Thursday 23 February 2012
Theatre review: The Recruiting Officer
Seeing The Recruiting Officer so soon after She Stoops To Conquer is a bit of a culture shock at first, as Rourke has opted for a surprisingly low-key approach to Restoration comedy. Lucy Osborne's dark wood set has been lit partly with candle-light by James Farncombe and there's often a melancholy air to the music provided by five of the supporting actors who double as the house band. It could be a risky approach in a genre full of multiple colliding plotlines but in this intimate space it's a successful one, and if it's not a laugh a minute it certainly has its fair share of comic moments. A strong cast makes for plenty of different sources of comedy: Gawn Grainger as Silvia's father Justice Balance gives a fruity-voiced burr to every mention of his pneumatic niece's name, while Rachael Stirling's plummy Melinda is a contrast to Aimeé-Ffion Edwards's dopey local girl Rose (who had one of my favourite visual gags of the show in her response to the old "pull a coin from behind her ear" magic trick.) Nancy Carroll is good as Silvia but the plotline of her disguising herself as a man to join Plume's regiment never quite felt like it worked for me.
Surely Mark Gatiss' career so far has just been leading up to him playing a Restoration fop as he's so well-suited to it - he's Captain Brazen, recruiting (much less successfully) for his own regiment, and mistakenly convinced he has a chance with Melinda. He's a lot of fun whether he's claiming to know the entire family line of everyone he meets, or using the audience in the stalls as a hat rack. In among Kite's various schemes to enlist more men, the main setpiece sees him set up shop as a fortune-teller, informing the locals that fate wants them to join the army. Crook, Menzies and Nicholas Burns as Worthy make this the most frantic, silly section of the play. I was once again accompanied by Jan who actually found this scene surprising, as if it might have been anachronistically added later; I don't know, I can imagine a fairground fortune-teller being the kind of thing a Jane Austen character might get privately excited about.
Rourke uses the band to tag on a final reminder that much of Farquhar's humour has been at the expense of men being turned into cannon-fodder, in practices that were very real at the time (the playwright himself had been a recruiting officer.) In a slightly unexpectedly understated way, a promising start to her tenure as Donmar Artistic Director.
The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar is booking until the 14th of April at the Donmar Warehouse.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.