Review – Candide, Menier Chocolate Factory, 21st December 2013

CandideOnce again the Menier proves itself to be the most versatile of spaces. When you descend the steps to the auditorium you never know whether you’ll be walking left, right or straight on; seated in front of a traditional stage or in the round or in traverse; with acting areas just in front of you or all around you. If you’re a regular attendee at the Menier there’s a particular thrill you get when you enter the auditorium just to see how they’ve jiggled it all around this time.

Fra FeeFor this lively production of Candide, the Scottish Opera version of 1988 (the programme gives you a good history of the various different stages this show has endured over the ages), our arrival is greeted with garlands and pendants surrounding a central square area to suggest an eighteenth century fête. The seats are partly recovered with colourful glittery material (not overly comfortable to be honest!) and the whole place has the feeling of middle Europe celebration. We are in Westphalia, which I always thought was as imaginary as Ruritania, but is apparently an area of north-west Germany. But not for long, as jolly musical number after jolly musical number takes us on a tour of Europe, then (after the interval) South America, stopping by at Surinam before our finale in Venice.

Scarlett StrallenCandide is, of course, probably the best known work of Voltaire, and a copy of it has sat on my bookshelf since 1979, when I bought it because I thought it was something “I Ought To Read”. I regret that, to this date, it retains the same status. It’s a kind of semi-picaresque story where our eponymous hero follows his fortune all around the world, he and his circle getting into the most ridiculous scrapes that would prove fatal for the rest of us, but he (and they) nevertheless bounce back time after time again, smelling of roses and playing the national anthem on a penny whistle (figuratively speaking). Voltaire’s main task is to satirise the “this is the best of all possible worlds” philosophy of the tutor Pangloss, of whom and of which Candide is a devotee, and to highlight the resilience of human nature as literally nothing seems to damage the indomitable spirit (and indeed unbreakable bodies) of Candide and his pals. In that respect, the show is very faithful to the book, (as far as I can make out without having read it) with its pacey progress through a whirlwind of globetrotting adventure. I think its pace is vital to the success of the show; if it were to get ponderous you’d start thinking too deeply about its nonsensical coincidences and Lazarus-like risings from the dead, and that would probably spoil it. With Cunégonde, Maximilian and Parquette constantly re-appearing, Mrs Chrisparkle was reminded of Nicholas Nickleby’s happy-ending Romeo and Juliet, where everyone bounded back to life at the end because they didn’t take the poison or the sword wound was just a scratch. Except for poor Tybalt, of course.

James DreyfusI mentioned the jolly songs; to be fair, not all the songs are jolly. For every two or three jolly songs, I’d say, you get a sincere and meaningful ballad sung by Candide. I don’t mean to pick a fight with Leonard Bernstein over his score. It starts off very promisingly with the well-known overture that most orchestras like to include in their more upbeat classical concerts; it goes on to include a few witty patter songs, and some wonderful juxtaposition of comedy with tragedy, as in the blissful “Auto da fe” where members of society have a great time watching the Spanish Inquisition at work; and it also has some stand-out individual moments, such as Cunégonde’s Glitter and Be Gay (like an eighteenth century version of Madonna’s Material Girl) and the Old Lady’s “I am easily assimilated”. You can also see the expert hand of Adam Cooper at work with the choreography in some of the bigger numbers, enabling grand dance gestures to develop in the small space available to fantastic effect. However, I did find that whenever the character of Candide felt the urge to sing something sincere about love or his lot in life, the songs got a bit, well, boring. Sorry. No one’s fault except Bernstein’s, or possibly whichever of the wide choice of lyricists credited to this show might be responsible for the words in those particular songs.

