A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reviewing Tower Theatre’s production of Our Country’s Good. Based on a true story it tells how a group of 18th century transported convicts mounted the very first play in the new colony of Australia. Their chosen text was George Farquhar’s late Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer. It occurred to me at the time that I’d never actually seen/read the original though had a vague notion of what it was about purely from seeing Our Country”s Good on more than one occasion. I resolved to remedy this omission and turned to a BBC audio version to bridge the gap.
Farquhar’s comedy follows along reasonably traditional lines with witty rakish young men and even witter and wilier young women trading quips and bandying words before a final resolution ensues where everyone lives happily ever after – at least that seems to be the resolution aimed for. One of the ladies has to test her perhaps errant lover by donning a pair of breeches and temporarily adopting a male persona. He, of course, in true Twelfth Night vein, fails to penetrate her disguise. There’s the almost obligatory saucy scheming lady’s maid, the “let’s throw a spanner in the works” father figure and where would a Restoration comedy be without the mincing fop? In this case it is Captain Brazen who is all affectation and camp frippery. Basically the play relies on recognisable stock “types” and also a stock plot where money, marriage and mayhem are the driving forces.
Where this play does depart from the custom and practice of the genre is in the social milieu which it adopts. Rather than the usual fashionable town, the play is set in rather more provincial Shrewsbury and, as the title reveals, concerns the doings of army recruiters looking to flesh out Queen Anne’s troops as they pursue a war with the French. The less than scrupulous Sergeant Kite uses questionable tactics (including posing as a fortune teller of dubious accent) to dragoon the locals into the platoon, though it is evident that he is going to have his work cut out to turn them into the men of steel he needs. It’s all rather reminiscent of Falstaff’s ruses in Henry IV to achieve similar ends.
There’s a fine cast including Lisa Dillon, Kate Fleetwood, Adjoa Andoh, Paul Higgins and Adam James. Honours go to Ralph Ineson as rascally Sergeant Kite and Elliot Levey as the outrageous Brazen. But then as Laurence Olivier recognised in his early 1960s revival for his new National Theatre company, it may not be the biggest but is certainly the best part. (We can only dream of such a cast now – apart from Olivier there was Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave, Colin Blakey and a new actor just starting out – Michael Gambon)
Though there is little to adversely criticise about this production as such, it never quite gelled for me. The dialogue is briskly delivered and characterisation is solid enough. However, I think this play really needs a visual dimension to make it sing. After all one of the key elements of any good Restoration comedy production is the period costuming complete with stylish wigs and plenty of fan fluttering. I’m glad to have finally caught up with the play and it certainly helped to put Our Country’s Good into perspective. While it seems an odd choice for a group of newly exiled convicts to be performing, The Recruiting Officer was apparently the most frequently performed stage piece of the 18th century, outstripping even Hamlet in its popularity. That may seem odd to us in 2023 but tastes change and develop in all sorts of odd directions. People themselves, however, are an entirely different matter. And the duplicitous behaviour of authority which this play highlights is perhaps not so far removed from the present day as we perhaps might like to think.
The Recruiting Officer is available via the BBC Sounds app; click here
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