28 December 2013

Candide - Menier Chocolate Factory, Sunday 22nd December 2013


Candide, the illegitimate nephew of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronck, is bullied by the Baroness and her son Maximillian.  Candide is in love with Cunegonde, the Baroness' daughter. Along with Cunegonde's maid, Paquette, they  discover that Dr. Pangloss, a man thought to be the world's greatest philosopher, has taught them happiness.  Candide and Cunegonde dream of what married life would be like with wildly differing views. The Baron is angered at what Candide has done to Cunegonde, as he is a social inferior. Candide is promptly exiled and is recruited by the Bulgar Army, who plots to liberate Schloss Thunder-ten-Tronck. His attempt to escape the army is foiled, and both armies attack the castle.  All the principal characters are killed.  Candide returns to the castle's ruins and searches for Cunegonde.  Hebecomes a beggar and gives  the last of his coins to a syphilitic man who turns out to be Dr.Pangloss, who reveals that he was revived by an anatomist's scalpel.  Apparently he contracted his syphilis from Pacquette.  A merchant offers the two employment and they sail to Lisbon. As they arrive, a volcano erupts and the ensuing earthquake results in the death of 30,000 people. Pangloss and Candide are blamed, arrested as heretics and publicly tortured to face the Grand Inquisitor. Pangloss is hanged and Candide is flogged.  Candide eventually ends up in Paris, where a mysterious but beautiful woman is shared sexually by a rich Jew and the city's Cardinal Archbishop.  Cunegonde (for it is she, miraculously alive) contemplates her fall from purity in exchange for wealth. Candide is reunited with her and forgives her. Her companion, an old lady, forewarns Cunegonde and Candide that Cunegonde's lovers are about to call. Candide inadvertently kills both. The three flee to Cadiz with Cunegonde's jewels, where the Old Lady reveals her colourful past.. The jewels are stolen and the Old Lady offers to sing for Candide's dinner.  The French police arrive and attempt to apprehend Candide for murdering the Jew and the Archbishop. Candide befriends Cacambo, a Brazillian, and accepts him as his valet. Accepting an offer to fight the Jesuits in South America against the Spanish government, Candide takes his friends to the New World, and they sail away, hoping to find peace and happiness.
In Montevideo,  the four are reunited with Maximillian and Paquette who have escaped from Europe dressed as slave girls. The governor of the city falls in love with Maximilian, but quickly realizes his mistake and falls in love with Cunegonde. The Old Lady convinces Cunegonde that her marriage to the governor will support her financially and she reluctantly submits. Candide and Cacambo stumble upon a Jesuit camp and discovers that the Mother Superior is actually Paquette and the Father Superior is Maximilian. When Candide tells Maximilian that he will marry Cunegonde, Maximilian challenges him to a fight. Maximilian is once again inadvertently stabbed to death by Candide, who flees into the jungle with Cacambo.
Three years later, Cunegonde and the Old Lady are bored with life in Montevideo Meanwhile, Candide and Cacambo are starving and lost in the jungles. Finding an abandoned boat  they float downriver until they finally reach Eldorado, the fabled city of gold. Finding peace for a while, they stay, but eventually Candide begins to pine for Cunegonde and are given blessing to leave and take several solid gold sheep with them.  Durign the journey, the sheep die or are lost until only two remain. Unwilling to go back to Montevideo, Candide gives Cacambo one of the sheep to ransom Cunegonde, telling them that they will meet again in Venice
Arriving at Suriname,  Candide meets Martin, a local pessimist.  Vanderdendur, a Dutch villain, offers his ship, the Santa Rosalia, bound for Venice, in exchange for the golden sheep. The ship sinks and Martin and Vandendur drown.  Candide drifts ashore with the last remaining sheep, and travels to Venice where the Carnival festival is taking place. Candide searches for Cunegonde and meets Maximilian, who is revived once again and now is the corrupt Prefect of Police. Paquette is now one of the town's most successful prostitutes. Cunegonde and the Old Lady are employed to encourage the gamblers.  Pangloss wins a game of Roulette, but fritters his money away.  Candide discovers that Cunegonde is leading a dissolute life and is appalled.  Between them, the characters scrape together enough money to buy a small farm. Candide and Cunegonde are reconciled and they all settle down to a simple but happy life together.
Dr. Pangloss/Cacambo/Martin: James Dreyfus
Candide: Fra Fee
Paquette: Cassidy Janson
Maximillian: David Thaxton
Cunegonde: Scarlett Strallen
Baron: Michael Cahill
Governor/Vanderdendur: Ben Lewis
Old Lady: Jackie Cline

Creative Team:
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Adaptation: Hugh Wheeler
Lyrics: Richard Wilbur
Additional Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lilian Helman, Dororthy Parker
Director: Matthew White
Choreography: Adam Cooper
Set and Costumes: Paul Farnsworth
Lighting: Paul Anderson

Well, if you have to sell your house in order to get a ticket for this, do it. You won't regret it.  I have to admit that I was slightly concerned that Him Indoors had paid well over the odds for our tickets (they were relatively expensive: we usually sit in the cheap seats and lump it) but I would gladly have paid double to see this. There is energy, enthusiasm, creativity, great direction, humour in buckets, a fantastic cast who work their collective backsides off and, most importantly, heart.  Candide is a work that needs heart, or it will fail miserably.  If you saw the National Theatre production of this yonks and yonks ago, you will know what I mean.  The production didn't have any heart. 

