Reviews West End & Central Published 16 February 2012

The Recruiting Officer

Donmar Warehouse ⋄ 9th February - 14th April 2012

Josie Rourke’s Restoration romp.

Tracey Sinclair

Josie Rourke marks her arrival as Artistic Director at the Donmar Warehouse with a delightful revival of George Farquhar’s 1706 play.

In terms of plot The Recruiting Officer is both slight and almost nonsensical: the usual array of romantic frustrations and confusions relying on that age old tradition that a woman is rendered unrecognizable even to those closest to her simply by putting on a pair of trousers, this time played out against the background of a competition between two captains as to who can recruit the most soldiers to fight in the foreign wars. However, the whole thing is handled with such pace, charm and lightness of touch that the plot, such as it is, matters little: we may know what is going to happen, but getting there is an awful lot of fun.

Following last year’s delicious Tennant/Tate Much Ado About Nothing, Rourke proves once again that she can do comedy. Here she also benefits from an exceptionally good cast: there isn’t a duff performance among them, with even the smaller players bringing much to the action. The leads are universally strong, though Mark Gatiss steals the show as foppish booby Captain Brazen, in his elaborate wig and coat, all convoluted mannerisms and verbal tics, his self-importance just waiting to be punctured. As his rival, Tobias Menzies is just the right mix of dashing and caddish, and the two play expertly off one another (their swordfight is a comic highlight). Fresh from the triumphant Jerusalem, Mackenzie Crook once again illustrates that he is becoming one of the most compelling stage actors around: his recruiting officer Sergeant Kite is sly, crafty and cynical, his hangdog delivery suggesting a man who has seen the worst of the world and knows just what is needed to survive it. He walks away with many of the best lines, and the scene where he disguises himself as a fortune teller to further his captain’s schemes is one of the production’s laugh out loud moments.

The women, too, don’t miss out on the fun: Nancy Carroll’s cross-dressing Silvia is an energetic and engaging heroine, while Rachael Stirling is clearly having a ball as her one-time confidante Melinda, a woman whose financial elevation has given her a freedom she is unsure of how to handle, an early Hyacinth Bucket who can barely keep on top of her own newly-adopted mannerisms. As the naïve but passionate peasant girl Rose, Crook’s fellow Jerusalem alumnus Aimee-Ffion Edwards also gets her fair share of the laughs.

The production is beautifully complemented by Lucy Osborne’s elegantly simple set: all burning candles and wooden struts, it is evocative of the time without feeling the need to slavishly reproduce it: a wise decision in the compact space of the Donmar, where it would be easy for such a well-peopled production to seem overcrowded and cramped.

There is also a pleasing sharpness hidden beneath the froth: based, after all, on Farquhar’s own experiences in the army, it is written by a man who knows the reality of wartime. The interweaving of music and song throughout gives eloquent voice to this, and the poignant ending reminds us that, once the emotional entanglements of the rich are resolved, it is the working class men who are sent to face the cannons. This would have been an easy hand to overplay but, like the rest of the production, instead it is beautifully balanced.

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Tracey Sinclair

Tracey Sinclair is a freelance editor and writer, a published author and performed playwright. She writes for a number of print and online magazines and most recently has focused on the Dark Dates series of books, including A Vampire in Edinburgh. You can follow her on Twitter under the profoundly misleading name @thriftygal

The Recruiting Officer Show Info


Directed by Josie Rourke

Written by George Farquhar

Cast includes Mackenzie Crook, Tobias Menzies, Nicholas Burns, Rachael Stirling, Nancy Carroll, Mark Gatiss

Link http://www.donmarwarehouse.com/

Running Time 2 hrs 35 mins (including interval)

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