The Recruiting Officer (1706) by the wonderfully named Irish dramatist George Farquhar is a classic of English comic satire so it is most welcome to have the pleasure of seeing Charlie Ryall’s adaptation at the historic Red Lion pub (built in 1415, customers include Hogarth, Dr Jonson, Dickens & Orwell) in the Angel Islington. Charlie has also written a new play (Indebted to Chance, 2018) about a fascinating eighteenth-century actress Charlotte Charke (nee Cibber, 1713 -1760) the first woman to play Hamlet, the first woman to write a published autobiography, lived her life dressed as a man, and cohabited with her female partner. Charlie has had a long-term project to put these two plays on together. Indebted To Chance (like Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, 1988) is a play partly about a rehearsal of The Recruiting Officer. Clearly, Charlotte was inspired by the opportunity the role of Silvia in The Recruiting Officer gave her to cross dress and play a man.
The Recruiting Officer has two overlapping plots which play on the idea of recruiting. The first plot is an expose of the methods used to enlist gullible young men into the Army. The second plot turns on the recruitment of marriage partners. Ingeniously marital and monetary analogies link both plots. Phrases such as ‘Make an assault upon her’, ‘strike whilst the iron is hot’, ‘breach her defences’ and so on. Recruits are tempted by the Queen’s Shilling just as the suitors’ Plume, Worthy and Brazen take note of the respective fortunes of Melinda and Silvia. Male gold diggers in fact.
Not only has Charlie written the adaption she also plays the part of the cross-dressing Silvia. This device gives rise to a number of delicious ironies which surely Charlotte Charke found delightfully transgressive. For example, Silvia dressed as a male officer (Jack Wilful) flirts with Rose (Susannah Edgley) at one point they share a bed. But the audience, in fact, knows that two women are sharing a bed. Daring stuff for the eighteen century. And no doubt wonderfully liberating for Charlotte the real-life woman who lived as a man and shared a bed every night with her female partner. Silvia convinces as a man by the simple addition of a pencil moustache, trousers, beret, frequently exaggerated slapping of her thigh and putting on a deeper voice. In this way, the play opens up a Pandora’s box of smoke and mirrors. Or a series of Russian dolls one inside the other. One simple theatrical device – a woman playing a man – thus opens up all sorts of questions about gender, sexuality, identity and power. Wonderful.
There are fine performances from a very strong cast. Lydia Bakelmun and Susannah Edgley are superb as the Catherine Tate “Am I bothered though” teenagers in hoodies who Captain Plume (Eliot Mitchell) attempts to recruit on his visit to Shrewsbury. This is one of the many contemporary analogies that Charlie has come up with to give the play modern resonance. This scene, in particular, brings out very well the way in which the army targets youngsters from the provinces or deprived council estates. The gold Queen’s Shilling with which the two lads are recruited is as pertinent in 2018 as it was in 1706. Money talks.
Beth Eyre is excellent as the no-nonsense Sergeant Kite and even better in the second Act as the fortune teller who dupes Melinda (Lydia Bakelmun) with her own signature. In fact, she has this from Mr Worthy (Daniel Barry) her suitor. Andy Secombe gives a fine performance as the country squire Mr Balance, “what no bastards and so many recruiting officers in town” being just one of his many delightful comic quips. Benjamin Garrison is outstanding as the foppish Captain Brazen one of the great comic roles in English theatre. The duel scene is wonderful. Rejecting pistols as ungentlemanly he offers his rival Mr Worthy grenades as the weapon of choice. He has two grenades attached to his belt. He has all the mannerisms of a fop off to a T. His accent is just so and his red coat uniform is appropriately garish. This is a fine production.
Review by John O’Brien
Shrewsbury, 2014. Captain Plume has returned from Syria under orders to recruit for the continued conflict. He is not confident that the prospect of fighting for the good of Queen and country will be reward enough for the unsuspecting locals, so he has to resort to more underhand measures. Whilst there, he encounters his old flame, Silvia, who has rather more to test him with than he bargained for.
Written in 1706, The Recruiting Officer gives a no-holds-barred account of the methods and tactics of warfare. In its scathing satire of the lengths to which those in authority will go to obtain what they want, it finds an easy home in the 21st Century.
Director: Jenny Eastop
Cast: Lydia Bakelmun, Daniel Barry, Susannah Edgley, Beth Eyre, Benjamin Garrison, Elliot
Mitchell, Charlie Ryall, Andy Secombe
Old Red Lion Theatre
418 St John Street
6th November – 1st December 2018