This production, however, has more heart than should be allowed. The entire place brims over with it.  Every single person on that stage works like a trouper.  There is not a single person who is being "carried" and there is not a single weak link in the chain.  They earn their money.  And more.
Yes, the show is flawed.  Its waaaaay too long (this is the "opera house" version not the pallid 1956 one), wildly uneven and can be very dark. There are places where it drags terribly and the story runs out of steam several times.  As a response, several songs (notably "Dear Boy", "We are Women" and "Quiet") and a few minor scenes  have been cut and  it still drags in a few places (by halfway throught the second half, both the cast and the audience are knackered; this, however, may well have been a lot do with the intense heat in the auditorium.  Such a small space heats up very quickly).  But by the time you get to the rousing finale, nobody cares.  Everyone has had a good time.  Everyone has gone on the journey, undergone its various triumphs and calamaties with the characters and come out the other side relatively unscathed, a lot wiser and hopefully a lot happier.  We've loved, laughed, suffered, cried, been shipwrecked on the barren coasts of loss and celebrated at the festival of life. 

There is a clever and simple framing device to the story.  The audience enter the auditorium through tented entrances, displaying a small playbill.  Apparently a peformance of Candide is going to be given.  We sit around the fringes of a  small, Mittel-European town square, bedecked with shutters and balconies and a troupe of slightly ragged travelling players tumble into the square and start unpacking.  Costumes are pulled from chests and donned and the show begins.  So we're not just watching a show, we are watching a performance of a show.  Clever.  This gets round the problematic size of the cast of characters, as most of  the troupe double-, triple- or even quadruple-up their parts.  The need for multiple locations is got around by using simple props to evoke a place, just as it would be in a "strolling player" production.  Look closely and you will see that the costumes bear the traces of long use, of being sweated into and hauled about from place to place stuffed into trunks and in bags.  They are frayed around the edges, down at the hems and going bald in places.  Umbrellas and parasols have spokes missing, wigs are moulting.  Just as it should be. 

Plaudits and hurrahs in bucketsful to Scarlett Strallen.  Her performance is a masterclass of how to play Cunegonde, and as for her rendition of "Glitter and be gay" - well, its totes amaze, as I believe they say.  It is fiendishly difficult anyway and yet she throws herself around the floor and drapes herself over a chaise longue and then puts a rope of diamonds (stolen, wittily, from a chandelier) around her neck and proceeeds to hula hoop them around her throat.  My dear, that is technique.   She is well and ably supported by James Dreyfus as Pangloss, Cacambo and Martin (if I were to make a cut, I would cut the character of Martin and his one song - "Words, words, words, words" -  as neither make any notable contribution to the plot), even though he is quite obviously outclassed by other performers more vocally gifted).  It is nice to see him not have to camp it up for once.  Jackie Clune's Old Lady is perhaps a trifle underpowered - sure, she does everythign that is necessary for the role but she is no exponent of comic timing, a vital attribute for the role, and a lot of the character's funniest lines go for nothing (ff you have the luck to see a recording of Ann Howard in the Scottish Opera version at the Old Vic, note her coming timing as well as her obvious operatic skills).   If there was one disappointing Principal then it was the oddly-monikered Fra Fee, who has not got the requisite top notes to sing the role of Candide as written in the score and who does not seem to have mastered the art of stage make-up yet either, looking like some kind of Westphalian Goth. 

Of the minor principals (I say "minor", but in this cast, nobody rests; when you are not playing a named part you are slogging your guts out in the chorus) then Ben Lewis is notable for his portrayal of the Governor of Buenos Aires and Vanderdendur.  Mr. Lewis has the kind of pure, clear, strong tenor voice that Mr. Fee can only dream of, and hits some amazing, completely unforced top B flats that ring out like cathedral bells.  Well, he did play the Phantom in Love Never Dies, so what do you expect?  Well done, that man. 

Take a bottle of water into the auditorium. Go to the toilet beforehand.  Try and avoid the front row if you are shy because you may find yourself roped unwillingly into the action at several points.  Check your cynicism at the cloakroom (you will find plenty more inside).  And have a bloody good night out in the company of people who know what they are doing and how to entertain.  And act, and sing, and dance, often all at the same time.  Sell your grandmother for a ticket if necessary.  If there is any justice in the world (and Candide teaches us that there is, indeed, no justice in this world,despite all our efforts to believe so) then this show will transfer to the West End and run and run and run and be showered with awards.   But, unfortunately, as the characters find out eventually and to their great cost, this is not the best of all possible worlds.  So catch this if and while you can.  The world will be a duller place without it.

19 December 2013

We interrupt this broadcast....

Not that I have been broadcasting much over the last couple of months (for which my continued apologies - unfortunately life sometimes just gets in the way)....

Readers may have already heard about this evening's horrific events at the Apollo Theatre.  During a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a section of the main auditorium ceiling gave way.  A lighting rig came down and fell onto a section of the Upper Circle, part of which then also collapsed.  There are many reported injured, 8 seriously, and our thoughts are with those people and their families after what must have been a terrible, terrible event.  Thankfully there are no reported fatalities. 

However, this incident does prompt serious questions.  The first is that the Apollo Theatre is a Grade II listed building.  How then has the building been allowed to fall into what seems like such serious disrepair that such an incident can happen?  Surely English Heritage demand that such buildings are regularly inspected?  

The second is that Nimax Theatres, who own this and several other theatres, charge a compulsory "Restoration Levy" on each ticket sold. That's £1 on each and every ticket sold (theatre capacity is 775 seats). Over the years this must have netted the owners a considerable amount of £. This money is supposed to be spent on restoration and maintenance, which means that we, theatregoers, are putting our hands in our pockets and paying for maintenance ourselves, which is surely the responsibility of the owners?   Why has this money apparently not been spent on restoration and maintenance and, more importantly, where has it gone?  Into the pockets of Nimax and their shareholders??