Once again the Menier proves itself to be the most versatile of spaces. When you descend the steps to the auditorium you never know whether you’ll be walking left, right or straight on; seated in front of a traditional stage or in the round or in traverse; with acting areas just in front of you or all around you. If you’re a regular attendee at the Menier there’s a particular thrill you get when you enter the auditorium just to see how they’ve jiggled it all around this time.
For this lively production of Candide, the Scottish Opera version of 1988 (the programme gives you a good history of the various different stages this show has endured over the ages), our arrival is greeted with garlands and pendants surrounding a central square area to suggest an eighteenth century fête. The seats are partly recovered with colourful glittery material (not overly comfortable to be honest!) and the whole place has the feeling of middle Europe celebration. We are in Westphalia, which I always thought was as imaginary as Ruritania, but is apparently an area of north-west Germany. But not for long, as jolly musical number after jolly musical number takes us on a tour of Europe, then (after the interval) South America, stopping by at Surinam before our finale in Venice.
Candide is, of course, probably the best known work of Voltaire, and a copy of it has sat on my bookshelf since 1979, when I bought it because I thought it was something “I Ought To Read”. I regret that, to this date, it retains the same status. It’s a kind of semi-picaresque story where our eponymous hero follows his fortune all around the world, he and his circle getting into the most ridiculous scrapes that would prove fatal for the rest of us, but he (and they) nevertheless bounce back time after time again, smelling of roses and playing the national anthem on a penny whistle (figuratively speaking). Voltaire’s main task is to satirise the “this is the best of all possible worlds” philosophy of the tutor Pangloss, of whom and of which Candide is a devotee, and to highlight the resilience of human nature as literally nothing seems to damage the indomitable spirit (and indeed unbreakable bodies) of Candide and his pals. In that respect, the show is very faithful to the book, (as far as I can make out without having read it) with its pacey progress through a whirlwind of globetrotting adventure. I think its pace is vital to the success of the show; if it were to get ponderous you’d start thinking too deeply about its nonsensical coincidences and Lazarus-like risings from the dead, and that would probably spoil it. With Cunégonde, Maximilian and Parquette constantly re-appearing, Mrs Chrisparkle was reminded of Nicholas Nickleby’s happy-ending Romeo and Juliet, where everyone bounded back to life at the end because they didn’t take the poison or the sword wound was just a scratch. Except for poor Tybalt, of course.
I mentioned the jolly songs; to be fair, not all the songs are jolly. For every two or three jolly songs, I’d say, you get a sincere and meaningful ballad sung by Candide. I don’t mean to pick a fight with Leonard Bernstein over his score. It starts off very promisingly with the well-known overture that most orchestras like to include in their more upbeat classical concerts; it goes on to include a few witty patter songs, and some wonderful juxtaposition of comedy with tragedy, as in the blissful “Auto da fe” where members of society have a great time watching the Spanish Inquisition at work; and it also has some stand-out individual moments, such as Cunégonde’s Glitter and Be Gay (like an eighteenth century version of Madonna’s Material Girl) and the Old Lady’s “I am easily assimilated”. You can also see the expert hand of Adam Cooper at work with the choreography in some of the bigger numbers, enabling grand dance gestures to develop in the small space available to fantastic effect. However, I did find that whenever the character of Candide felt the urge to sing something sincere about love or his lot in life, the songs got a bit, well, boring. Sorry. No one’s fault except Bernstein’s, or possibly whichever of the wide choice of lyricists credited to this show might be responsible for the words in those particular songs.
The only other slight quibble I have with this production is the decision to have some of the action take place on what is effectively a narrow balcony that goes all the way around the back of the auditorium behind the back row of seats, means that no seat actually has an unobstructed view of all the action. We sat in row A, as we always do, because I like to get as close as possible to the action, but it meant that several times we had to turn around to see what was going on behind us, or, when that got a bit uncomfortable, just go into “radio” mode for a few minutes and listen to, rather than watch, the show progress. For this production, the back row probably gives you the best view of all. Mind you, I’m not complaining about being close to the action. When the characters were introduced to us in the opening song, to illustrate how friendly the lovely Paquette could be with gentlemen, she decided to perch upon my lap and give me a smile and a cuddle. That was nice. I gave her a smile and a squeeze back, and gently inclined my head towards her ample bosom. It was only later on I discovered that Paquette was riddled with syphilis. Thanks a lot Paquette, how am I going to explain that to Mrs C? Actually there were a number of very amusing moments when certain members of the audience were given little tasks. One gentleman became the King of the Bulgars; the lady on the other side of the aisle from me ended up holding the gondolier’s paddle, which was bigger than both of them. Such little tricks all help to keep you involved in the show.
As always at the Menier, it’s a company jam-packed with talent and style. Fra Fee (with possibly the shortest name in showbusiness) is perfect in the role of Candide, all wide-eyed innocence and open-hearted good nature. He’s like an Everyman figure into whom the rest of the world collides as he makes his merry way through life; and even if I did find some of his songs a little boring, he has a fine singing voice with perfect clarity and expression. The love of his life, Cunégonde, is played by Scarlett Strallen, fresh from her amazing performance as Cassie in A Chorus Line, and her singing and stage presence are just stunning. She stops the show with her fantastic coloratura in Glitter and Be Gay and conveys both the comedy and the tragedy of the role beautifully.
I was really impressed with the performance of James Dreyfus as Pangloss (and Cacambo, and Martin) – he too has a great voice, a fantastic command of the stage and a natural feel for comedy. The other really superb performance comes from Jackie Clune (great as Billy Elliot’s mum a few years back) as the Old Lady – much fun to be made by the fact she has no other name – who sings fantastically and gives us very funny physical comedy with coping with just one buttock (you’ll have to see the show for more information). If you’re in the front row you might have a very amusing conversation with her just after the interval as she wanders on and starts moaning about the fact that she’s not playing Cunégonde; “what’s the fuss? It’s only a D sharp”. The rest of the cast give tremendous support, with Cassidy Janson a beautiful and mischievous Paquette, David Thaxton a delightfully pompous Maximilian, and Michael Cahill and Ben Lewis taking on eight roles between them, each with their own strong identity and great comic timing.
A perfect choice for a festive season show, full of feel-good factor and a great sense of fun. Fantastic costumes, a great band and some superb performances. Definitely not to be missed!