This isn’t the type of Candide you would find at ENO. The voices on display are not operatic and the nine-piece orchestra, which includes electronic keyboard, is hardly the type that Ed Gardner might conduct.
The joy of Bernstein’s operetta, however, is that it can be played in so many ways. Indeed, nothing said above should imply that the current cast members, who include Scarlett Strallen and James Dreyfus, are of any less calibre in their own fields, or that the end product is any less professional. We already know the value of Bernstein’s score, and if we find ourselves concentrating solely upon it, that is probably a sign that there’s little else happening to hold our attention.
Directed by Matthew White, and employing the Hugh Wheeler version, this Candide is performed in the round with the central performance area being surrounded by audience seats and galleries dominated by rickety wooden bannisters. With ladders and chairs also scattered around there is a strong sense of the makeshift, which feels entirely in keeping with the pandemonium that is unleashed before us.
Cast members scuttle up and down gangways, deliver their short narrations from all sorts of platforms, and get right up close to the audience. This is not, however, just about introducing gimmicks to make the evening colourful. The production generates the type of intimacy that works well with the piece, and which could never be achieved in a larger theatre with a proscenium stage.As the orchestra strikes up, there feels something ‘zingy’ about its sound but that is the intended effect, and real excitement is generated as during the overture the performers hastily unpack props and adjust costumes in preparation for staging the drama.
Adam Cooper’s choreography is racy, and the production finds a particular affinity with the ‘Surrealism’ of the piece. The cast’s ‘brushing off’ of rapes and killings, and cheery cries of Bon Voyage as Candide’s boat sinks, are well executed, and visual jokes are introduced to emphasise the dramatic irony. Before the Inquisitor burns a Jew he toasts marshmallows over the fire and hands them to audience members, while sheep are portrayed using furry red bags. Sufficient variation is also provided, however, by ensuring that Candide (an excellent Fra Fee) sings It Must Be So and It Must Be Me unimpeded by distractions.
The singers, who are sensitively amplified, reveal some very moving voices. Besides Fee, the standout performance comes from Scarlett Strallen as Cunegonde, who utilises her impressive voice to deliver an hilariously show stealing performance of Glitter And Be Gay. Her facial expressions across the evening also reveal the character’s desperate attempts to maintain dignity in the most ignominious of circumstances.
James Dreyfus is highly amusing as Pangloss, amongst many other roles, and his sheepish expression every time he appears in yet another guise is all part of the effect. Jackie Clune is good value as the Old Lady and, although it may be in different ways and for different reasons, the final performance of Make Our Garden Grow is as moving as any that might be found at any of the world’s great opera houses.