The Recruiting Officer
by George Farquhar
Directed by Gareth Machin
A Salisbury Playhouse production
7 November 2013, matinee
The Recruiting Officer was first produced in 1706, and went on to become one of the most popular plays of the 18th century. it was the first play presented in New York City (1732) and the first play ever presented in Australia, in Botany Bay (1789). It’s set in Shrewsbury in 1704, when two rival captains are in town recruiting for the army by fair means or foul: Captain Plume with his sergeant, Sergeant Kite, and Captain Brazen.
The plot is convoluted, but briefly, Captain Plume is the handsome laddish one, who has already cut a swathe through local ladies on previous visits. So much so that one, Molly, has just given birth, and his Sergeant is despatched to pretend it was his fault, and marry her. Plume is in love with Sylvia, the daughter of the magistrate, Justice Balance.
Captain Plume (Babou Ceesay)
Mr Worthy is Captain Plume’s local pal, and in turn is in love with Sylvia’s haughty, flighty cousin, Melinda.
Justice Balance likes Plume, but is worried about his rakish reputation. Balance’s son has just died in London, they are told. They take it surprisingly well, I thought. This means that Sylvia is now a very wealthy heiress, which makes Balance reconsider his liking of Plume. He was good enough for a son-in-law, but not good enough for his heir, as he would be if he married Sylvia. He makes Sylvia promise that she will not go off with Plume without his express permission … he must be the one to deliver her to Plume. This is a vital plot hinge, as becomes apparent later. It didn’t get pointed enough. Sylvia’s is sent away to the country.
Captain Brazen (David Charles)
Meanwhile, Captain Brazen, a foppish braggart is courting Melinda, who is playing him along to arouse Worthy’s jealousy. Her maid, Lucy, fancies Captain Brazen. Through all this, Sergeant Kite is busying himself trying to recruit locals into the army.
Sylvia reappears on the scene, dressed as a man with the name Wilful. It was a little hard for both of us to understand the reason for this cross-dressing ploy. Anyway, she finds Plume chasing a country girl, Rose, while the army is trying to recruit her brother, Bullock. In fact, Plume’s pursuit of Rose is a ploy to sign up Bullock. Kind of.
Brazen and Plume then compete to sign up Wilful. Wilful rescues Rose by pretending that “he” wants to spend the night with her. In the morning, Rose seems disappointed not to have been ravaged, but then a constable arrives and arrests them both, for bawdy and lewd behaviour, assuming that Wilful has indeed ravished Rose
The Worthy / Brazen battle for Melinda’s hand continues. Sergeant Kite has a favourite trick of dressing up as a German fortune teller, advising men that they will become generals if they join the army. Plume, Kite and Worthy fool Melinda, who visits the fortune teller, that she must marry a man who turns up at 10 the next morning intending to travel abroad (this will be Worthy). The result is a duel between Worthy and Brazen , no plot spoilers but the loudest laugh in the theatre came in this scene.
Justice Balance (Michael Mears)
So Wilful is taken before the magistrate, her dad, who then delivers Wilful / Sylvia into the army as a punishment, thus “delivering her” directly to Captain Plume. All is revealed. He has delivered her, so she dressed up to get caught and delivered into Plume’s charge by her dad. Ah! Now we understand. He accepts Plume as his son in law and Plume resigns his commission.