Jackie CluneThe only other slight quibble I have with this production is the decision to have some of the action take place on what is effectively a narrow balcony that goes all the way around the back of the auditorium behind the back row of seats, means that no seat actually has an unobstructed view of all the action. We sat in row A, as we always do, because I like to get as close as possible to the action, but it meant that several times we had to turn around to see what was going on behind us, or, when that got a bit uncomfortable, just go into “radio” mode for a few minutes and listen to, rather than watch, the show progress. For this production, the back row probably gives you the best view of all. Mind you, I’m not complaining about being close to the action. When the characters were introduced to us in the opening song, to illustrate how friendly the lovely Paquette could be with gentlemen, she decided to perch upon my lap and give me a smile and a cuddle. That was nice. I gave her a smile and a squeeze back, and gently inclined my head towards her ample bosom. It was only later on I discovered that Paquette was riddled with syphilis. Thanks a lot Paquette, how am I going to explain that to Mrs C? Actually there were a number of very amusing moments when certain members of the audience were given little tasks. One gentleman became the King of the Bulgars; the lady on the other side of the aisle from me ended up holding the gondolier’s paddle, which was bigger than both of them. Such little tricks all help to keep you involved in the show.

David ThaxtonAs always at the Menier, it’s a company jam-packed with talent and style. Fra Fee (with possibly the shortest name in showbusiness) is perfect in the role of Candide, all wide-eyed innocence and open-hearted good nature. He’s like an Everyman figure into whom the rest of the world collides as he makes his merry way through life; and even if I did find some of his songs a little boring, he has a fine singing voice with perfect clarity and expression. The love of his life, Cunégonde, is played by Scarlett Strallen, fresh from her amazing performance as Cassie in A Chorus Line, and her singing and stage presence are just stunning. She stops the show with her fantastic coloratura in Glitter and Be Gay and conveys both the comedy and the tragedy of the role beautifully.

Ben LewisI was really impressed with the performance of James Dreyfus as Pangloss (and Cacambo, and Martin) – he too has a great voice, a fantastic command of the stage and a natural feel for comedy. The other really superb performance comes from Jackie Clune (great as Billy Elliot’s mum a few years back) as the Old Lady – much fun to be made by the fact she has no other name – who sings fantastically and gives us very funny physical comedy with coping with just one buttock (you’ll have to see the show for more information). If you’re in the front row you might have a very amusing conversation with her just after the interval as she wanders on and starts moaning about the fact that she’s not playing Cunégonde; “what’s the fuss? It’s only a D sharp”. The rest of the cast give tremendous support, with Cassidy Janson a beautiful and mischievous Paquette, David Thaxton a delightfully pompous Maximilian, and Michael Cahill and Ben Lewis taking on eight roles between them, each with their own strong identity and great comic timing.

A perfect choice for a festive season show, full of feel-good factor and a great sense of fun. Fantastic costumes, a great band and some superb performances. Definitely not to be missed!

Review – Mogadishu, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th February 2012

Mogadishu“It’s about Africa, then?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle on the way to the theatre. “No, I think it’s about a school” came my rather uncertain reply. In fact, the only reference to the capital of Somalia in the play is when the middle-class girl says that what sets her apart from the other scumbags is the fact that she knows where Mogadishu is. As it happens, she doesn’t; and in many respects she isn’t set apart from the other scumbags either. Not that the majority of them are scumbags. As you can tell, it’s not a straightforward business.

Ryan Calais CameronVivienne Franzmann’s play is as gripping and exciting an unfolding of a story as you could possibly wish. From the very first scene you are hooked into its snowballing tale of racism, lies, bullying and justice. And you really have no idea how it’s going to end until the final three scenes tie it all up. This is her first full length play, having worked as a secondary-school teacher for twelve years. It shows. I cannot imagine how anyone other than a teacher would have the insight and authority to tell this tale in this context. I completely believed in it all the way through.

Jackie CluneAnd, although the material in this play is very dark, it manages to be very funny too. It’s tightly written – not a word is wasted. Everything drives either the story or characterisation forward at a cracking pace. Its simple but effective staging emphasises the starkness of its reality, its people trapped in their lies. Co-produced by the Lyric Hammersmith and the Manchester Royal Exchange, it’s a credit to both of them.

