Tony Harrison has written a new epilogue in rhyming couplets for this revival of The Recruiting Officer. Spoken with terrific pace and incisiveness by Corin Redgrave, it distances the cast from any support for the recent war in Iraq - this has not been, we're assured, an attempt to "dragoon for Hoon" - and it suggests that you'd have to be a prize sucker to be conscripted to the belligerent Blair camp. It's a fluent and biting piece of verse, but it comes as a somewhat ironic coda to the evening.
Launching the Lichfield Garrick Theatre, this production, co-directed by Annie Castledine, is in fact stronger on the romantic and sexual intrigues in Farquhar's 1706 classic than on the salty comic realism with which it depicts the cynical and corrupt methods that were used to enlist innocent citizens as cannon fodder in the war of the Spanish succession.
The splendid new building boasts an elegant and friendly 490-seat auditorium that, with its wide and deep stage, manages to unite the epic and the intimate; a natural ventilation system that makes it the essence of round-the-clock "cool" in more senses than one; acres of gallery space; and colour tones that blend in beautifully with the Georgian charms of the town.
As a choice for the inaugural production, The Recruiting Officer fits the bill with style. Though it is set in Shrewsbury, it might just as well be in Lichfield. Farquhar, a lieutenant of grenadiers, had been there on a recruiting expedition, wrote part of the play in one of its inns, and used it as the setting for his last comedy, The Beaux' Stratagem.
The production is highly entertaining and, although it is played on the permanent set of a Georgian high street, a sense of mobility is imparted by cunning devices such as people speaking from upstairs windows. The difficulty, nowadays, is achieving the tricky balance between the play's acerbity and its geniality. Farquhar may look askance at the duplicity of conscription techniques, but he is unquestioningly supportive of the war itself.
A modern audience may itch for him to go further, as Brecht did in Trumpets and Drums, an adaptation in which the action is shifted to coincide with the American Revolution. There's a problem, too, because, even with a cast of 10, doubling is essential. It is not always adroitly handled here. In a comedy in which the heroine dons male disguise to keep tabs on her lover, you can't communicate the risky uniqueness of her situation if you also have women playing two of the hapless conscripts. It's a fine touch that James Hillier's rather pallidly performed Captain Plume looks a good deal more enticed by Penny Hayden's witty, mettlesome Silvia when she's in drag. With luscious, full-on kisses between men, the homosocial atmosphere of military life is keenly conveyed. As Owen Sharpe's wickedly wily and streetwise Kite informs us, the officers "live together like man and wife, always either kissing or fighting". They might still draw the line, though, at snogging Captain Brazen, that deluded, name-dropping old party, whose absurd, swaggering foppishness is captured in a wonderfully funny performance by Corin Redgrave.
What I missed were those moments when the finest revivals suddenly give you a dizzying glimpse of unpalatable reality, as when Kite describes his hair-raisingly deprived childhood (pimping by the age of 10 and so hungry and afraid that he was a prime target for the army's false promises). This enjoyable revival could afford to be more jolting: but as a recruitment drive for new audiences, it's just the job.
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