Candide/The White Carnation – review by Carole Woddis.

Merely a year separates the Leonard Bernstein musical Candide and J C Sherriff’s The White Carnation but they could have come from different planets.

Bernstein’s Candide in Matthew White’s sizzling revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark overwhelms where Sherriff’s 1953 time shifting drama seems unusually becalmed at the usually phenomenally successful Finborough.

If there is one thing both Meniers and Finborough do have in common it is their endless capacity to punch above their weight.  The postage stamp Finborough in the bedsitter backwater that is the Finborough Road seedily running between the river and flush West Kensington, under the indefatigable Neil McPherson, simply goes from strength to strength unearthing old gems and encouraging the new.  The Chocolate Factory’s David Babani meanwhile has earned an enviable reputation for the quality of its musical revivals, amongst them Merrily We Roll Along (just recently transferred) and Sweet Charity.

White’s production exemplifies beautifully just why The Chocolate Factory has acquired such a reputation.  Attention to detail is paramount.  Everything, from the time you step inside the tumbled down wooden floor and enter a bedecked, rough hewn, balconied auditorium to the costumes and the orchestra perched to one side speaks atmospherics.  We’re in (originally) Voltaire’s 18th century and Jason Carr’s orchestrations under the supervision of Musical Director Seann Alderking contrives to create a smaller, more vintage period, chamber sound than recent productions have dared.

It works fantastically well in a tale that has been sieved and filtered through a dizzying number of hands (including Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim), that projects a robust sense of the ridiculous and horrifying – rape, pillage, war, garrotting – in a spirit of almost too much knockabout gleefulness.  Our peripatetic hero, Candide – sung with unerring sweetness by Fra Fee – is required to travel unceasingly to escape death and in search of his beloved Cunegonde.

For Voltaire’s Candide, as for Bernstein and Hellman, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – a naivety that only comes to be slowly eroded by the tumultuous end and surely one of Bernstein’s most mellifluous and moving finales, Make Our Garden Grow.

Like Peer Gynt, Candide and Cunegonde have had to travel only to return to where they first started from, sadder and wiser.

On the way, Scarlett Strallen brings the house to its feet with Glitter and Be Gay – not an anthem to sexual bravado but as Marilyn Monroe might have sung, an ode to diamonds as a girl’s best friend.

If the momentum dips somewhat after the interval – both the insistence of a similar narrative and strangely, the quality of the songs and lyrics – the sheer ebullience, invention and quality of White’s ensemble performance brings it to triumphant and moving resolution.

Sherriff’s 1953 shaggy ghost yarn, on the other hand, for once the play looks crammed and diminished by its home at the Finborough.

A self made man suddenly finds himself locked out of his house on Christmas Eve.  Transpires he’s slipped through the ether of `another dimension’ to deposit himself in a world that really isn’t quite ready for him and too bureaucratic to find a way of categorising him.  (There’s a very funny scene where the man from the Home Office comes to call and relates how legally, there’s no categorisation for the ectoplasm he has now become, giving his `illegal immigrant’ status a whole new layer to our present day meaning).

With nods to James Bridie, J B Priestley and even Dickens’ Scrooge – John Greenwood, our time travelling intruder, formerly indifferent to his wife is given the chance to redeem himself and see her in a whole new, appreciative light – The White Carnation is lightly entertaining.

Perhaps for Sherriff whose Journey End remains the World War One portrayal by which, still, other plays are judged as well as writing such film classics as Goodbye Mr Chips, Mrs Miniver and The Dam Busters this was no more than an intellectual exercise.  He clearly enjoyed having a dig at class and the civil service.  For those wishing for a spot of escapism this will pass the time of day.  Those wishing for something more three-dimensional should head southwards, to Southwark.

Candide runs at The Chocolate Factory to Feb 22, 2014: see www.menierchocolatefactory.com

The White Carnation is at the Finborough Theatre to Dec 21, 2013 and transfers to the Jermyn Street Theatre for a three week run from Feb 4, 2014;

See www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Carole Woddis © Dec 2013.