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Candide’s tutor Pangloss states: “Once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds, one finds that this is the best of all possible worlds.” And Candide concurs. He is the personification of optimism. But he’s humble too, yearning for the homeliness of “peas and cabbage”. Not so Cunégonde, Candide’s love, who has a soft spot for “ropes of pearls” – and earls.
In the course of Voltaire’s picaresque satire, Candide, Cunégonde and friends are variously flogged, stabbed, drowned, swindled, raped and hanged, surviving by a series of miracles. Eventually, Candide grows sad and wise and concludes dourly, we must “make our garden grow”. Candide, the realist.
Leonard Bernstein’s musical comedy is neither dour nor realistic but gleefully preposterous – at least it is at the Chocolate Factory.
Bernstein’s score is wonderful and witty, as are the lyrics by Richard Wilbur and Co. Voltaire’s topics are mostly gruesome – greed, anti-Semitism, war, snobbery, syphilis. The ironic tension between dark material and light tone is what makes the drama.
Director Matthew White’s production, zestily choreographed by Adam Cooper, is frothy, fast and accessible.
With such a long and episodic piece, pace is important. But so is grip. White’s energy is buoyant but finesse comes and goes; details get smudged and darkness is skated over. A battle, for example, is fought in messy slapstick and goes for nothing. And only in the dying minutes does the love between the protagonists seem to matter. Tension between light and dark is simply not tense enough.
Paul Farnsworth’s design conjures a rambunctious 18th-century world and, notwithstanding some dodgy accents – French, Polish, Dutch, Spanish, and general “foreign”, not always in the right places – the company is game.
Scarlett Strallen is sprightly and delightful as Cunégonde – her “Glitter and be Gay” is the highlight of the night. Fra Fee’s Candide is suitably heartfelt and wan. And James Dreyfus is a crumpled, sumptuously camp Pangloss, the tutor with faith in “this best of all possible worlds”.
But do we leave the theatre resolved to reject blind optimism, knuckle down and “make our garden grow”? No, because the show does not teach the lessons Candide is taught. It is a happy night, no less or more – one to make you whistle.