-cover vocal trial by high note was a perfectly integrated, utterly dazzling triumph. The high point of the evening for me. Strallen also managed to keep the audience onside throughout the show, even when behaving appallingly. In many ways her Cunegonde is as much an innocent as Candide which makes the final resolution more believable than usual.

Candide, as a character, is so infernally cheerful and naïve that, in the wrong hands, one’s storng impulse is to slap some sense into him. Fra Fee, more than any Candide of my experience, made the character sympathetic and even believable. As a result his moment of truth “Nothing more than this” was convincing and moving and his final acceptance of Cunegonde as a person as opposed to an ideal brought the evening to a satisfying conclusion.

I was less taken with Jackie Clune’s Old Lady partly, I think, because she looked nothing of the kind. She performed all the numbers with panache but the character remained elusive. Also David Thaxton, a superlative Giorgio in the Donmar’s “Passion”, was wasted as Maximilian however much fun he might have been having. In a very hardworking ensemble I would have to mention Cassidy Janson’s cheerfully sluttish Paquette and Ben Lewis vocally splendid and slyly hilarious as a succession of Candide’s nemeses.

Not a perfect evening by any means, but that may well not be possible with this work.

4 stars ✭✭✭✭

Candide runs at Menier Chocolate Factory until February 22nd 2014