Candide at the National - Olivier
In 1759, Voltaire whizzed through the incredible journey of a naive young man in this “the best of all possible worlds” in a slim ninety-page novel. Two hundred and forty years later, John Caird and Trevor Nunn would have done well to follow the French philosopher's lead. But, at three and a half hours, the latest go at musicalising Candide is anything but brief.
Neither is the show's history, for that matter. Originally the 1950s brainchild of legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Candide has borne numerous revisions - as both musical and operetta - and countless collaborators, including Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim, to name just a few. The most commercially successful version was mounted off-Broadway by Harold Prince in 1973. Stripped down to just over 100 minutes, it became the hit of the season and transferred to Broadway for 700+ performances.
The National's production, directed by Caird with assistance from Nunn, attempts to stay truer to Voltaire's philosophical arguments and the intricacies of the tale, thus the added girth. Unfortunately, this fastidiousness is to the show's detriment. The result is simply too long and lumbering to captivate.
Proceedings start light enough with a pithy little number called “Life is Happiness Indeed” that includes such priceless lyrics as “if the locals seem to hate us, that's the price for social status”. But there is little to match it in the 26 songs and 14 location-shifting scenes that follow. You won't remember the decidely uncatchy tunes, and soon enough you d rather forget the unrelenting procession of wars, crimes and natural disasters which befall these unlucky and largely unloveable characters.
John Napier s set is composed of little more than a string of Russian doll-style trunks within trunks so the atmosphere is almost entirely dependent on the actors skill. As the frontman, Simon Russell Beale commands as the narrator and the outrageously optimistic tutor Pangloss, and Dennis Quilley provides a nicely gruff counterbalance as pessimist Martin. Sadly, Daniel Evans and Alex Kelly are both a tad too irritating to satisfy as Candide and his wayward love Cunegonde. Comic respite is left to the supporting cast so thanks be to the laughs supplied by the wonderfully talented Alexander Hanson as the swindler Vanderdendur and Simon Day as the perennially class-conscious Baron Maximillian.
All in all, this is a valiant undertaking of a tremendously challenging work, but that doesn't leave you feeling any less frustrated at the end of a long evening. All is not for the best in this production.
The following reader disagreed with the above review....
How do you turn an 18th century novel into a musical to attract people without losing main parts of the philosophical background? By putting it on stage as the National-Olivier did.
Of course it may take three hours to make it through Candide's journey from Germany back to Germany, but what entertaining three hours they were. The NT cast did their very best to make a brilliant show without being pompous and awkward as the Webber casts sometimes seem to be. Alex Kelly was the best possible choice, combining expressive and convincing acting with a wonderful voice, the latter of which her partner, Daniel Evans as Candide unfortunately lacked.
The most impressing part of the whole performance is the uttermost lack of requisites, which may well be used to criticise the show by those who prefer the pomp and circumstance of Cats or Phantom of the Opera. Yet, it is just the seemingly empty stage that gives the director and his technical staff an opportunity to show and prove their ingenuity and new ideas. Is it not brilliant to just use seven or eight trunks of different sizes for a bed, a boat and many more? And it is not only the simplicity of the trunks but even more their symbolic implication that make the concept even more stunning?
As the story develops, more and more trunks are unpacked, representing the dreams and illusions Candide and his company have about life and 'the best of all possible worlds'. And it is those trunks that are being packed away in the end to show that he and all his friends have learned their lesson. Of course they could have learned it in two hours instead of three, but there was no boredom to be detected either on stage or in the audience.
Part of this very entertaining musical is of course the music and the songs. And though they may not be as catching as some other musical tunes, they were a very nice addition to the play, and I personally found them very catching, not only because they were very well supported by the actors' miming and acting, but because they provided the audience with songs they had not heard a million times on the radio before.
The cast was - as you would and could expect in an NT production - marvellous, and supported the main actors and actresses very well. The play and music really dragged you into the story; you could hardly expect it to go on, and when it finally had ended, you would want it to go on.
So, if you want to spend an agreeable evening in London, go and see Candide in the Olivier.