ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp London Review
The Recruiting Officer
This play is really too late to be called a Restoration Comedy since it was written in 1706, 46 years after the Restoration. However, the stock characters bear similarity to the genre with people being named according to character, Worthy, Brazen, Balance. Its place in theatrical history is important as it was the first play to be staged in our colonies, in New York and Charleston, Jamaica and Australia and has in turn inspired Berthold Brecht’s 1955 Trumpets and Drums and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s impressive 1988 Our Country’s Good. Rourke’s attention to detail is there from the opening variations of popular cell phone tunes played on early 18th century instruments reminding all to switch ’em off.
Farquhar had been an actor until, during a performance, he accidentally almost killed another actor with a real sword (Farquhar thought it was a stage prop) and in 1704 he joined the army and took up the post of recruiting officer in Shrewsbury. Margaret Pennell, the supposedly rich widow he had married in 1703 turned out to be giving rather a good performance herself as to her wealth and they were estranged. How he must have used his acting skills and promises of great reward to inveigle the unsuspecting country bumpkins of the West Country into taking the Queen’s shilling. We can see from these life events how much Farquhar drew on his own life for his plays.
In The Recruiting Officer Captain Plume (Tobias Menzies) and the disreputable Sgt Kite (Mackenzie Crook) are drumming up army “volunteers”. The feminine interest is provided by Silvia (Nancy Carroll), the daughter of a country judge and her cousin Melinda (Rachael Sterling) who is courted by Mr Worthy (Nicholas Burns) until she inherits £20,000 and her thoughts lie elsewhere. The womaniser Plume is taken with Silvia but her father Justice Balance (Gawn Grainger) has forbidden the marriage. Silvia disguises herself as a young man, Jack Wilful and joins the army. In a convoluted plot, while in men’s clothes she engineers that her father “gives” her to Plume and so obtains her father’s consent to the marriage.
A cowardly, bombastic and bragging, fashionista of a rival recruiting officer, the beribboned Captain Brazen (Mark Gattiss) courts Melinda’s maid Lucy (Kathryn Drysdale) disguised as Melinda. Brazen and Worthy thinks it is actually Melinda. In the second act Kite disguises himself as a fortune teller and orchestrates naive recruits joining up by making predictions that Plume carries out. Kite obtains a sample of Melinda’s handwriting so Worthy can be convinced the letter to Brazen is not from Melinda. Kite also ensures that Melinda looks on Worthy as a potential husband. However Brazen appears to Worthy to be eloping with Melinda and challenges him to a duel. Everyone’s true identity is revealed and Worthy and Plume make their match.
I really liked Mackenzie Crook’s Sergeant Kite who in this role has all the conniving charisma of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow as he outwits the country folk and acts the fortune teller. Tobias Menzies’ Plume is charming as a dashing redcoat with an eye for the girls which makes us wonder whether Sylvia’s father was right to forbid the marriage. Nancy Carroll is earnest and beautifully spoken as Sylvia and I wonder why I haven’t seen her cast as Shakespeare’s cross dressing heroines, Viola or Rosalind. Diana Rigg’s daughter, Rachael Sterling behind a mask of then fashionable doll like makeup gives a lovely comic performance of good depth. It must be in her genes! Mark Gatiss is superb as the braggart, “Two and twenty horses killed under me that day” he claims. Aimeé-Ffion Edwards delights as the quirky, country girl Rose who we see carrying real chickens, an idea from Jerusalem which she and Crook were both in.
This beautiful production with real candles, timbered walls, authentic music and period detail in the set and costumes is as delightful as anything I’ve seen in a long while and I think it is well worth queuing to get a day seat. In a distinctive directorial touch, the musicians’ finale recalls the soldiers to war, one by one leaving the stage, to the tune of “Over the Hills and Faraway”, an evocative reminder of the French wars and why we needed soldiers. Josie Rourke gets all the scintillating comedy and the titillating sex from this play as though it were written yesterday.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.