The stage is candle-lit. The audience is welcomed by country musicians whose pleasingly rural strains segue into the subtlest of warnings to turn off mobile phones. This inaugural production by the Donmar's new artistic director Josie Rourke feels very different from the austere, black-as-liquorice look of many a show directed by Michael Grandage, Rourke's predecessor. It all feels like a new era, perhaps partly because the Donmar has never done a restoration comedy before.
The Irish-born George Farquhar based his 1706 Shrewsbury-set play on his own experience as a recruiting officer - a role played here by The Office and Pirates of the Caribbean star Mackenzie Crook. As Sergeant Kite - who recruits soldiers from a reluctant male population on behalf of the philandering Captain Plume - Crook makes a doleful and deadpan observer of his master's antics.
Most of the stage time, however, is devoted to whether Captain Plume (Tobias Menzies) and his gentleman friend Worthy are each able to seduce and marry Sylvia, daughter of the local Justice, and her cousin Melinda. The campaign is seriously skewered when the women come into so much money the riches threaten to put them beyond the reach of their suitors. And, for Worthy, the task gets harder with the arrival of a rival in the form of Captain Brazen, a hilarious fop whose cheeks are more rouged than those of the woman he courts.
Rourke has done her own impressive recruiting for her first Donmar production. As well as Crook, it boasts a mincing Mark Gattis as Brazen, a rampantly camp fashion victim. And as the nouveau riche Melinda, an energetic, occasionally pratfalling Rachel Stirling puts on the ridiculously posh airs (pronounced "ears") of a woman with more money than breeding. But the comedy of subtlety here is provided by Crook, an actor who fascinatingly gives the impression of having wandered on to the stage by mistake.
Yet it takes too much time for all this talent to cohere. Lucy Osborne's barn-like set gives little sense of the bustle of 18th-century Shrewsbury. And, although Rourke's touching finale gives a sad sense of what is in store for the men slyly recruited by Crook's Kite, the idea comes like an afterthought.
Still, on the this evidence the Donmar is in good hands with great