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The Recruiting Officer Review * 18 March 2012

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Written in 1706 by the Irish playwright George Farquhar and first performed at Drury Lane in London in the same year, The Recruiting Officer is one of the most famous Renaissance plays in existence, performed numerous times since its inception. This latest production, playing at the Donmar Warehouse - not far from the site of the first performance over three hundred years before - is a brilliant, entertaining staging, not least for the presence of Mark Gatiss in the cast.

Telling the story of Captain Plume, the Recruiting Officer of the title, and his attempts to secure new soldiers for his regiment in a small town, while also womanizing his way around the place and fending off the attempts of the cowardly Captain Brazen to do the same, the play is a gently ribald romp, with quite a lot of heart. As is typical of so many Renaissance plays, the plot concerns the misunderstandings and complications between the sexes, whilst also lampooning the military life of the period quite effectively. Here though, as directed by Josie Rourke - freshly installed as creative director of the Donmar Warehouse, and coming off a sell-out season in 2011 of William Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing' starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate - the production features inspired comedic farce, slight audience interaction, a pair of live chickens, beautiful live music, and a sudden shift into the unexpectedly emotional. 

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The cast are uniformly superb. As Captain Plume, Tobias Menzies (HBO's 'Rome', BBC's 'Spooks) has the difficult task of displaying the necessary degree of cock and swagger while also having to play the straight man - if there could be such a thing in a play like this - to the other male members of the cast. Supposedly seducing his way around the town, Plume is actually in love with Slyvia, played here by Nancy Carroll. Carroll is the warm emotional heart of the play, caught between wealth and love, and instead chooses to disguise herself as a man to enlist in attempt to flee both - which of course leads to some disconcerting feelings from the decidedly hetrosexual Plume.

As Plume's Sergeant, Mackenzie Crook cuts a wonderful, ludicrous dash from his first appearance. The impression we took - and this is in no way a criticism - was a channelling of a certain co-star of Crook's in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Cunning, long haired, wild eyed and raucously cockney, with many a tall tale to tell and a fondness for absurd disguises, Sergeant Kite is here for all the world a variation of Captain Jack Sparrow, but thanks to the simple yet dominating way he lights up the stage is none the poorer for it. 

And of course, Mark Gatiss. The last of the major cast to appear on stage, his entrance as the preening, gorgeously be-curled Captain Brazen is a near showstopper. Foppish, rambling, pathetic and comedic in equal measure, Gatiss gives Crook an equal attempt at stealing the play from under the other cast, being gifted the best of the sight gags and also the most audience interaction - if sat in the front row, don't be surprised if you find yourself holding his hat or cane at some point in the performance.   

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Indeed, the small size of the Donmar lends the play an intimacy you rarely find in theatre. Staged with a simple floating candle lit back drop, and using minimal set dressing, the sheer heart of the play fills the place. Most impressive is the use of live music by the company, playing as you enter the auditorium, throughout the performance itself, and then to close the play out in emotional fashion - in the end, and despite the farce, this is a play about love and war, and only by choosing love does Plume escape the bleakness of combat that the other characters look forward too. It's a sudden and unexpected twist in tone, lending the play a beautiful, melancholy end. Indeed, at the close the audience sat in shell shocked silence, until someone broke the hush to begin the applause.  

The Recruiting Officer is playing at The Donmar Warehouse until 14 April 2012. Tickets are sold out, but day returns are possible. Check HERE for further information. 

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