Josie Rourke bows as the new artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in a blaze of footlights and coloured candles, red coats and muskets, live chickens and apples, and a poignant chorus of “Over the Fields and Far Away” as the new recruits down musical instruments and depart for war.
Following Michael Grandage, let alone Sam Mendes, in the hot seat was always going to be a tough call. Wisely, Rourke and her designer, the brilliantly resourceful Lucy Osborne, avoid any hint of flagstones, incense, high tall windows, existentialism and clever wraparound soundscape.
In fact, Rourke plays a blinder: the stage, not the acting, is entirely wooden, and she somehow makes the pocket-sized arena larger, and more open, as Captain Plume (Tobias Menzies, robust and likeable) and his rat-like Sergeant Kite (Mackenzie Crook, hilariously furtive and filthy) descend on Shrewsbury to press gang soldiers for the Spanish wars.
George Farquhar’s beautiful Restoration comedy – just the thought of it makes me go weak at the knees – is a very good choice: an array of good roles, a tough kernel in the army game, a nicely complicated narrative with three plots and some of the wittiest dialogue and most elegant prose in the repertoire.
There’s a wonderful pairing, too, of Nancy Carroll as Silvia, testing her chosen lover, Plume, in a boy’s disguise, and Rachael Stirling as her cousin, the affected heiress Melinda, sorting out the sallies of a silly old fop and an eager chap called, inevitably, Mr Worthy.
The poodle-wigged fop Brazen is occupied by Mark Gatiss, all winks and smiles, and very funny, though not as lubricious, obviously, as Olivier was in the legendary National production. But the “falling in love” part is beautifully done by Carroll, who manages to be both hearty and vulnerable, and Menzies, who throws off his rakish reputation with a splendid flourish.
There’s a lovely performance, too, from Aimeé-Ffion Edwards as the exemplary wench Rose, losing more than her chickens in the cause of consigning her brother to the ranks. Tom Giles and Matthew Romain double effectively, and metaphorically, as musicians and recruits, and Gawn Grainger dithers good-heartedly as Justice Balance.
So, a wonderful new start with a show that gives nothing but pleasure. The editing of the text is good, too, though I’m sorry to see that Kite’s speech about the Bed of Ware has been adjusted to something less pertinent called the bed of honour. If we can live with the same reference in Twelfth Night, we can take it in Farquhar, guv.