The first and last time I saw this play was at the Edinburgh Fringe a frightening number of years ago played by an excellent school company at the Venue 40 with which I was then involved. The first surprise of seeing it again a couple of nights ago was to discover how many of the lines I remembered.
As the many other critics who have got to this before me have remarked this is a lovely, funny new production. As so often the Donmar auditorium is transformed with oodles of candles, chandeliers, lanterns, beams – it looks wonderful and fits the play to typical perfection. Matched to this spot on design is an excellent ensemble cast. It was an especial joy to me to see Nancy Carroll again who brought back memories of the Almeida's extraordinary production of Waste. She is especially superb here when Silvia becomes Wilful. She is well matched by Tobias Menzies's Captain Plume. He has something of a Blackadder flounce about him but also something deeper which emerges as required to give emotional depth to the character and the plot. As the other pair of lovers, Nicholas Burns's Mr Worthy rails piercingly, and Rachael Stirling's Melinda does the best comedy accent turn I've heard for ages – but again they under Josie Rourke's direction take care not to lose sight of the humans beneath the caricatures. Finally, doing his level best to steal every scene he's in, not to mention cast his wandering eye at as many female members of the audience as possible, there is Mark Gatiss's Captain Brazen.
The other great pleasure of this show is the band headed, I hope I'm right in saying, by Stuart Ward. Live music is welcome in almost any show, but it fits this one especially well warming the audience up before the start, filling in an interlude here and there (including a wonderful barbershop number), before packing an absolute emotional punch at the conclusion.
For it is the final moments of this show which truly lift it into the front rank. For most of the previous two and a half hours I laughed, smiled, and was happily back in Marlborough's England. Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, and with clever subtlety Rourke contrived to remind me how applicable much of the play is to many more recent times so that I left the theatre sombre and rather moved.
This is a marvellous start to the new regime at the Donmar. One or two tickets have been coming back on sale otherwise I would have missed it, but if these are now gone, it's well worth queueing for a return.