The 18th century is providing tremendous pleasure on the London stage at the moment and the latest to join the frock-coat fray is this impish staging of Farquhar’s 1706 The Recruiting Officer. It’s a joy, not least because, as Josie Rourke’s first production in charge, it bodes well. Previous artistic directors Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage both matched their own style to the potential of this intimate theatre. This affectionate production suggests that Rourke too will find her own way of celebrating the playing space.
Grandage bowed out with an austerely beautiful, candle-lit Richard II. Rourke also deploys candles, but here they twinkle cheerily, covering the back wall, dotted along the oak beams of Lucy Osborne’s all-wooden, rustic set. The auditorium has been opened out and the action spills off the stage, with musicians perching next to the audience. There’s an air of mischief to proceedings, from the moment the minstrels offer a medley of ring-tones in place of the usual mobile phone warning. The exuberant mood suits a play in which everyone is energetically scheming and which makes it plain that recruiting officers may be able to manoeuvre men into the army but they struggle to outwit the female of the species.
A fine ensemble bristles with enjoyable individual performances. Tobias Menzies’ excellent Captain Plume breezes into Shrewsbury, resplendent in a red coat, the apparent archetypal man-of-the-world. He is complemented by Mackenzie Crook, as his sergeant: Crook, wily as a coyote, carries out the dirty work of tricking men and marrying wenches. But Plume can’t fathom how to catch love-of-his-life Silvia. His friend Worthy (Nicholas Burns) languishes in similar distress, unable to marry the newly affluent Melinda (Rachael Stirling, entertainingly haughty). Adding to the tangle of thwarted desire is Captain Brazen, played by Mark Gatiss as an absurd, flouncing poodle of a man.
The zesty performances may flirt with excess, but they see us through the thickets in the plot. Meanwhile the play’s darker points gradually steal out and take hold. Nancy Carroll reveals how Silvia, posing as a male recruit to sort things out, focuses the sexual and social politics in the play. And Rourke’s production ends with a masterstroke. The plot having been tidied up in jolly fashion, the minstrels take to the stage to play “Over the Hills and Far Away”. Then, as the theatre darkens, they quietly surrender their instruments, one by one, and march off to war. No happy ending for pressed men.