By George Farquhar
Directed by Josie Rourke
Venue: Donmar Theatre
Date: Thursday 1st March 2012
A great start for the new regime – a strong production of a classic play with some very good performances. To begin with, the Donmar has changed a bit since our last visit (Richard II) with the wall at the back of the auditorium removed and new seating with patterned cushions. I don’t know if any of that was just for this production, but they don’t usually lash out money unnecessarily so I reckon it’s an upgrade. And very comfortable we were too.
The set was very rustic, with wooden floorboards and wooden planks across the top of the stage, large round candlelit chandeliers and wooden stairs and posts in the back corners. They began proceedings before the start of the play with the band, a five-piece who also played the minor parts. They had a drummer who also strummed a small guitar, a proper guitarist, a fiddler, a flute player and a double bass player who wore his instrument like a guitar for most of the time. When we turned up about fifteen minutes before the off, they were already on stage and entertaining us all with some period music, ranging from slower ballads to lively jigs. They played a lot during the performance as well, particularly the song Over The Hills And Far Away, one of Steve’s favourites – we nearly joined in.
While they played, some of the cast came on stage to light the candles – the chandeliers were lowered for that purpose – which took some time as there were lots of candles on each one. There were also some pretend lime lights all around the edge of the stage – small electric lights inside shaped holders. When everything was ready, the band drew our attention by gathering in the middle of the stage and playing softer and softer, then breaking out into a more lively section. After that finished, they lined up across the stage and began to play some strange sounds. Many in the audience laughed straightaway, but it took me some time to recognise what they were doing – playing ring tones! I spotted the flute at the end, and we applauded when they finished and moved off the stage. When the applause died down, Sergeant Kite came on to start the play proper, and I was reminded of the ending of Our Country’s Good a few weeks ago, when this opening scene was performed in that play’s last scene.
I won’t go through the story for this one, it would take too long. There are two ladies and their suitors, a maid, a country wench, a fop, a judge and a rascally recruiting sergeant who moonlights as a German fortune teller. All end happily except for Lucy the maid, who loses her chance to marry the fop and become a lady. There are plenty of laughs along the way, and although there are undoubtedly references that would be funnier in Farquhar’s day, we didn’t feel left out by the language.
The performances were very good, although I felt the judge was showing his age a little in his hesitant manner; this weakened the performance slightly but not too much. Mackenzie Crook was fine as Sergeant Kite, but really came into his own as the fake German fortune teller, with his false goatee beard and black eye makeup. I liked the way they simply hung up a rope with a bead curtain part way along it to form the entrance to his room; a chaise longue, table and chair completed the furniture, and the table was laden with all sorts of bric-a-brac suitable for the charlatan’s trade. Tobias Menzies as Captain Plume was excellent with his smooth charm and willingness to cheat and swindle anybody to recruit more men into the army, specifically the Grenadiers. Mr Worthy, played by Nicholas Burns, was a good match for him, and I loved the way Worthy and his beloved, Melinda, had a coy little kiss at the end while Plume and Sylvia were having a proper snog in the middle of the stage.
Sylvia (Nancy Carroll) and Melinda (Rachel Stirling) were also very good. We’re accustomed to Nancy Carroll’s talent for playing men, but this time I felt she made her Wilful a little more feminine, appropriate for this production. Melinda was great fun. At the start she put on such an overly posh accent that we could barely understand her, while Sylvia made excellent fun of her ‘ears’ and graces. At the start of the second half, she spotted the Maltesers on the lap of the lady next to me and made for them with a gleam in her eye, only to stop herself at the last moment with a cry of ‘no’! The same lady was singled out later by Worthy as the person he had been coming to the park to meet, and she took in good part all the references that were made to her during this conversation and later on. Melinda also bumped into one of the posts as she made her way off stage after the reconciliation with Worthy, and did a nice job of staggering around a bit before finding her way past the posts and into the wings.
The maid and Rose, the country wench, were also fine, and we noticed that Plume was very gallant when Rose came on with her skirt all rucked up; he kindly sorted it out for her so she wasn’t showing off her knickers to all and sundry, although from the way she was behaving earlier we weren’t sure if that was part of the performance or not. And finally Mark Gatiss as Captain Brazen was an excellent fop, the sort of man you’d run a mile to avoid, but very funny when you only have to endure him from a comfortable seat in the auditorium. He was very civilised, though – he kept handing his hat or cane to people in the audience to hold for him while he enacted a scene, and always thanked them most graciously when he took those items back again.
The dialogue was very clear throughout, and made more sense than usual; the language of this period can seem very dated if not delivered well, but today it was fresh and understandable, which helped to make the production so enjoyable. The pace was good too, with two and half hours skipping by like frisky spring lambs. It was nice to see this play again, especially so close to Our Country’s Good, and we’re looking forward to the Donmar’s next offering.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me