Nicholas BeveneyOne particularly interesting aspect of Tuesday’s performance is that the theatre was full of school students. When Mrs C and I saw them in the foyers we were desperately hoping they were seeing Stomp in the Derngate; but no, they piled into the diminutive stalls of the Royal. We just hoped they would have some adults with them to make sure they stayed shut up. We needn’t have worried. This play clearly hit home with the youngsters – they were captivated; and they learned a few interesting lessons about being in an audience. This play has some Ayckbournian laughter moments – by which I mean you witness something desperately awful, that means a personal sadness to someone in the play – but it is written so deftly amusingly that you burst into hysterical laughter. Then the laughter stops in your throat as you silence yourself with embarrassment; then people around you laugh at your reaction. That happened a couple of times during the play; the youngsters sounded appalled at what they had found funny; and it’s fascinating to observe.

Jason BarnettI’m going to refrain from telling you anything about the plot of this riveting story because I think you need to see it for yourself. Let me tell you instead about its splendid performances. There are two characters right at the heart of this play. Jason, played by Ryan Calais Cameron, is the gang leader and thought by Amanda, the teacher played by Jackie Clune, to be more sinned against than sinning. Rosie WyattYou decide if she is right. Mr Cameron is perfectly cast – a natural authority with the minions who surround him, a tough bully to get his own way, wheedlingly affectionate (some of the time) with the girls when trying to coerce them against their will, yet instantly flinching and subordinate to his father Ben, played superbly by Nicholas Beveney. There’s a great scene where Jason starts out all cocky and mouthy with the unimpressed Ben, and who suddenly shrinks visibly as his father moves to dominate over him. Mr Cameron portrays the nature of the bully to great effect, both when they have power, and when their power is removed. Really good work.

James BarriscaleJackie Clune’s Amanda is the kind of teacher you would have liked to have had at school yourself – compassionate and caring, and with a clear sense of right and wrong. It’s fascinating to see her self-confidence and confidence in others slowly becoming eroded with the gradual realisation that she is no longer in control of her work issues. Just before the interval is a superb scene where her self-belief starts to ebb away and provides a tantalising cliffhanger moment to take you through fifteen minutes of deep discussion about the first half. You desperately want justice to go her way, but as it appears increasingly unlikely you get wrapped up in her emotional angst.

Savannah Gordon-Liburd She is matched by her mouthy, troubled daughter, Becky, played by Rosie Wyatt, whom we saw as the troubled daughter Rose in Love Love Love last year – careful, don’t get type-cast. She gives another exuberant and painfully honest performance; once you brush away the hard defensive exterior of her character, her great vulnerability is exposed. And there’s a solid support from Amanda’s husband Peter, played by Jason Barnett, offering kindness and practicality, often to have it thrown back in his face.

Hammed Animashaun James Barriscale’s Headmaster Chris gives a good account of a man already overworked and having to deal with an HR issue he really could do without, trying to be fair to all sides and having to fight against his personal views. His interview battles with Ben are powerfully exciting scenes. It’s very well written and staged.

Tendayi Jembere The other playground kids are all also excellently brought to life. I really enjoyed the assured performance of Savannah Gordon-Liburd as Jason’s most favoured girl Dee; more mature than the other kids, more intelligent and most aware of the difference between right and wrong. Her scene at the end with Amanda where she tries to make some reparation was pitched perfectly and tugged really hard at any notion of forgiveness you might have left in your soul.

Farshid RokeyAnother favourite was Hammed Animashaun as Jordan, the most carefree kid on the block, who gets some of the best lines and rises to the challenge of making the most of the humour in the play. The largely youthful audience really appreciated his characterisation and delivery. Tendayi Jembere played the rather dim but loyal Chuggs with sincerity and conviction, and Farshid Rokey’s Saif was the embodiment of chavtastic which somehow made his internal conflicts as to how much he was prepared to toe Jason’s line more painful and realistic. Michael Karim’s bookish Firat and Tara Hodge’s gormlessly gobby Chloe both added terrific support.

Michael KarimAt the end, I think it’s fair to say that no one wins, but the whole story hangs together perfectly and all loose ends get tied up with great satisfaction. If you’re thinking of taking Granny, do be aware that this play has more four-letter words than a bunch of sailors delivering dictionaries. I don’t particularly care for unnecessary swear words, but they’re all totally in keeping with the characters and context.

Tara HodgeA really strong performance of a really strong play that will make you think twice. You may come out of it a different person from the one that went into it; I love it when that happens. Touring till the end of March, definitely one to catch.