Possessing the wit of Wilde and the sexual frankness of a Restoration play, George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer has been a firm favourite since its first performance in 1706. Jenny Eastop’s latest production is set in present day Shrewsbury, and from the off, the satirical nature of the original is present.
Using various means to coax the the townspeople to sign up to the army, Captain Plume (Elliot Mitchell) and Sergeant Kite (Beth Eyre) are hard at work to fulfil their conscription quotas. While they are doing this, the conversation turns to the topic of women. For Plume, they help pass time the time away, but there’s nobody he’s considered settling down with. The closest that anyone has come to capturing his heart is Sylvia (Charlie Ryall) – daughter of Judge Balance (Andy Secombe) – but he values his own ‘freedom’ above all. Plume bumps into his friend Mr Worthy (Daniel Barry), who is warming up to the idea of tying the knot with Melinda (Lydia Bakelmun) after she’s come into a considerable amount of money. Another army officer, Captain Brazen (Benjamin Garrison) has his eye on Melinda, but she, her maid Lucy (Susannah Edgley) and Sylvia have ideas of their own…
The play’s notion that the uneducated, the working class and the less-well-off are sought out for military service – while avoiding the monied classes – is a bold and ‘controversial’ statement that history has shown is nevertheless true. Such a thing has taken place in many countries and even as recent as the First World War, the British ‘underclasses’ were often used as ‘cannon fodder’ while their ‘superiors’ were kept a safe distance away. But I digress.
While the play is humorous in tone, money as the driving incentive for Brazen and Worthy’s interest in marriage reaffirms the opinion that matrimony has never been more than a financial transaction, with women as ‘property’ and ‘love’ as a means to an end.
Everyone gets their moment to shine and there are plenty of ‘favourite moments’ to choose from. Ryall’s turn as Sylvia’s alter ego ‘Jack Wilful’ taps into the persona of Lord Flashheart in Blackadder (as well as the ‘Bob’/Edmund dynamic…). Meanwhile, Garrison’s Brazen steals the show with his foppish mannerisms cranked up to ’11’ and his faux adherence to being ‘an officer and a gentleman’. As Plume’s ‘right hand man’, Eyre stands out as his executive arm and ‘conscience’, but it is as her fortune teller alter ego that she shines, weaving a web that links all the characters’ fates in the play’s climax. The multiple characters that other actors play also add much to the ambience of the show and through them we see how the core characters treat people in general.
Had this been written as a ‘serious’, damning treatise on the signs of the times, it’s doubtful the play would have been allowed to be performed centuries ago. However, under the veil of satire, it’s given free rein and still possesses the power today to challenge the status quo.
© Michael Davis 2018
The Recruiting Officer runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 1st December.
CAST: Lydia Bakelmun, Daniel Barry, Susannah Edgley, Beth Eyre, Benjamin Garrison, Elliot Mitchell, Charlie Ryall, Andy Secombe.