I can't remember the last time I giggled this much at the theatre. I am sure it wasn't at the Donmar: this tiny Covent garden theatre was a world-class mega-brand under ex-boss Michael Grandage, but he usually made its select audiences suffer exquisitely, not laugh until they cried.
Wisely, new Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke breezes in and freshens up the rep with a country air. George Farquhar's 1706 play is classed as a Restoration comedy (another first for this theatre), but it's no sharp-nailed tale of fashionable malice, being set in Shrewsbury, where its author was once himself a recruiting officer.
It is essentially a generous-hearted provincial story of love among double-dealing redcoats; Captains Plume, Kite and Brazen, return from war armed with gold, Flanders lace, and an arsenal of tricks to press local lads into their troop and lasses into the nearest pile of hay.
Director Rourke has recruited a crack cast of comics. The superb Mark Gatiss takes the audience by force as over-rouged fop Captain Brazen, whom he plays as a poodle-wigged cross between Captain Hook and the late Queen Mother.
Mackenzie Crook steals laughs with his deadpan awkwardness as Sergeant Kite, especially when the flimsy plot requires him to read ladies' fortunes with the aid of a satanic glove puppet and a dodgy German accent.
But Tobias Menzies is the star. He swaggers on as the play's rakish lead, Captain Plume, leaving local wenches like Aimeé-Ffion Edwards's hilarious Rose slack-jawed and quivering in his wake. But when he is himself pursued by a woman who is his equal, Nancy Carroll's wonderfully intelligent cross-dressing Sylvia, you see a complex, conscience-struck man beneath the charismatic skirt-lifter: the right captain for a comedy which pays honest respects to the sorrows and danger of a soldier's life.
Given the heavy representation of bluff military blokes in British drama, you have to salute a director who – as she showed with a phwoahsome David Tennant-led band in last summer's 'Much Ado' – enjoys making soldiers sexy. The Byronic camp spirit just swells and swells in this hugely fanciable show, where the lads are so impressed with their own chivalry that they even start snogging each other.
Rourke's production takes some far-from-subtle comic scenes at a lusty canter (the excellent Rachael Stirling gamely hurls herself into the walls and floor as well as the pantomime snobberies of subplot romantic heroine Melinda). But she also supplies wit, wistfulness and warmth.
This show knows, as the writer did, that the war which awaits this loveable bunch of boneheads and coxcombs is no laughing matter. Plume's raw recruits double as a talented five-man band, who usher us in a night of fun with witty pizzicato imitations of ringtones. But a 'Blackadder'-like ending awaits. And their jolly refrain of 'Over The Hills and Far Away' sounds very melancholy indeed as they march off, one by one, to their unsung endings.
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I really enjoyed this - it was a lot of fun and the performances could not be faulted, though I did feel it was lacking something. It raised a few chuckles though it wasn't what I'd call hilarious (unlike She Stoops to Conquer at the National, which I guess is comparable in style) - though Gatiss was the exception to this.