The Recruiting Officer at Chichester Festival Theatre

George Farquahar's 1706 comedy is retold once again as part of this year's Chichester Festival summer season. Though Farquahar wrote it at the tender age of 29 - just a year before his death - The Recruiting Officer is one of those near-perfect comedies that, despite its 18th century credentials, weathers the passage of time unbelievably well. And it will doubtless continue to be a classic for many, many years to come - though how much this new production will contribute to the play's reputation is open to debate.

The war with France marches on and, back in the safety of Shrewsbury, Captain Plume and his sergeant Kite are embarking on a campaign for fresh battlefield recruits. However, while tricking men into signing up by whatever method he dreams up is his function here, the Captain invests the bulk of his energy into a string of misbegotten love affairs. And, once ardour has waned, it's poor Kite who's left to provide for any offspring, marry off the ladies, and fix any other wrongdoings committed by his captain.

The story necessitates a fair amount of scene-shifting but, with designer Tanya McCallin's adaptable set, the changes occur so slickly that you hardly notice them. A couple of chairs and a table transform into any room, while the yellowed parchment-style wallpaper effectively dates the action. Costumes help establish the characters' standing, with feathers and dress hoops mushrooming in size along with social status.

The production features a stageful of talented, yet primarily unheard of actors. Under the guidance of director James Kerr, they perform quite admirably and, given there's no protagonist, all the bows are shared out equally come the curtain call.

That said, the performer who makes the most impact is Nicholas Le Prevast as Captain Brazen. He plays the Captain hilariously as a daft, know-it-all type, and his performance serves as a reminder that this piece is a comedy.

I'm sad to report that reminders are, in fact, necessary. Though the laughs are usually evident, in some cases you have to strain to catch them. The pace and action aren't quite up to snuff either - Kerr's direction is pretty slow-going and restrained really and, with sword fights lasting mere seconds, you can't help but feel cheated.

So, all in all, this is a welcome outing for Farquahar's comedy, but it's not exactly flawless, and it leaves you rather wanting at the end of the evening.

Ellen Holbrook

The Recruiting Officer continues at Chichester Festival Theatre until 15 July 2000.