Sam Mendes was a hard act to follow as inaugural artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. But Michael Grandage overcame that difficulty with flamboyantly flying colours.
Now he, in turn, sets a potentially daunting precedent for his successor. But Josie Rourke, fresh from her triumphant tenure at the Bush hereby serves notice that she is well on the way to having that problem licked. Her opening shot is a gloriously witty revival of Farquhar's great 1706 play, The Recruiting Officer. This is a late Restoration comedy which is notable for the way that it lets literal fresh air and pointed political controversy into the genre, as we watch army recruiters descend on Shrewsbury primed to "press" simple men into the miliary by devious methods and manouevre haughty heiresses into advantageous hitch-ups. Fittingly for Rourke's purposes, it is also renowned as a play that has often been used as a launch pad -- all the way from the fact that it was the first piece of drama performed by convicts in Australia to the historical and geographical appropriatesness of its farily recently being the comedy that inugurated the new Lichfield Theatre.
There have been productions (by Bill Gaskill and Max Stafford-Clark) that homed in more determinedly on the harsh realities, following Brecht's example in his adaptation Trumpet and Drums. Here, Rourke proves that it is possible to register this toughness in a staging that is nonetheless irradiated with golden good humour. Its shocks are all the more effective for stealng up on you slowly -- as in the sobering finale when, in a kind of elimination game as they sing "Over the hills and Far Away", the various members of the joyous band that has enlivened the proceedings, peel off one by one, as if hypnotised by the drum-taps of the departing militia. It's an eloquent dminuendo to a production that beautifully balances the alfresco freshness of the piece and its often madly droll knowingness about theatrical convention. This equipoise is announced by Lucy Osborne's envelopingly delightful set which is dominated by a folding screen depicting cotton-wool clouds against a blue sky and a muliplicity of candles that wax (so to speak) lyrical for the duration.
There's a similar canniness about the brilliant casting., Seasoned experts at this kind of game -- Nancy Caroll as a beguilngly mettlesome cross-dressing Silvia; the excellent Tobias Menzies who plays the pholandering Captain Plume as a dishily grinning Hooray with a flashes of more complex hinterland -- are mixed with actors who, just as good here, come with enlivening contraband from television and film. Painted face framed with beribboned poodle curls, Mark Sherlock Gatiss is in hilarious form as the name-dropping chatterbox Captain Brazen, while, as ruthless recruiter Sergeant Kite, Mackenzie Crook is killingly funny as he glares through Groucho Marx eyelashes in improviser's panic in the scene where he poses as a fortune teller. Here's my prediction: this is going to be a great new regime at the Donmar.
Booking until 14 August; 0844 871 7624, donmarwarehoue.com