Directing a production at The Oxford Playhouse is no easy undertaking. The subtleties of character which can be conveyed in a studio theatre are easily lost on a large stage. This is perhaps the main fault of Helen McCabe’s production of George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy, The Recruiting Officer. However, the fault simultaneously lies with the play itself, which calls for stock characters to play out this comedy of errors. Despite moments of weakness, Helen McCabe is certainly successful in drawing the audience into the eighteenth century landscape of Farquhar’s Shrewsbury and fulfilling the main function of the play: to entertain the audience.
The Recruiting Officer contains all of the usual features of Restoration comedy – concealed identity, bawdy jokes and a revelation scene which leads to a happy ending. The most popular play of the eighteenth century, Farquhar’s witty dialogue maintains the audience’s attention throughout the plot twists, which is of particular value in a play of this length. At the centre of the story is Captain Plume (Tim Pleydell-Bouverie) who has recently arrived back in Shrewsbury and is attempting to court Silvia (Harriet Tolkein), causing her angry cousin Melinda to intervene, resulting in Silvia’s being removed to the country by her father, Justice Balance (Guy Westwood). In the meantime, Captain Brazen (Rory Fazan) and Mr Worthy (Maximus Marenbon) vie for Melinda’s affections, while Silvia returns to Shrewsbusy in disguise as ‘Jack Wilful’ and Sergeant Kite (Edwin Thomas) disguises himself as a German fortune-teller in order to encourage men to enlist.
Tim Pleydell-Bouverie gives a charismatic and, at certain moments, delightfully camp portrayal of the womanising Captain Plume. Although rather caricatured, his strength of performance helps to carry the play and generate plenty of laughter. Both Sylvia and Melinda are strong characters, although they appear rather affected at times. More could have been made of their quarrels if they had been toned down slightly, introducing a comic disjunction between the polite language in which they address one another, and the antagonistic feelings which lie behind their speeches. The problem for all three actors is that the demand of performing in such a large space means that lines become rather ‘vamped up’ by the need to project, and lose the differentiation of tone which makes a character more believable. However, all three prove themselves worthy of performing in a leading role at the Playhouse. But perhaps the real stars of the show are Edwin Thomas and Guy Westwood, who put in convincing and highly comic performances which help the intricacies of the plot to flow and keep the audience well-entertained.
A well-designed set and use of period costume situates the play in eighteenth century England, and the set allows flexible movement between outdoor scenes in the market place, and the more intimate indoor scenes. The relatively large cast allows McCabe to make strong use of the space of the Playhouse stage, and her crowd scenes are well-choreographed. Thus, the audience certainly finds themselves immersed in the society being portrayed. The public/private dichotomy which is explored is central to the underlying moral of the play, which considers the importance of honesty in a loving relationship. At times, the actors fail to capture the true nature of their character behind the social façade. But even without this subtlety of portrayal, the production is strong enough to engage the audience’s attention, and, what’s more, have them laughing out loud.