The Recruiting Officer

George Faquhar
Moving Theatre at Lichfield Garrick
(2003)

The last time I saw Corin Redgrave was just over a year ago when he starred in Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version at Derby Playhouse, a role for which he deservedly picked up best actor in the Barclays Theatre Awards.

So I was really looking forward to seeing him again in the provinces, this time at Lichfield's resplendent new 490-seat theatre, the Garrick.

The Recruiting Officer is the first of two plays being staged in the Staffordshire city by Moving Theatre, the company Redgrave founded with his sister Vanessa. The other is Maureen Lawrence's powerful play Resurrection.

For the past ten years Redgrave has wanted to do Resurrection, which deals with the relationship between a Jamaican manservant and the 18th century writer Samuel Johnson, who was born in Lichfield. The new theatre will allow Redgrave to fulfil that ambition.

He also wanted to honour David Garrick, Johnson's contemporary. The Recruiting Officer was the first play Garrick acted in when he was 11. George Farquhar wrote some of it while staying at the George Hotel in Lichfield.

It's set in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Blenheim in 1706. Redgrave and Annie Castledine, who co-directs, read The Recruiting Officer at the time of Tony Blair's first dossier on Iraq. "Each subsequent reading was accompanied by the appalling drum beat of the invasion, conquest and occupation of Iraq, and against a background of overwhelming opposition to the war at every level of our society," says Redgrave in the programme notes.

However, this never comes through in the production. Nor does the humour. It's billed as "the greatest British comedy ever written" - but there aren't many laughs in it at all.

The plot involves Capt Plume and Sgt Kite travelling the English countryside "recruiting" simple country folk for the war against France and also looking for women for their beds. When they arrive in Shrewsbury they find themselves competing with an equally unscrupulous officer for troops and local girls.

James Hillier takes the role of Capt Plume but is unconvincing both as an officer and a lothario. Andrew Hawkins is just as implausible as Justice Balance. As the play is more than an hour old before Redgrave makes his first appearance as Captain Brazen and later doubles up in another minor role as the Constable, it's left to Owen Sharpe as comically fearsome Sgt Kite and the four women in the cast to inject any life into the production.

Neve McIntosh sparkles as Melinda and does a creditable job as country yokel Thomas Appletree, while Petra Markham, Penny Layden and Hayley Jayne Standing do their best to lift the production.

Despite their efforts there is the feeling that the play was done on a budget and it doesn't appear to have stood the test of time.

An anti-war epilogue written by Tony Harrison and delivered by Redgrave which blasts Blair, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and George Bush ,ends the evening. It prompted an outburst from the man sitting next to me who cried "We don't want your politics!" before storming out.

He might have been better venting his displeasure at the play. It was the most frequently performed play of the 18th century; no doubt it'll be one of the least performed of the 21st.

"The Recruiting Officer" runs until September 27th

Reviewer: Steve Orme