Excuse me, but isn’t that a real live hen? Threatening to upstage everyone with an off-beat cluck, it really is a cheery hen tucked beneath the arm of country wench Rose (Aimee-Ffion Edwards). Its presence is larky, spirited and delightful — all adjectives that apply to Josie Rourke’s winning production of George Farquhar’s 1706 “The Recruiting Officer,” her debut as a.d. of the Donmar Warehouse.
Rourke smartly spotted that not only did Michael Grandage’s 10-year tenure in the post present no livestock on stage, there was no Restoration comedy there either. Indeed, that era of high-style writing has until very recently fallen from favor in U.K. theaters, partly because most of them are considered unapproachably flinty-hearted. Rourke’s production proves otherwise.
Unlike most Restoration comedies, this one is set outside of London in a small town filled with potential cannon-fodder — at least that’s the hope of unscrupulous Sergeant Kite (a raddled but wily Mackenzie Crook), who will use any means — usually foul, rarely fair — to drum up men for Captain Plume (rakish Tobias Menzies).
Although he has a reputation as a philanderer, Plume is more in love than he cares to admit with Silvia (Nancy Carroll), who, for reasons connected with a sudden inheritance, disguises herself as a young soldier to test his behavior.
Her plot is paralleled by Melinda (Rachael Stirling), putting off the advances of Mr. Worthy (Nicholas Burns) whom she not so secretly favors. The appearance of preposterous fop Captain Brazen (Mark Gatiss) plays into her hands as she whips Worthy into a jealous frenzy.
Although these and other plots abound, finessing them is not Farquhar’s strong suit. There is little tension as the play switches between them, and Rourke’s helming sometimes overdoses on energy at the expense of development. But most of the faults are Farquhar’s rather than hers, and her coherent production papers over most of the cracks.
Much of this success is attributable to her clever use of jaunty musicians, singing and playing period folk songs and moving impressively in and out of the action in subsidiary yet important roles.
Designer Lucy Osborne’s set transforms the Donmar into a rustic space with a slatted wood floor and ceiling. She and lighting designer James Farncombe dress the stage in hundreds of real candles on huge wooden chandeliers above the actors, up and down a screen against the back wall and, footlights-style, all around the three sides of the stage. It gives the evening a welcome, homespun charm that conveys the innocent world of the country town and bathes the actors in a happy glow.
Better still, the light includes the audience and allows the actors to engage with them in the play’s many asides. Rourke encourages everyone to share this happy degree of complicity and the company take to it like ducks to water.
The comic highlight is Crook dressed, for reasons too daft to relate, as a German fortune-teller: all baleful, grandiose, hoodwinking manner and an explosion of eyeliner. He’s run a close second by Gatiss’ every appearance as well-named Brazen. His beamingly silly self-worship is a delight, as is his sudden descent into a James Mason accent when faced with a duel.
The surprise of the evening is the unexpected emotional force of the love plot between Sylvia and Plume. Carroll and Menzies are so well-matched and technically accomplished that whenever they face the truth about one another, they drop their high-comic strutting to reveal the touching ache of love. And the final tableau underlining the unspoken subtext — it is, after all, a story of men going to war — adds a final, unexpected flavor to the tasty mix.