Lucy (Samantha Sutherland) and Melinda (Emma Williams)
So, this production. All the cast are fabulous. I’d single out Emma Williams as Melinda first, because she milks every last drop of comedy from her lines and her comic timing is spot on. Babou Ceesay is a truly loveable rake and rogue as Plume (who turns out nicer than expected). David Charles not only does the 18th century foppish braggart perfectly, he does rapid changes into the dumb constable, Brideswell (among other parts). Jennifer Kirby is a lovely and convincing Sylvia / Wilful, though after the last few RSC productions of girls dressed as boys, there’s a lot of funny business the director could have added, but didn’t. Michael Mears is a magisterial magistrate and father. Gemma Soul a lovely bucolic wench, Samuel Martin a great rustic brother. Tim Treslove must have been in his first or second performance as Sergeant Kite. You’d never know. I wouldn’t fault anyone’s acting, and I think we were the loudest clappers at the end. I certainly tried. But … and here come the buts …
They had several barriers to surmount. On the first day of the run, before the first show, they lost Jem Wall, who was to play Sergeant Kite, to a back injury. The first reviews (all four star) saw the director, Gareth Machin take the part, reading the script. And brilliantly so, according to the reviews. By this Thursday afternoon’s show, Tim Treslove had been recruited to be the recruiting sergeant, and had learned his part … there was no reading. For the rest of the cast, allowing for dress rehearsal, they were on their third Sergeant Kite in five days, meaning no doubt, much extra rehearsal, and that affects pace and comfort.
The second barrier was the audience. I’ve described Bath’s matinee audience as elderly and restrained, but they’re sprightly and noisily enthusiastic compared to Salisbury this afternoon. For a comedy, there were very, very few audible audience laughs, which is really heavy going for actors who are giving their all. Earlier reviews talk of “hilarity” in the evenings. Well, zero hilarity in the matinee, just polite applause, and no extra curtain call at the end either. I’d really hate to play to this lot. Maybe they were too busy coughing to laugh. I’d say it went down poorly. However, like Bath, the very elderly do the Thursday matinees, not the Saturday ones. At most theatres, Saturday afternoon audiences are like an evening audience. I make a note to avoid Thursdays.
A third barrier was the set, praised to the skies in the early reviews (three of which were in local papers). It has lots of compartments which open to reveal cast members with instruments, or swivel to show a bed, or the fortune teller’s room. It’s grey and there are three steps across the middle of the stage. We thought the set design, good as it looked, hampered and slowed action, even though much use was made of the auditorium, though an auditorium is not a thrust stage with rapid entry points. We compared it to Chichester’s 2012 The Way Of The World (a near contemporary, from 1700) which had very rapid transitions from scene to scene, excellent and judicious cutting and a great deal of pace. This lacked the pace, and entrances had to be through the set, then down the steps, to the front area. Not enough fluidity of movement.
A further issue is the play itself. A lot of it involves characters plotting in pairs, or at most in threes. You don’t get much ensemble stuff, fortunately as a cast of ten play over twenty roles. I would definitely shave fifteen minutes off the two hours twenty five minutes stage time. A lot of dialogue doesn’t particularly drive the plot, nor is it terribly funny. It was too respectful of the text, for me. It also wasn’t anywhere remotely near as bawdy to watch as the lines and situations would suggest.
Unusually, I got to see this play a second time. A friend was visiting and wanted to see it, so I saw the next Thursday matinee too. I thought it much improved. Part of it was time, and they had had time to get used to a new Sergeant Kite. I noticed that Captain Plume in particular, who has so many scenes together with Kite, was much more relaxed in playing the role, which needs to exude confidence. It’s harder for the”reactor” to play against a new cast member than it is for the new cast member, and exact timing in dialogue improves which comes from working together for several performances.
I thought they cut the first example of Captain Brazen’s claim to know everyone and everything, when he thinks that Justice Balance is called Laconic. Looking at the text since the first viewing, there were already a lot more cuts than I’d guessed. But if they needed more, Brazen was the last person to cut, because he is so far the funniest. Also, when Brazen discharges his pistol by mistake after the duel, causing an event which was by far the biggest laugh the week before (no plot spoiler still), nothing happened at all … probably the pistol didn’t work, because I think he tried twice. So they lost the best laugh.
We were also squarer on to the stage, and Wilful’s facial reactions were hilarious. I’m not sure whether she’d added business or whether we were better positioned to see it.
Anyway, it was considerably better all round. Though the audience was still elderly it didn’t sound like a coughing contest and they were more enthusiastic.