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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE RECRUITING OFFICER
at Donmar Warehouse

TOWNSFOLK AND TRICORNE HATS
By JOHN NATHAN

  Tobias Menzies and Mark Gatiss/ Ph: Johan Persson

The bar was set very high by the Donmar’s first artistic director Sam Mendes, and even higher by Michael Grandage. So Josie Rourke, who takes on the role after a steady though perhaps less than stunning stint running west London’s Bush Theatre, has big shoes to fill.

While some way off the brilliance that characterized the best shows directed by Grandage at this venue (though even he took a while to get into his stride), the first performance of Rourke’s revival of George Farquhar’s 1706 restoration comedy provided much evidence that the Donmar is in good hands – eventually.

Top of the bill is Mackenzie Crook, an actor with a face like the reaper who brings a quality to his performances that is always more interesting and less predictable than mere shtick. It suggests that he, or his character, would rather be anywhere in the world but in the particular place and circumstances in which he finds himself. And in a play such as Farquhar’s, which is full of intimate asides to the audience, it's a quality that is not just attached to the role of Kite but to Crook himself, who accentuates it with darting glances in the direction of the wings as if looking for an escape route.

You can't really blame him. Kite's job is the thankless task of recruiting the men of Shrewsbury into a platoon under the command of Captain Plume, whose alpha-male antics have led to a trail of bastard children and jilted women whom, in at least one case, Kite has to marry on Plume's behalf.

The bulk of the play, however, concerns whether Plume (Tobias Menzies) and his gentleman friend Worthy are each able to win the women they love – respectively Sylvia (Nancy Carroll), daughter of the local Justice, and her cousin Melinda (Rachael Stirling). It's a task made more difficult by he huge amounts of money the women have inherited, which threatens to put them beyond the social reach of their suitors.

Yet despite the abundance of comedic talent here, and musicians who serenade throughout, Farquhar’s witty scenes fail to cohere for much of the evening. Performances exist in a space of their own. Stirling's portrait of an over-rouged nouveau riche princess is pleasingly slapstick; Menzies' Plume exhibits an enjoyable, thigh-slapping kind of charisma; and the deadpan Crook is admirably conspicuous for his relative constraint. They appear a little lost in Lucy Osborne's indeterminate barn-like design, which gives no sense of a bustling town brimful of middle-class intrigue. 

It's not until the late arrival of Mark Gatiss' outrageously camp and foppish Captain Brazen, who appears sniffing around Melinda like a dog with two tails, that the production finds the necessary energy and momentum. It almost comes too late.

But come it does, and suddenly a series of well-performed but unconnected character studies melds into a play populated by real people. The proof is in the surprisingly moving reconciliation between Menzies' Plume and Carroll's down-to-earth Sylvia. Almost as touching is Rourke's best idea for the show, which sees the musicians, who double as bit-part characters (or are they actors who double as bit-part musicians), sadly leave the stage one by one to begin life as Plume's new recruits. They know that death, not glory, almost certainly awaits. If Rourke had found a way of working this theme into her production earlier it would have been so much more effective. As it is, much like the best of the rest of this admittedly satisfying show, it feels rather like an afterthought.

 


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