“There’s a pleasure sure, in being mad, which none but mad-men know”
Josie Rourke’s inaugural season as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse starts off with the Donmar’s first ever Restoration comedy – George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Written in 1706, it is also well known as the play that is rehearsed by the convicts in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good and Rourke has assembled a truly impressive cast in order to make a splash with her debut. Plotwise, it is mainly about men who go ‘huzzah’ a lot as they try to recruit the young men of Shrewsbury into the army, balanced with two central romances which are negotiating the impact of a big inheritance on female romantic inclinations.
It’s a whole lot of bawdy fun rather than making any serious points about anything if one is brutally honest, but it is totally made by the quality of the cast. Tobias Menzies exudes charisma as the bounding Captain Plume, well partnered by Mackenzie Crook’s Sergeant Kite, and together they brazenly try to wheedle their way into the sense of duty of the male populace and sweep them off to war. Completely amoral but largely quite funny about it, the scene with the faux crystal ball reader is extremely well done, Nicholas Burns’ demonstrating some nifty moves as gentleman Worthy, and many a laugh is garnered. Most of them come though from the friendly(ish) rivalry with Captain Brazen, a rival recruiting officer who is well portrayed as Mark Gatiss nearly steals the show with an outrageously foppish performance: his vocal delivery at one crucial point was just delicious.
In her first major role since giving birth to her second child, Nancy Carroll is everything one would want from her as Sylvia (even if we have seen her disguise herself as a man before) who is determined to get her man Plume by any means, but tragically isn’t given anywhere near enough stage time; and Rachael Stirling, a woman who I find most alluring indeed, does what she can with Melinda, the vain heiress who is unfortunately given to the odd malapropism and pratfall which feels a little like over-egging the pudding as her rich tones deliver much comedy with her affected accent and her dancing around the affections of Worthy who has long been chasing her and Brazen, who would court her.
But something didn’t quite work for me in the production as a whole, caveats about final previews aside. The play has a lot of sub-plot related baggage which occasionally felt clunky and generally a bit unnecessary; Lucy Osborne’s design is replete with candles and I mean replete as the theatre is full of them – the heat was close to unbearable for the first half hour, but one gradually gets accustomed to it – which though initially pretty, has little obvious relevance to the performance and takes the whole back wall out of action, which in turn limits Rourke’s directorial choices where I craved more imaginative use of the space.
And whilst the talents of the actor-musician band are indisputable, I couldn’t help but feel they were not particularly well suited to this production. Taking song lyrics from the eighteenth century, Michael Bruce has set music to them, much as he did for Much Ado About Nothing but atmospheric as they are, there’s a real sense of them slowing the production down, ultimately they add little. Indeed as the final tableau plays out, my heart sank once I realised how it would be done – the songs really do stultify the pace. But more significantly, this last sequence desperately attempts to strike a poignant chord, yearning for an emotional resonance that the play, and particularly this production, simply hasn’t earned.
And this final note also has the impact of somewhat undermining what has gone before: a comedy can’t be left alone to just be a comedy, it feels like it must be given extra meaning somehow to validate its existence – but if it is really something darker than ‘just’ a comedy, the vast majority of this production fails to make that point. So ultimately Rourke’s overlong debut left me feeling ambivalent, though I was clearly in the minority in this whooping audience. With an ensemble as classy and talent-stuffed as this, there could hardly be a dull moment throughout The Recruiting Officer and there is much to enjoy here, but it is hard not to feel that She Stoops To Conquer does it all better for me.