The Recruiting Officer at the
Donmar is very, very funny. It has a stellar cast without a weak link.
Tobias Menzies as Plume is a roguish, swaggering, handsome lead and
Mackenzie Crook excellent as his devious sidekick, especially in the
perfectly-judged fortune-teller scene. Rachael Stirling is gorgeous and
hilarious as Melinda, teetering like a weeble in her hooped skirt.
Aimee-Ffion Edwards is perky and flirty and earthy and Nancy Carroll is
perfect in the breeches role. And when Mark Gatiss comes in as Brazen,
all wig and m’dears, the evening reaches a pitch of hysterical comedy
that it maintains thereafter. Its a robust, brilliant debut from Josie
Rourke, which beautifully rethinks the relations - actorly and design -
between stage and auditorium - and brings the play to vigorous life.
I want to start with that hymn of praise
because it’s important to say how hugely entertaining it is before I
note a sound of caution.
It reminded me of the evening I spent a couple of weeks before at She Stoops to Conquer
at the National. The same high comedy, the same brilliant use of music
and the ensemble, huge colourful sets, bright costumes, some moments of
good, dirty humour and a tremendous sense of brio.
That show reminded me of the evening last year I spent watching One Man, Two Guvnors. All the same things: music, high comedy, audience participation, big laughs, physical humour, and great, great reviews.
The cautionary thought that occurred to
me, watching these plays, is whether I was watching theatre for an age
of austerity. Is there nothing else in The Recruiting Officer and She Stoops to Conquer
than a sex farce? Is anything lost from Goldoni in his transposition to
60s London? I don’t mean that these comedies should be treated as
ponderous theses on social mores. I have absolutely no problem with
laughter; I love laughing and I hugely enjoyed these productions. Mark
Gatiss’s Brazen brought me to squealing tearful laughter with his first
scene (‘he married the daughter of old Tongue-Pad, the Master in
Chancery, a very pretty woman, only squinted a little’). It’s just that I
felt I was seeing a new style of production that was about light, speed
and colour, a kind of production aesthetic that gave you no time to
think, to reflect, even to savour. It was performance as distraction,
sumptuous riches on the stage to delight the eye, acting to feast on,
and the plays, on the whole, chosen for their slightness, all the easier
to gussy up with the production’s own jewels. At bottom, there seemed
to me something rather conservative about these shows.
That said, how wonderful to have so many genuinely funny theatre shows on at the same time - and, note, all coming out of the subsidised sector. And these casts, too; wonderful to see actors like Rachael Stirling and Tobias Menzies making - apparently - so effortless a transition into comedy. Mackenzie Crooke continues to prove himself a wonderful stage actor, growing in confidence every time I see him. And I may just queue to see once more Mark Gatiss arrest the action of the play for a full 20 seconds as Brazen struggles to recall if his friend’s daughter ‘twas called Margaret or Marjorie.