British theatre-goers are enjoying a revival of the work of Victorian playwright Arthur Wing Pinero thanks to The National Theatre’s production of The Magistrate. Thanks to the National Theatre Live film program, Australian audiences can now also partake in the fun.
Pinero’s story, penned 130 years ago, tells the story of a newly remarried widow, Agatha Posket (Nancy Carroll) who’s fibbed about her real age to her husband, the magistrate of the title, and insists that her son is 14 when he’s actually 19.
Though silly, the story allows for high stakes when Agatha is threatened with the truth. The son, Cis Farringdon (played creepily and exuberantly by a wildly talented Joshua McGuire) is supposed to believe he’s five years younger than he really is; the audience needs to put aside doubts as to the likelihood of this conundrum in order to enjoy the narrative, which hinges on Cis wanting to enjoy much more of life than his cossetted existence allows.
Indulged by everyone around him, the precocious ‘advanced for his years’ Cis (fond of drinking, gambling and speculating) leads his kindly but naïve stepfather, magistrate Posket (played by the incomparable John Lithgow in a role he says isn’t so far from his own character) astray on a night of mayhem and hijinks, resulting in high farce and a narrow escape from a night in the clink.
Theirs are not the only adventures of the evening as Mrs Posket and her sister (Christina Cole) are also secretly out on the town trying to stave off the imminent revelation of Agatha’s real age via an impromptu dinner invitation. Deception is piled on intrigue and identities are mistaken, until Posket is eventually forced to compromise his role in public office in order to protect his loved ones.
The Magistrate delivers winning performances from its three leads: American Lithgow is superbly British as the ‘friendly, gentle, sentimental’ magistrate, McGuire camps it up richly, and Carroll brings a layer of emotional heft to her part, winning audience sympathy. Indeed, all the characters are familiar yet singular in this homage to the theatre of yore. One’s great-great-grandmother would be thoroughly at home with the conventions of this production. Director Timothy Sheader, utilising a cast of 22, further enlivens the historical air of proceedings by incorporating witty musical numbers reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, performed by a troupe of splendidly striped ‘dandies’ singing of the dangers of ‘the little lies that lead you into trouble’.
The set (designed by Katrina Lindsay) is inspired by a pop-up book of scenes from Victorian London and also references the unwrapping of Christmas presents. The business onstage involves numerous entrances and exits which in productions of the time would have been accommodated in a proscenium arch theatre with wings and doors; here they are cleverly dealt with by the props, furniture and trapdoors, performers suddenly appearing here and there like jack-in-the-boxes.
The Magistrate is funny but not wet-yourself funny. The comic timing in this production is rarefied with performers given every chance to revel in their unique physicality (Joshua Lacey stands out in this respect in a small but memorable turn as the classic hapless cop, as does Christopher Logan, hilarious as the quintessential madcap French waiter sporting an extraordinary hairdo) but overall this is a chuckle of a show rather than a guffaw. An especial highlight is Posket’s lone account of his journey through London to Kilburn in the small hours.
Sheader’s decision to fill the gapsof the Olivier theatre space and of the narrativewith stylish musical theatre holds the storyline, references the tradition of the chorus line, and reminds audiences that there is a moral to the story. The opening song sets the tone with the musical aspect becoming stronger as the play progresses. The dilemmas involved in The Magistrate seem twee and dated to contemporary audiences, despite the jokes in the text having been modernised, so the drama itself doesn’t have a huge impact; the joys lie in the stylish production and the performances, along with the chance to revisit much-loved and still-familiar aspects of English theatrical tradition.
Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5
National Theatre Live Productions
by Arthur Wing Pinero
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Lyrics by Richard Stilgoe
Music by Richard Sisson
Set Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting: James Farncombe
Costumes: Katrina Lindsay
Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Cast includes John Lithgow, Nicholas Blane, Nicholas Burns, Nancy Carroll, Tamsin Carroll, Alexander Cobb, Christina Cole, Jonathan Coy, Richard Freeman, Don Gallagher, Amy Griffiths, Joshua Lacey, Christopher Logan, Nicholas Lumley, Joshua Manning, Joshua McGuire, Sean McKenzie, Sarah Ovens, Peter Polycarpou, Beverly Rudd, Roger Sloman and Jez Unwin
Distributed in Australia by Sharmill Films
In selected cinemas
2 – 3 February (season extended at Cinema Nova; Palace Brighton Bay; Hayden Orpheum, Cremorne; Palace Verona; and Palace Nova Eastend)