The Recruiting Officer Review

The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar has had an illustrious performance history, including being the first play performed in Australia 1789 one year after the colonialists settled in Sydney. This year, over 300 years since it was written, it returns to our stage at the Donmar Warhouse and immediately were we are immersed into the world by a fabulous and transformative use of space. Whilst remaining inherently theatrical Lucy Osborne’s design invites us to become part of the space. Beautiful and functional are two descriptions that apply to good design and her work and that of lighting designer James Farncombe are to be commended.

A definite highlight was the music that immersed this production. The combined talents of Tom Giles, Stuart Ward, Matthew Romain, Peter Manchester and Chris Grahamson made a truly wonderful performance in their own right to open the show and beautifully complemented the continuing action of the play proper. Live music is best incorporated into a performance rather than tacked on as a afterthought and The Recruiting Officer demonstrated just how effective it can be in both creating a world and layering a text. This was a strong decision from director Josie Rourke to use traditional and composed music by Michael Bruce and it paid off handsomely.

Despite being a play that that is plotted around a woman’s dilemma; The Recruiting Officer is strictly a lad’s play. The fun here is not in the determination of the woman to follow her love into the army – it is all about the officers themselves. Indeed the action turns on their loves, their loyalties and ultimately forging the best possible path through their circumstance.

The female roles in this drama were doled out in a predictable fashion as either conniving, stupid or naïve. Or all three! Whereas the male roles were much more complex, interesting and fun, no wonder we spend so much more time with them on stage. This is a feature common to a lot of Restoration Comedy; it isn’t an issue that only affects this play. The core dramatic incident of the plot doesn’t even occur on stage – we are not with Silvia as she decides to don her dead brother’s clothes and join up to her lover’s regiment to see both what he is really like and to find a way of spending her life with him in spite of her father’s wishes. We just witness the bloke-y reactions to this new upstart that on the Captains' recruiting ground. 

Luckily being superbly performed and directed gave vitality to the women that could have quite easily been completely absent. Rachael Stirling as Melinda was frustratingly hilarious; Nancy Carroll played the straight Silvia with quiet determination; the ladies maid Lucy played by Kathryn Drysdale was coy and yet incited great pathos and Aimeé-Ffion Edwards joyously cavorted through the play as Rose.

With much more to dig into the lads were reliably wonderful. We laughed along with the cheeky manipulative Mackenzie Crook as Sergeant Kite; tittered at the lovelorn despair of Mr. Worthy played by Nicholas Burns and giggled Gawn Granger as the delightfully indulgent and well-meaning Justice Balance. The actual recruiting officers themselves the dashing Captain Plume (Tobias Menzies) who is after Silvia and the dandy Captain Brazen (Mark Gatsiss) who has his sights set on Mr. Worthy’s Melinda have great presence and at times in their company it is easy to understand why the author preferred them to the female characters he had written.

Overall The Recruiting Officer was an energetic ensemble performance that at times slipped into broad farce but never totally descended into it. Neither the playwright or the director let us forget the context behind the fun and as we left the theatre there was little doubt that the recruited men would actually travel over the hills and far away to war and most would not return.

The current season has just finished at the Donmar Theatre but fingers crossed for a tour of this production.