With everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Stephen Sondheim having pitched in to try and patch 'Candide' up since its 1956 premiere, it’s amazing that this bonkers musical exists at all. It’s an all-singing picaresque piss-take that’s bound to get right up some people’s noses. And it’s great fun.
Director Matthew White’s in-the-round staging puts the volts into Voltaire. His superb cast grabs writer Hugh Wheeler’s adaptation of the French philosopher’s satirical novella on optimism and fling it wildly around the Menier. Bernstein’s rich score – his witty lyrics bolstered by Sondheim – rings out in surround sound from flag-draped balconies and alcoves.
The flimsy story follows Fra Fee’s wide-eyed Candide as he journeys across Europe and into the New World, enduring wars and earthquakes in pursuit of his one true love, Cunegonde. The ballads are okay but it’s really about the carnivalesque atmosphere. Supposedly dead characters pop up with outrageous survival stories and nonsensical scenarios come and go, as the show gets more ridiculous and more hilarious.
James Dreyfus shines in multiple roles, including Pangloss, Candide’s idiot philosophy teacher who steadfastly maintains this is the best of all possible worlds even as he’s being hanged. Jackie Clune’s hard-bitten, one-buttocked Old Lady is also a salty delight, while Scarlett Strallen is a rib-tickling revelation as bling-obsessed Cunegonde. Her operatic ‘Glitter and be Gay’ is a top-note showstopper.
It might not explicitly be a Christmas show, but this production has the same impish, audience-winking humour as panto. The show's script is messy and whether you love or loathe it will depend on your tolerance of its theatrical flippancy. But if you can leave your stern expression at the door and embrace the pink sheep, you’ll have a riot.
By Tom Wicker