HIGH KICKS AND HIGH JINKS: VOLTAIRE WITH VERVE
Voltaire’s story – subtitled Optimisme – gave the world Dr Pangloss and his disabling conviction that “all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds” because whatever happens has a reason. His innocent pupil Candide holds the faith through decades of lost love, exile, war, slavery, floggings, volcanoes, pirates, corrupt Cardinals, swindlers and shipwrecks. Rambling across a war-torn Europe and its colonies this reverses the Tom-Jonesy picaresque which our own 18c novelists enjoyed. Their heroes come up smiling, Voltaire’s stumbles earnestly from disaster to catastrophe while his companions keep resurrecting and turning up in new guises explaining “Well, it’s a long story…”.
This gorgeously funny, touching, vigorous production by Matthew White of the Bernstein musical should have an afterlife. If, that is, anyone can work out how to transfer it from the Menier’s audience-teasing staging in the round. The ensemble weave around and among us, slapping occasional hats or crowns on the front row, singing from fine distressed wooden balconies overhead. Adam Cooper choreographs, and when dealing with his former Singing in the Rain oppo Scarlett Strallen gives full rein to her agility. As Candide’s stabbed, raped, traded, enslaved and corupted lover, Strallen demonstrates that she is not just a sunshiny-singy-dancey musical theatre lead but a physical comedienne. In “Glitter and be gay” , the fallen woman hurls herself around lamenting her shame while pillaging the very chandelier for diamonds. Gorgeous.
The musical’s history is something of a dog’s breakfast, though with classy ingredients: worth buying the programme to read how Lilian Hellman wanted it to reflect McCarthysim and America’s blindness. She enlisted young Leonard Bernstein: it flopped, but via several mutations found success with a new book by Hugh Wheeler. Lyrics are by Hellman, Sondheim, Dorothy Parker, Bernstein himself and John Latouche – too many cooks, but a tasty broth.
Not least because however daft Candide is, you are drawn to sympathy because Fra Fee from Dungannon is a real find: innocent elfin face but a voice so deep, honeyed and flawless that your heart melts. James Dreyfus as Pangloss (and assorted others) gives a smart, knowing performance, and Jackie Clune hurls herself with limping gusto into the role of an woman who hair-raisingly claims her buttock was eaten by starving Russians.
For Voltaire’s world, like ours , is a troubled one. White cleverly keeps the narration – split between characters as they weave around the weathered balconies – as blandly terrible as a news bulletin: thousands dead in natural disasters, coldly described atrocities. Yet during these enumerations of horror the cast enacts them with romps, red ribbons, and childlike drop-down-deads (one general expired in the lap of the Mail on Sunday critic) . Strallen’s chandelier is suspended on a hangman’s noose, and the Inquisition dances delightedly round a pyre with “What a day, what a day, for an Auto-da-Fe!” Interesting that Hellman, Bernstein and the rest started cooking this up ten years before Joan Littlewood’s O What a Lovely War.
I loved it. Bernstein’s score is lovely, the comedy fun, the energy high and the conclusion touching. Pangloss is banished to preach shiny determinism to the sheep, while the rest sing “We’re neither pure nor wise nor good. We’ll do our best, we’ll chop our wood and make our garden grow….”
box office 0207 378 1713 to 22 Feb
apology: in an earlier version of this post Adam Cooper appeared as Adam Cork. Which is disgraceful. Adam Cooper is a genius dancer and choreographer and my hero. Adam Cork, of course, composed the marvellous sound design for Grandage’s season, including Henry V . A review of which will be up soon. Which is why he was on my mind. Sorry both.