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An excellent cast do justice to a flawed masterpiece



Review by David Munro

THE trouble with Candide is Voltaire - a paradox perhaps as without Voltaire there would have been no Candide.

None the less, in endeavouring to keep Candide faithful to Voltaire, Bernstein and his many collaborators have, over the years, merely succeeded in producing a flawed masterpiece.

Had they stuck to the plot and ignored the philosophy this might have been avoided, but even the latest John Caird/Hugh Wheeler version, as performed by the Opera Group, one is all too conscious that Voltaire's ethics are better suited to the page rather than the stage. Bernstein's score is unquestionably one of the greatest ever written for the musical stage.

The lyrics, by various hands including Stephen Sondheim, are always apt and sometimes witty (when they stray from the Voltarian path), but the net result is a brilliant first act and a second which make you feel, like the Old Lady in the plot, that you have only one buttock - hers was cut off, yours thankfully is just numb.

And this is not the fault of the actors, but of the script that feels it is beholden to encapsulate the essence of Voltaire's Philosophy in a few overlong and dreary scenes before the resolution of the plot.

Being faced with this, the director, John Fulljames, of the Opera Group touring production, has decided to adopt a very earthy approach, (presumably he would call it 18th Century in deference to Voltaire) to such an extent that, at one moment, I felt that he should have dropped the final "E" from the title, so raunchy were the goings on onstage.

He has updated it to a mythical present, incorporating spaceships, revolvers and fetishism, as opposed to the frills, furbelows and elegant debauchery of the novel.

It was certainly a novelty to have "Glitter and Be Gay" sung as an accompaniment to Cunegonde's whipping of her two lovers, even though it underlines the immoral aspect of the character, highlighted in the lyrics although not quite so frankly.

The actors, to do them credit, rose above all these bits of de Sadian by-play, singing superbly (and audibly) and bringing an air of jollity and good humour which ameliorated somewhat the antics they were called upon to portray and robbed them of all the embarrassment which a less capable cast could have inflicted on the audience.

A company of 12 who have to play many parts and act as the chorus, they are justifiably described as the 'ensemble' in the programme.

Simon Butteriss is convincingly amusing as Voltaire, who tells the story and keeps the action flowing. He alternated this with Pangloss, Candide's tutor whose (Voltaire's) philosophy, that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, underlies Candide's inability to accept the world for what it is and causes all his misfortunes that are the justification for the evening.

His depiction of Voltaire is a polished performance, witty and, in a way elegant, which frames the activities of the rest of the characters and defuses the latent unpleasantness of what they are called upon to perform by the plot and director.

His Pangloss is a cartoon character, who deserved the round of applause he got for his speech in the second act, describing his adventures and misfortunes.

The Candide was beautifully sung by Daniel Hoadley. Every word could be heard and his characterisation both vocally and dramatically was perfect. His Candide was believable (which perhaps may not be so much of a compliment, seeing what a hopeless nerd the character is!) and one feels that here is a new leading man for the London stage, if his ambitions are that way inclined.

His Cunegonde was equally well played and sung by Donna Bateman. Her transformation from bobbysoxer to dominatrice was a delight; she kept the simplicity of the character evident beneath the more sophisticated mask of the role, that robbed it of its unsavoury nature which a more 'knowing' performance would have given it.

The Old Lady, with whose missing buttock I painfully empathised during the latter part of the evening, was given full justice by Jill Pert; a well-rounded performance which belied her name.

Her delivery of the speech emphasising her despair and series of degradations was so effective that it takes its place in my memory with Patricia Routledge's performance in the same part - with the edge possibly in Jill Pert's favour.

Paul Featherstone couldn't fail to catch my eye as he made his entrance as the Grand Inquisitor on stilts, although this in no way detracted from his performance, either in this part, or any of the others which he played during the evening.

Similarly, Devon Harrison; his performance made me wonder whether, if Leonard Henry was blessed with Devon's vocal attributes and skill, he would have succeeded in convincing me he was a better actor/singer: I decided that he wouldn't.

Charlotte Page played Paquette, the archetypal ruined maid, just this side of stereotype and succeeded in making the part amusing and effective in the few scenes she had, whether her feet were in the air or on the ground!

The rest of the cast did not have the opportunities to take centre stage, as did those I have just mentioned, none the less I was impressed by their performances in the choral scenes and the fleeting moments they did emerge from the crowd.

In short, I could not fault any member of this well-performed production.

The action took place on a bare stage with screens on which were projected various scenes and other descriptive items or words supplemented where necessary by chairs and tables; effective and well thought out, which did not impede the action and for which credit must be given to Alex Lowde, who also must take credit for the creation of the costumes, which were, to put it mildly, stylised and amusing.

In this respect, I did wonder whether Alec Lowde was really a 'nom de robe' for Ann Summers. If not - Miss Summers, you have just found yourself a talented new designer!

All in all, even given the longeurs of the second act, I accept this was the best of all possible productions given the handicap of the source material - and Candide-ly, my dear, I don't give a damn - it is worth seeing - despite that missing buttock.

CANDIDE adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler & Richard Wilbur New version by John Caird Music by Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics by Richard Wilbur Stephen Sondheim John Latouche. Dorothy Parker Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein Directed by. John Fulljames, Designed by Alex Lowde, Choreography by Maxine Braham, Lighting by Jon Buswell, Conducted by Patrick Bailey. WITH: Donna Bateman, Simon Butteriss, Giles Davies, Paul Featherstone, Devon Harrison, Daniel Hoadley, Andy McWilliams, Charlotte Page, Sara Parry, Jill Pert, Michael Robinson, Saffron von Zwanenberg. Produced by The Opera Group at Richmond Theatre, The Little Green, Richmond, Surrey.

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