Chichester Festival Theatre
Opened 16 May, 2000

The play about the play Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good is almost better known now than George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer itself. Yet a fair amount of deeper thought can be squeezed out of what is principally another Restoration romp. Director James Kerr walks the fine line of having his Captain Plume (Alec Newman) at once a light-hearted adventurer and concerned to recruit honest men of their own free will; he will punch and kick his duplicitous sergeant for cozening a couple of likely Shropshire lads, but is conscious even as he does so that this, in turn, establishes Plume as the kind of honourable officer the young men will readily choose to serve under.

Now and again, though, Kerr takes the minor-key sombreness too far. After spending much of the play cross-dressed, at the final curtain Debra Gillett's Silvia whips off not only her masculine apparel but also the wig worn by the crop-haired Gillett to play the blonde-tressed Silvia now what's that for, if not just a gratuitously modish final twist? When Plume is ordered by the local magistrates to "read the articles" to the new conscripts they have just assigned him, Kerr has Newman do precisely that, reciting in full (and with growing distress) the relevant sections from the forces regulations of 1702. Tanya McCallin's all but bare set, too, with stage and backdrop swathed in a single, huge, discoloured cloth, literally offers a blank canvas for the company to work on, but their rollicking seldom fills the space and the more pensive passages cannot help but seem self-conscious.

Indeed, Farquhar's play comes increasingly to resemble a succession of set pieces: the action after the interval consists almost entirely of the "breeches" business, the "conjuror" business and the "courtroom" business. The first and last I have already mentioned; in the second, Nicolas Tennant's nicely squalid, venal Kite disguises himself as an astrologer and oracle in order to cheat the Shrewsbury folk out of money and information helpful to his captain and Mr Worthy's respective amorous pursuits, and to press the occasional poltroon into the regiment as well.

As Worthy's inamorata Melinda, Caroline Catz puts a catch in her voice rather too often; as her uncle and Silvia's father, Justice Balance, Tom Georgeson's assumed bluff delivery combines peculiarly with his native North-Eastern twang to make him sound oddly Slavic at various moments. Nicholas Le Prevost trumps them all by playing the blustering buffoon Captain Brazen with the voice of legendary character actor Aubrey Morris. Kerr's production, the opening show in this year's main-stage Chichester season, is also his first in a large theatre; he is clearly an able young director, who simply tries to hard on this occasion to come over as intellectually as well as theatrically impressive.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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