BRAZEN: ‘A privateer may be ill-manned.’
PLUME: ‘And so may a playhouse.’
Not this one. Josie Rourke’s inaugural production at the Donmar Warehouse oozes class. Everything, from the starry ensemble to Lucy Osborne’s gorgeous rustic design, flickering under candlelight, via Michael Bruce’s folksy score, is perfectly pleasing on both the eye and the ear. Until the production’s inspired final coda, however, class is precisely what falls out of George Farquhar’s restoration comedy.
In The Recruiting Officer, the town stomps into the country and grossly exploits its populace for personal gain. Aided by the gnarled Sergeant Kite, Captain Plume (Tobias Menzies) strides into Shropshire and, with devilish cunning, tricks its yokels (male and female alike) into the army.
By having the five-strong house band playing various locals, Rourke loses the sense of a community being raided. This may be intentional, as a means to better sting us with her ending, in which the quintet sings ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ before, one by one, marching off to war. It’s undoubtedly poignant, but the flipside is to lighten the heart of a play that needs a snarl beneath its sniggers.
Even so, the comedy is still too genteel to really score. Admittedly, second night sluggishness seemed to have crept in at the same time as I did – the pace felt groggy and a couple of corpses betrayed hazy focus – but if you’re going to play it up, really play it up. It needs a strong dash of grotesque.
Only Mark Gatiss as Plume’s recruiting rival Captain Brazen – a foppish mix of Captain Hook and Wendy Darling – has the raucousness to raise unfailing laughter. As Kite, Mackenzie Crook manages it when disguised as a German fortune-teller, but elsewhere plays against his own nature by gruffing up for a machismo to which he’s not suited. Menzies’s Plume is standard-issue swagger (a case of the Flashhearts); he holds himself as if sitting for a portrait and hits first syllables with a full-on baseball swing.
Lucy Osborne’s set, which makes a wooden barn of the Donmar’s extraordinary auditorium (once again, the real star), is similarly decorous. All twinkling candles and powder-blue sky, its chocolate box charm only adds to the quaintness and the whole comes across a courtly and civil recreation of the Globe stage. It’s all a bit luxurious and cosy.
In fairness, the women fare better. Nancy Carroll is just delightful as Slyvia, the love Plume is too proud to admit, embracing a mousey vulnerability, while Rachael Stirling finds a neat caricature of new money in Melinda, with her forced elocution and a too-too-tight corset. Aimee-Ffion Edwards’s Rose is consistently amusing as the impudent Rose.
Perhaps all this is too harsh, for The Recruiting Officer is a beautiful production done well, but it’s ornamental appeal – like a oil painting restored – leads it into insipidness whenever it droops. Nevertheless, when the stars align and the playing zings, I’ve no doubt that Rourke’s Recruiting Officer improves immeasurably.