Writer: George Farquhar
Adaptor: Charlie Ryall
Reviewer: Maryam Philpot
George Farquhar’s 1706 play The Recruiting Officer is one of the most celebrated comedies of its time. Alongside its own influence on Restoration theatre, it became an important reference point for later playwrights including Timberlake Wertenbaker in Our Country’s Good and now Charlie Ryall in her new play Indebted to Chance– the perfect opportunity for Ryall to revive Farquhar’s play and show the pair in repertory at the Old Red Lion Theatre.
It’s hunting season in Shrewsbury as a group of army officers besiege the town looking for new recruits and temporary female distraction. Recently back from Afghanistan the womanising Captain Plume is frustratingly rejected by local heiress Silvia who, refusing to believe his love is genuine, disguises herself as a boy and enlists in Plume’s regiment. Meanwhile Mr Worthy is devoted to Melinda who also denies his advances, so the men hatch a plot to win their ladies with the help or hindrance of a fortune teller, some gullible townsfolk and the extravagant Captain Brazen.
Ryall’s adaptation relocates Farquhar’s work quite comfortably to modern Britain, where exchanging red coats for khaki still allows the play’s essential comic genius to shine. This new production heavily emphasises the wit and silliness of the secondary roles with exaggerated performances that are a lot of fun. Ryall and director Jenny Eastop add to the comic caper effect with additional visual humour including a well-timed moment in which local girl Rosie is given some duty-free perfume and a Toblerone by Plume in return for assumed favours.
The production also draws out Farquhar’s dismissive interest in chance or fate, using the idea of the fortune teller to goad unwilling women into marriage and, in very funny scene, a number of unsuspecting men into joining the slightly mocked army. All of the officers are sex-mad, arrogant and easily outwitted by the women, while the increasing wiles of Sergeant Kite to cheat men into enlisting are very entertaining.
The show does take a while to find its feet, and in the first 15-minutes or so the early scenes are a little rushed and the dialogue garbled in the excitement. The focus on the almost spoof-like comedy does detract from the sharpness of the language with no one fully relishing the subtly and nuance of Farquhar’s wordplay which in turn undermines the emotional declarations that conclude the story.
Elliot Mitchell’s Captain Plume becomes more confident as The Recruiting Officerunfolds and he seems more comfortable with Plume’s arrogance than with a rather unconvincing attachment to Silvia. Ryall enjoys the duel role as the no-nonsense heiress turned recruit who gets to do lots of thigh slapping but her considerable independence and detachment make her desire for Plume feel equally unlikely.
The secondary lovers fare much better, and Lydia Bakelmun is an assured Melinda whose external confidence suggests a fear of rejection beneath the surface that is well-handled in her decisive confrontation with Daniel Barry’s Worthy. Occasionally too flustered, Barry conveys Worthy’s jealousy and a believable affection for Melinda that reinforces the chemistry between them.
This version of The Recruiting Officer will, however, be primarily remembered for Benjamin Garrison’s Captain Brazen, an exuberant dandy with his own fanfare who is delightfully ridiculous. It’s a hugely charismatic performance full of arch eyebrows, snide looks and moustache twirling that steals every scene. There are also notably amusing character parts for Susannah Edgley as maid Lucy and local girl Rosie, Beth Eyre as the unscrupulous Sergeant Kite and Andy Secombe as Justice Balance.
Ryall and Eastop’s approach is not particularly subtle which does jettison a satisfying romantic conclusion, and one of Tony Blair’s speeches playing over the final moments is a jolting and unclear attempt to make serious point after too much merriment. Notably theatrical in presentation, there is clearly a huge affection for the play and its humour which this production of The Recruiting Officer obviously celebrates, a reminder why more than 300 years on Farqhuar’s work continues to matter.
Runs Until 1 December 2018 | Image: Contributed