Mark Ravenhill's "response" at the RSC, and the research that Ravenhill admitted was necessary before seeing it, I'm starting to feel very familiar with Voltaire's satire on optimism, despite never having read it. Raised on the philosophies of Pangloss, who teaches that this is the best of all possible worlds, therefore everything that happens must be for the best, Candide travels the world seeking his lost love Cunegonde. Beset by catastrophe after catastrophe, he blandly ascribes them all to the mysterious but necessary machinations of a benevolent god. The version of the story now being revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory is Leonard Bernstein's operetta, which has gone through a number of different versions over the years - the one used here is a 1988 text first staged by Scottish Opera, with book by Hugh Wheeler and lyrics by 70% of the earth's population.
Whether it's the much-rewritten material or that handling of it by Matthew White's production I don't know, but the mix of satire and light entertainment doesn't come off. I did wonder if the many rapes and murders in the story would be cut down for the purposes of a jolly Christmas musical but they're still present, and although the latter are presented with a black comedy that works, the many sexual degradations suffered by Cunegonde come with the uncomfortable feeling that we're meant to be laughing at her as they're listed.
It's true that Candide is a bit of a blank slate of a character, but even so Fra Fee has a remarkable stage absence, so it's lucky that he's supported by a cast with personality to spare. Scarlett Strallen is a spirited Cunegonde, James Dreyfus self-mocking as Pangloss and the various sidekicks Candide accrues over his journeys, and David Thaxton comically slimy as Maximilian. Jackie Clune plays the one-buttocked old woman with a sly amusement and Cassidy Janson is very funny in the two or three seconds of stage time she's allowed as Paquette.
I feel like it's worth pointing out the positives and fun moments in Candide because the interminable second act made it tempting to just slate the whole thing1. According to the overpriced programme one of the many versions of Candide runs at just two hours but this is the Menier, where catching the last train home is considered an indulgence beyond an audience's wildest dreams, so we get a longer edit. And the story's relentlessly episodic nature means it increasingly feels like we're treading water towards an arbitrary stopping point.
In fairness Candide had it all to do to impress me because the venue had already pissed me off before it started - after leaving the audience crowded in the stuffy foyer like sweaty sardines until five minutes before the advertised start time, they let us in to an auditorium so aggressively air-conditioned it might have been colder than the street outside. In London. In December. As I sat waiting for the inevitable late start, feeling the sweat turn to ice under the coat I'd had to put back on, I'll admit I could have been better disposed to the production. But a good enough show should have made me forget my discomfort within the first fifteen minutes, so unfortunately it says something that for all its silliness and energy, Candide still saw me in a grump just under three hours later.
Candide by Leonard Bernstein, Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, Titch, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein again, based on the book by Voltaire, is booking until the 22nd of February at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.
NB: Wear warm clothing.
1I'm also currently tempted to just let the cat type this review since he's clearly SO DETERMINED TO