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The Recruiting Officer’s Bawdy Exuberance Recruits Critics to Its Cause

By Periscope @periscopepost

The Recruiting Officer’s bawdy exuberance recruits critics to its cause

Poster for The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar.

George Farquhar’s late Restoration comedy, The Recruiting Officer (1706), opens Josie Rourke’s stint as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse – and the first time that the theater has put on a Restoration play.

The play sees Captain Plume (played by Tobias Menzies), a rake with bags of lovers and bastards, and his Sergeant Kite (Mackenzie Crook), arriving in Shrewsbury as recruiting officers employing underhand methods to swell the army’s ranks for its war against the French. Plume falls in love with Silvia (Nancy Carroll) – who then disguises herself as a man and enlists, so that she can find out Plume’s true nature. It also stars Mark Gatiss as the fop, Captain Brazen. Meanwhile the rural Worthy (Nicholas Burns) is in love with nouveau riche Miranda (Rachael Stirling). Everything’s tied up nicely, of course; but there’s plenty of mishaps and near-farce along the way.

Swaggering charm. The play, said an ecstatic Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph, has a “whiff of clean country air” about it – “worlds removed from the heartless hermetic plays of the period.” It has a “generosity of spirit, and lack of viciousness.” Rourke’s production is “vivid”, lit by the “delightful glow” of candles, and accompanied by a folk band. Spencer wanted to merrily sprinkle “praise and approval” over everything and everyone – all “blessed with freshness and revealing comic detail.” Menzies has “exactly the right blend of swagger, lust and generosity of sprit” to play Plume. Nancy Carroll is “superb”, whilst Mackenzie Crook is “unforgettable … cunning, ruthless, gawkily disconcerting.” The Donmar is in “safe hands.”

Farquhar “makes us laugh oftener from pleasure than from malice … there is a constant ebullition of gay laughing invention, cordial good humor and fine animal spirits in his writings,” wrote William Hazlitt, quoted by Charles Spencer.

Fresh and spirited. The play is “pacy and complicated,” said Henry Hitchings in The Evening Standard, with “big themes” amidst a “riot of bed-hopping, social blockades, meddling servants and enticing legacies.” Farquhar’s “lack of restraint is mainly a source of pleasure.” Mark Gatiss, under a “mass of chocolate curls”, is “splendidly preposterous” as Brazen, whilst Rachael Stirling “delights as the haughty Melinda.” Menzies’ performance is ‘the strongest”, relishing Plume’s “ambiguous nature” – he “looks like a careless womaniser yet turns out to be something else.” This is “fresh, spirited” stuff, dominated by “fizzy amusement and a festive sexiness.”

The undertones of darkness. There’s an “air of mischief” about the production, said Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times. The minstrels, who spill into the audience, “offer a medley of ring-tones in place of the usual mobile phone warning.” This exuberance “suits a play in which everyone is energetically scheming.” Recruting officers “may be able to manoevre men into the army but they struggle to outwit the female of the species.” The play does have its “darker points”, which “gradually steal out and take hold.” Silvia “focuses the sexual and social politics in the play,” and it ends with a “masterstroke” – as the theater goes dark, the minstrels “quietly surrender their instruments, one by one, and march off to war.”

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