Thursday, 22 November 2012

Theatre review: The Magistrate

Things haven't gone smoothly this year for the National's annual Christmas extravaganza: After taking the unusual, for them, step of putting tickets for The Count of Monte Cristo on sale nearly six months in advance, they then had to refund them when they decided the adaptation wasn't ready. Instead Timothy Sheader, who had been down to direct that show, was put in charge of a starry production of Arthur Wing Pinero's Victorian farce The Magistrate. When widow Agatha (Nancy Carroll) met the amiable magistrate Posket (John Lithgow) on holiday, she knocked five years off her age to seem more marriageable. Now they're married and back in London, Agatha's spotted a flaw in her plan: Her son Cis (Joshua McGuire,) whose fondness for port, cigarettes and groping his piano teacher (Sarah Ovens) seems a bit mature for a 14-year-old. That's because to make her lie work, his mother also knocked five years of Cis' age, and he's really 19.

The Magistrate certainly doesn't look like a last-minute replacement, with Katrina Lindsay's gorgeous pop-up book set sporting lots of lopsided angles that mirror those of the preposterous wigs (some of which hide a couple of surprises.) McGuire's Cis is a creepy manchild squeezed into school uniform and hitting on any woman who gets too close (this being a farce, the boy himself has also somehow managed to be kept in the dark about his real age.) The angelic innocence that people ascribe to him means he can fleece his new stepfather at cards, get him to accidentally alienate his servant Wyke (Alexander Cobb) by under-tipping, and eventually escort him to a disreputable hotel where Cis keeps a room on tab to entertain his friends. The play's most farcical scenes takes place here, as Agatha has also secretly gone there to intercept an old family friend (Jonathan Coy) before he reveals her deception.

Nancy Carroll is, unsurprisingly, one of the show's biggest highlights. Her performance is typified by a prim Victorian dignity that has a tendency to snap into inappropriate rages when everything gets too much for her. The production's first two acts could do with a bit more of the sparky unpredictability she brings because although everyone's throwing themselves into the show and there's many funny moments, I was never convinced that the comedy truly caught fire. Farces do of course by their nature have a tendency to take a while to get started, but I'm not sure the addition of songs for this production helps. Richard Stilgoe and Richard Sisson have written some amusing operetta-style numbers for the scene changes, performed by a heavily made-up group of "singing dandies," and they're funny, but if the idea was to emulate the energy lent by the musical numbers to She Stoops to Conquer it's been unsuccessful, slowing things down if anything.

The production's big-name star is better served after the interval, Lithgow relishing each of Posket's degradations more than the last, and getting a chance to display his lanky frame's ability for physical comedy. There's memorable turns from Beverly Rudd as a kitchen maid fixated with Cis, Christina Cole as Agatha's flirtatious sister Charlotte, Christopher Logan as the most preposterously clichéd French waiter imaginable, and Roger Sloman as Posket's lugubrious clerk who's picked the wrong day to try and brighten up his wardrobe. Nicholas Burns and Peter Polycarpou also turn up in comparatively small roles as Charlotte's unfortunate fiancé and a determined police inspector respectively. The Magistrate is well-crafted seasonal fun with a lot of clever, inventive comic moments that stand out. It's hard to dislike, but I still found myself a bit disappointed that I never really felt transported to the heights of dizzy silliness that the last big comedy on this stage managed.

The Magistrate by Arthur Wing Pinero is booking in repertory until the 10th of February at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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