You would have to be a very miserly grouch indeed not to be enchanted by Candide. This is a raucous, bawdy, energetic, but most importantly fun production: an intelligent and witty critique of the institutions that kept working people firmly in their place in the eighteenth century, and continue to do so to this day.
Matthew White’s unsentimentally edited (yet still fully comprehensive at two and a half hours) production delights in being as irreverent and, well, wacky as it can possibly get away with: characters pronounced dead in one country crop up in another, and monks in South America reappear as prostitutes in Venice. “It’s a long story”, we are continually told by means of explanation. The plot is deliriously nonsensical, but roughly our young hero Candide is cast out of Westphalia (an area of Germany, yes, but also in a political play, sounding conveniently like ‘[the]West’s failure’…), encountering battles, natural disasters and foreign lands, before being reunited with his love Cunegonde, whom he thought dead. Candide and Cunegonde may be down but not out, and these experiences wise them up to the realities of life.
What is delightful is how Candide revels in unpicking the scab of institutionalised hypocrisy, often as grotesquely as possible. Soldiers unnecessarily give their lives for the crown, while a disinterested royalty watches on, and the Church is held up as being a corrupt and highly-sexed manipulator of the people – the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris lavishes Cunegonde with jewels while condemning heretics to death. There is even time to lambast the American Dream, book-ended as being achievable in Act 1, before being rejected by the entire company’s final stirring number, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’. A critique of supposed meritocracy within society is to be expected, considering the artistic talent that went into Candide, with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim perhaps better known for highlighting social issues in West Side Story.
What is so impressive is how the production combines this clever, satirical and oft profound messaging with Paul Farnsworth’s visually attractive design. Characters preen and strut in their highly dandified costumes, utilising every inch of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s intimate space. The audience is fully engaged with this: a terrible shipwreck is represented by some flicks of water over our heads, whilst some are offered marshmallows toasted in the fire prepared to burn non-believers. All this pomp is a deliberate send-up of the period in which it is set, and of the issues it is lampooning. All pretence is deliberately pricked.
The cast are also a joy. Fra Fee is perfect as Candide: soulful, sensitive, (attractive), yet with enough brute about him to believably hold his own in a duel. Opposite Fee, Scarlett Strallen positively glistens as Cunegonde: her ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ number is a stand-alone moment. Jackie Clune is a delight as the mono-buttocked and world-weary old lady, while James Dreyfus is effortlessly charming with his deliciously hammed-up turns as Candide’s various accomplices.
An operetta based on an eighteenth century novel is perhaps a risky choice for a Christmas show. Yet, as ever, the Menier Chocolate Factory proves it can churn out musical treats. A transfer would be deserved, but for now see this as a thoroughly joyous alternative to panto.
Candide is playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 22 February 2014. For more information and tickets, see the Menier Chocolate Factory website.
Photo by Nobby Clark.