The 100th anniversary of musical polymath Leonard Bernstein arrives next August, and Barricade Productions have honoured the great man with a week's run of his Candide. His constant tinkering with it over the decades following its 1956 premiere is testament to his commitment to it, as well as his ambivalence about the definitive tone he was seeking. Was the emphasis to be on Voltaire's philosophical musings in the original 1759 conte, or on its comedic, picaresque wrapper? Barricade's production team has gone to the John Caird version for the National Theatre which leans towards the former approach, perhaps after asking itself quizzically what in this best of all possible worlds is the best of all possible philosophical satires set to the best of all possible music?
I don't think Candide has ever quite achieved the popularity of Bernstein's Westside Story. Maybe the relentless advocacy by the cod-philosopher Pangloss of an optimism ludicrously at odds with the experiences of its characters seems in Britain just now all but impossible as we sleep-walk into Brexit. Nor can Candide's plot be called anything but fairly rudimentary. It comes from the same picaresque stable as the 16th century Spanish Lazarillo de Tormes (and shares its anti-clerical bent), and Robinson Crusoe; let's say an 18th century road movie.
This production has been a year or more in the gestation. Casting was done in May and it's been all hands to the pump for the past six weeks. I'd hazard that every member of Wednesday's first night audience must have been delighted, if not stunned, by the sheer scale of this non-professional Candide. A main cast of 11, chorus of 12, crew of c. 30 and band of almost 20 – these are big numbers. From the orchestra pit, the band launched us into a smart rendering of the overture; its playing over the whole three hours (inc. interval) running time was exemplary and its volume control ditto. I'd especially pick out Matthew Jackson's oboe and from the brass section the trumpets. But I was expecting beforehand quality from the band given that I know music director Joe Davies to be an exceptional student musician.
Gavin Fleming's Voltaire, dapper in burgundy tuxedo and cummerbund, was our archly cynical narrator all evening (not always perfectly audible, though, in the first half; and this audibility discrepancy between Acts I and II was evident with others in the cast). Already, as we moved though our first number, Love is Happiness, the quality of the show and its direction was up there before us. Set designer Christina Hill's painted backcloth glowed from early royal blue to later fuchsia and then cherry, and a simple, but cleverly-made set of a few blocks, endlessly arrangeable and assembled by quick and unobtrusive scene changes, was flanked by trees resembling double daffodils. Jennifer Hurd's lighting design, making maximum use of the big theatre possibilities and mostly in warm colours, was a treat for the eyes.
Jonny Danciger's direction of the show, along with his choreographer and Amy Thompson and his other associates was exemplary. The songs were presented with unfussy verve – nautical numbers using just a length of rope and a ship's wheel, the colour of The Kings' Barcarolle late in Act II – and the comedy was never overdone (the ubiquitous Alex Buchanan's bleating sheep was a highlight). The chorus was always active and never superfluous, and their - indeed all – costumes (designer Franciska Csongrady) were endlessly inventive.
The main roles are tricky in the playing since both Candide and Cunegonde are essentially reactors rather than initiators, and tend to be surrounded by characters a bit more interesting, even zany, than they are. As the former, Josh Blunsden in lederhosen and long socks has a decent light tenor voice, coping well with his Lament and then in Act II with It Must Be Me, but paired with Laura Coppinger, a trained opera singer, as Cunegonde there's inevitably a bit of a difference in vocal styles. Coppinger pulled off with aplomb her big coloratura number, Glitter and Be Gay, a difficult aria given the required combination of movement and emotion and high notes.
David Garrick's Dr Pangloss was a suitably fussing, mincing, babbling presence. Freddie Crowley as Maximilian was a handsome, commanding figure in pink satin breeches; a talented actor and resonant singer. From the chorus I particularly noticed Phoebe Mansell, an obvious dancer. Of all the talent on stage, Amelia Gabriel's Old Woman and John Lee's Martin were for me the performances of the night, if only because they were the duo most in tune with the particular requirement of musical theatre; ie both a little larger than life but without hyperbole, both bursting with suppressed energy. Gabriel hobbled about, expressive with arms and legs, and in her first, very long monologue produced variety of voice and movement that held the audience tightly with her. Lee suggested a bit of edge under his smoothness, was a natural mover in the space and sang powerfully.
A number of those involved in this production are reaching the end of their undergraduate drama days. For them this Candide is a glittering swan-song. The foyer as we streamed out into the cold November night was buzzing like an upturned but pollen-rich beehive. Student drama in Oxford, even perhaps in Britain, does not - at least on this grand scale - come much more polished than this.