Following the success of last year’s Christmas musical Merrily We Roll Along, the Menier Chocolate Factory are currently presenting the musical comedy Candide. Although it’s not strictly a Sondheim musical, he was one of the (many) lyricists on this much rewritten work. Based on a story by Voltaire written in the 18th century, Candide has a rewritten book and boasts some fine melodies in Leonard Bernstein’s glorious score. The Menier’s production moves the action on at a good pace but is inevitably still overlong – incidentally, I find this venue one of the most unpeople-friendly in London, and they had sold out of programmes less than half way through the run – but there is much to admire despite the flaws of both material and venue.

The story of Candide, a young man who goes on a journey of discovery from Westphalia to the New World, is told by a theatre troupe, telling a story within a story in a multi-visual and multi-sensual fashion. The audience are very much a part of the action in this production, with the auditorium of this small venue especially configured, with seating on all four sides of the stage and the action taking place literally in the middle of the audience. This Candide relies on the audience’s imagination, as battle scenes are played out and numerous countries visited, and interactive participation (if you sit in the front row you may well be asked to wear or hold a prop, and be prepared to be occasionally sprinkled with rainwater!). This is an innovative strength of the production, although some members of the audience have to turn around quite a lot in some scenes to have the full benefit of seeing the action, despite careful direction by Matthew White ensuring that the cast use all directions of the staging to maximum effect.

Candide’s search for ‘the best of all possible worlds’ is well narrated by James Dreyfus’ Pangloss/Cacambo/Martin – multiple playing is another feature here – who fits into the varied scenes and keeps the action going at a good pace, alongside Jackie Clune’s wry and one-buttocked Old Lady, who is ‘easily assimilated’ in a musical number. Scarlett Strallen (fresh from the larger scale A Chorus Line at the Palladium) shines – sometimes literally in her jewellery – as Cunegonde, the girl Candide falls in love with, singing one of the score’s best known numbers ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ with the right level of devilment and desperation. There is a balletic quality to Strallen’s performance (no doubt helped by ballet maestro Adam Cooper’s choreography), carefully conveying her character’s descent into materialism. The supporting cast are top notch here too, including David Thaxton’s camp Maximilian, Cassidy Janson’s cheeky Paquette and Ben Lewis in a multitude of roles. But what of Candide himself? Fra Fee brings the right youth and vitality to the part, sweetly singing the many numbers in Candide’s eternal quest, yet could have given more light and shade to further develop Candide’s journey from being full of wonder and hope to the reality of life. But that’s the problem with Candide as a show – there’s happiness and sadness, love and loss, but what’s the point and do we ultimately care? The finale’s glorious ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ sees Cunegonde accepting a life of simplicity rather than riches with Candide – it’s a happy ending on one level but it’s hard to care for these characters because of the framework of the show, and so there’s little satisfaction in what resolution there is here, more relief that the long journey has finally ended. The cast are all brightly costumed and the production values can’t be faulted – with Jason Carr’s scaled down orchestrations still providing richness to what is a rich musical score – but the story of Candide is a difficult one to tell.