In her article for the British Library on Restorations Comedy Diane Maybank
Betrays the period and lacks any appeal.
observes that “little can be gained from removing the plays from their historical settings”. This sentiment is completely borne out at the Red Lion Theatre in an adaptation by Charlie Ryall of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer (1706), directed by Jenny Eastop for Mercurius Theatre that runs in rep with their other work, Indebted to Chance.
The play surely draws on Farquhar’s experiences of working as a recruiting officer in his home town of Shrewsbury, where it is set. It highlights the impact of a military descent upon a thriving market town and the inevitable flirtations and amorous liaisons that followed. These are pursued in a bed of theatrical confusion so beloved of the period. While the original text is mostly retained its linguistic impact is largely lost through attempts to bring it into a contemporary setting around the conflict in Syria.
Most of the cast utter sentences over three hundred year old in a casual, modern manner in costumes that span the centuries. There are army green combat trousers with white vests, hardly the uniform of a recruiting officer, blue jeans and a courtroom scene featuring a wig and assorted items of generic country clothing from indeterminate periods, that also appear elsewhere, but certainly little that is overtly 21st century.
Linguistic inconsistencies match the costume confusion. Benjamin Garrison’s over-the-top portrayal of Brazen would probably not have seemed out of place if the rest of the production were to be in that style. At least in his performance there is something of the mannered flamboyance of the period that is consistent with the language. Instead, highlighted by his bright red military uniform, reminiscent of a clockwork toy, it verges on the embarrassing. Fitting into nothing is a bizarre episode that occurs with two would-be recruits specifically mentioned as being from Herefordshire. Enveloped in hoodies they translate the text into something that could probably be described as ghetto Estuary English.
Elsewhere actors use their natural voices and some valiant performances emerge within this flawed context. Daniel Barry provides hints of Canada and is a well-suited suitor. Elliott Mitchell battles for Australia and leads much of the action as a rather laid-back yet seductive Captain Plume. Lydia Bakelmun adds an air of sophistication as Melinda, in contrast to the country simplicity of Susannah Edgley’s Rose and Beth Eyre successfully manages two roles as a sergeant and a fortune teller. Meanwhile, Andy Secombe uses a range of interesting accents to highlight the social status of his various characters and pulls off some delightful scenes as Balance. Charlie Ryall has spent much time studying Charlotte Charke and clearly relishes the opportunity to disguise herself in the breeches role of Sylvia that she once performed.
A play is not updated or made more relevant to another age just by mentioning contemporary locations and events or changing the clothes and the name of the
monarch. In matters of war there is also the danger of insensitivity or even offence. Threatening to send someone to Aleppo instead of Flanders simply jars, although reference to the war on terror raised a laugh, whereas a potential duel with hand grenades seemed far-fetched.
Maybank concluded that the best approach to this genre “is to relish the sparkling wit and brilliant dialogue, while engaging with the sexual politics”. Style and delivery fail to let the former shine through while the latter seems bland by modern standards without the strong period setting. Charlie Ryall has completed a remarkable project with these two plays, but The Recruiting Officer betrays the period and lacks any appeal.