REVIEW: THEATRE Candide The Gate, London

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The Independent Culture
There's an old woman in Candide who makes great complaining capital out of the fact that she lost a buttock in a cannibalistic siege. The usefulness of having two was certainly borne in upon me as I shifted restlessly from one to the other during Murray Gold's new stage adaptation of Voltaire's satire, directed by David Farr at the Gate.

Like Bernstein's much reworked musical - wonderful score, shame about the dramaturgy - this version suggests that turning Candide into viable theatre presents problems on a par with squaring the circle. It seems to take to the stage like a duck to, well, glue. A lot of talent has been expended here on a production that can't prevent the proceedings from becoming increasingly wearisome.

Voltaire's novel ridicules that perversion of Leibnizian philosophy which argues that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds". As a cover for callousness and complacency, it's a doctrine that would be hard to beat. The insult it offers to the suffering is made abundantly clear in the ludicrous pile-up of natural and man-made disasters through which our wide- eyed Westphalian hero is forced to pass: earthquakes, near-mortal lashings, shipwrecks, and wrongful imprisonings in spots everywhere from Buenos Aires to Constantinople.

Repetitiveness is an integral feature of the jest, and on the page this method makes its point without outstaying its welcome, thanks to the speed with which episode follows episode. On the stage, it's a different matter. Using a versatile role-swapping cast of nine and a stylish, resourcefully spare design - where a packing crate can be called on to represent a boulder one minute, a rowing boat the next - Farr's production presents the story in little sketch-like bursts punctuated by blackouts. Very often the lights will go down on a moment of rising naive optimism and come up again on a spectacle of farcically reversed hope - 20 minutes of this would be fine: presented with over two and a half hours of similar jokiness and rambling narrative, you may find yourself developing a searing nostalgia for the Aristotelian unities.

Justin Salinger is enormously funny and impressive in the title role. There's a glow to the guilelessness of this accident-prone pipsqueak and a questing intensity that makes him oddly affecting throughout in his journey towards a life of asking no questions and cultivating his garden (the show ends almost in Martin Guerre-mode with an ensemble working-on- the-land mime). As the old woman who is (so to speak) fundamentally challenged, Janet Henfrey has a marvellous moment where she switches the mood from the farcically grotesque to something altogether more haunting: "I have grown old in suffering and disgrace, one buttock short ... still I cling to life as to a lover whose faults I know. This absurd will to live..."

Bottoms pop up a fair bit in Gold's cheekily (there we go again) modernised script. "Racine may be the father of tragedy," opines a snobbish spectator in a Parisian theatre, "but a comfortable arse is its midwife." Which is where we came in, shifting our haunches. There's a running gag in this version of people fighting to keep awake as someone else launches into yet another lengthy recounting of his or her misadventures. It's a joke that rebounds with some force against this dramatisation, which is inclusive to a fault. Maybe the upcoming circus version (yes, really) will have better luck.

To 2 Aug. Booking: 0171-229 0706

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