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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Recruiting Officer
Donmar Warehouse       Spring 2012

To inaugurate her tenure as the Donmar's Artistic Director, Josie Rourke has chosen George Farquhar's 1706 comedy, which proves a pleasant, low-key, and surprisingly warm sort of romance. 

Written just at the cusp between Restoration wit and eighteenth-century sentimentality, the play mixes traditional characters sparring lovers, jealous lady, foppish fool with open appeals to patriotism and honourable emotion that Congreve would never have allowed. 

The title character is in the country to con innocent lads into signing up to become cannon fodder, while also furthering his romance with the local squire's daughter. But her sudden inheritance seems to take her out of his league, just as a civilian friend is having difficulties with his heiress love. 

To test his scruples the captain's girl disguises herself as a man and lets herself be recruited. Of course he doesn't recognise her, but his honour passes all tests and her determination convinces him of her love.

In other hands this could be the excuse for farce or witty banter, But Farquhar, while never completely rejecting either of those, is really more interested in the sincere feelings of his characters love, patriotism, honour and the male bonding of the military. 

And Josie Rourke has chosen to stress that side of the play. Even when he's manipulating his recruits, we are never in doubt that Captain Plume really believes in the army and its values. 

Even when he interrupts his wooing of Silvia to chase a pretty farmer's daughter or cope with the effects of a previous dalliance with a barmaid (He marries her off to his compliant sergeant), the play's elder voice of good sense reminds a sceptic that soldiers place themselves at risk for us and are to be allowed a degree of leeway in their behaviour.

Director Rourke and designer Lucy Osborne present this all in an amber, autumnal light, softening the play's hard edges. The fop isn't nearly as ridiculous as he could be, the captain's recruiting sergeant not nearly as nasty, not even Silvia-in-disguise as comically swaggering as she might be.

And, by casting musicians in some secondary roles, Rourke bathes the whole play in quiet melody that will, at the end, make a touchingly sad statement. 

Indeed, the few times Rourke allows herself to go for a cheap laugh an affected lady's silly accent, someone walking into a wall are the production's weakest moments, so much do they clash with the tone of it all. 

Both Tobias Menzies as the Captain and Mackenzie Crook as his Sergeant keep us always aware of the honourable sincerity that motivates their characters, while Nancy Carroll invests Silvia with a reality that carries her through the disguise plot.

Nicholas Burns has little to do as the civilian friend, and Rachel Stirling, who is not a natural clown, is forced to work too hard and too visibly as the affected and jealous lady.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   The Recruiting Officer - Donmar 2012

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