Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Recruiting Officer

George Farquhar
Salisbury Playhouse
Salisbury Playhouse

Gemma Soul and Babou Ceesay in The Recruiting Officer Credit: Keith Pattison

We’re back in 1704. Queen Anne’s on the throne, the sun’s beating down on the neo-classical frontages of Shrewsbury and the Grenadiers are marching into town, with drumbeat and trumpet call, to enlist some volunteers to fight the French.

Sergeant Kite’s the first to arrive and addresses the crowd. He tries bribery, flattery, appeals to their patriotism and mild fraud, with mixed success.

The problem’s the women. They’re not happy about their men going off to war. And when breezy, charismatic Captain Plume (Babou Ceesay) arrives on the scene, in scarlet tunic and dazzling brass buttons, we discover a new plot-strand, which will largely take over the action, steering us away from the theme of war and onto that of love. For Captain Plume is in love with Silvia (as are we all—Jennifer Kirby is enchanting in this role).

To complicate matters further, she will find it necessary to disappear from the scene and reappear as ‘Captain Wilful’, wearing breeches and a sword, in order to protect Rose, a country wench, whose brother Bullock—referred to as ‘honest dung-fork’—is on Plume’s list of possible recruits, from being seduced.

Others involved in the ever more complex and increasingly hilarious plot are Captain Brazen, played with delicious foppery by David Charles and Mr Worthy, the local landowner (David Partridge). (You know you’re firmly set in the Restoration era when the characters have names to fit their personalities. Could Balance, Scale and Scruple be anything other than a trio of judges?)

Then there’s Melinda (Emma Williams), haughty and quarrelsome. She’s worth a bit, but now that Silvia’s brother’s died and she’ll inherit, rather less in comparison. And that’s something else that leads to complications. Changing fortunes in the women’s lives alter their attractiveness as potential brides.

A convoluted plot, then. One which requires many scene changes, surely. And here’s where Salisbury Playhouse really shines. Those clever flats which revolve to reveal elegant furnishings and lighting arrangements also open up to show the musicians, the fiddles and pipes, which provide additional authentic flavour to the action. Kate Edgar’s original music is an added bonus.

Oh, and you want to know what was really special about this production? Well, you remember the old saying that actors are traditionally supposed to wish each other before a performance? Yes. That one. And you may find it hard to believe this, but Jem Wall, the actor playing Sergeant Kite, really did—well, not exactly break his leg—but damage it badly enough to have to hand over to Gareth Machin, the director, only hours before opening.

And, sorry Jem, but he managed to place himself, not with the toffs, nor the peasants, but in a distinct role somewhere between the two, authoritative, magnetic even, with the crowd, resourceful, sardonic and wittily droll in the other scenes. His justification for being suitably qualified for his job as a recruiting sergeant—at ‘canting, lying, impudence, pimping, bullying, swearing, whoring and drinking... you will find the sum total will amount to a recruiting sergeant,’ delivered with assured delight in his own eloquence.

A wonderful Kite. And a production which Farquhar, even after 300 years, would surely have found eminently satisfying...

Reviewer: Anne Hill