Review: The Magistrate, National Theatre

“It’s the little lies that get you into trouble”

Aged 36, the widowed Agatha Posket feared for her re-marriage prospects so when the genial Aeneas Posket, the magistrate for the Mulberry Street Police Court, arrived on the scene, she lopped 5 years off her age and promptly became Mrs Posket. The only trouble is her 19 year old son Cis whom she tells the world is actually 14 in order to make her fib fly. The farcical trials that follow as he continues to act as a 19 year old and the arrival of his godfather threatens to undo the whole deception make up the plot of Arthur Wing Pinero’s rather delightful play The Magistrate, which takes up residence at the Olivier as the National’s Christmas offering in place of The Count of Monte Cristo.

Nancy Carroll is simply sensational as Agatha, an actress in full control of her considerable gift and razor-sharp throughout. Whether layering in real pathos in lamenting the lot of a middle-aged widow, working in genuine comedy whilst extemporising wildly as chaos surrounds her or managing to make the spitting out of some bread into a moment of sheer genius, she is never less than unmissable. And she supported excellent by Joshua McGuire as her son Cis, who has a wonderful physicality and gleeful sense of timing in his teenage rampaging and Jonathan Coy’s family friend Colonel Lukyn who is pretty much scene-stealingly fantastic, a true master of comic acting which fully deserves the mid-show round of applause he received.

Against these sublime farceurs, I ended up a little bit disappointed with John Lithgow. His titular magistrate starts off the play as a rather warm, avuncular figure and is a beautiful bumbler. The opening to the second act however upped the ante, leaving him with an extended solo full of over-acting, mime and physical stuff that felt rather forced and an unnecessary stretch (given the reaction, I suspect I’m in the minority in thinking this), especially as his acting is subtly funny enough not to need this extra level.

The pull of the National means that the ensemble is stuffed full of luxury casting too, which is great on the one hand but I long for the day when we get to see the likes of Peter Polycarpou, Beverly Rudd and Christopher Logan in more featured roles as they all shone in smaller bit parts here. And I liked the efforts of relative newbies Alexander Cobb as a faithful manservant, Joshua Lacey’s comical constable and Christina Cole as Agatha’s sister Charlotte. The acting is top-notch across the board and the sense of joyous fun that comes across onstage is a pleasure to watch.

However, director Timothy Sheader’s use of a chorus of dandies to provide occasional musical interludes through operetta-style songs composed by Richard Sisson and with lyrics from Richard Stilgoe is problematic. It’s undoubtedly an efficient way of setting the light playful mood of the piece, but they really do stretch out to an unnecessarily length, seriously affecting the pace of the play, and also suffer a little in comparison. Jamie Lloyd did the same thing more effectively on this same stage in She Stoops To Conquer and neither of those shows demonstrated half the ingenuity of the original songs that beautifully enriched the Southwark Playhouse’s recent The Busy Body. The final full-cast post-show number here though has an undeniable charm which ought to put a smile on everyone’s face as they leave the theatre.

From the touring version of Dandy Dick and the Rose Kingston’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray to this and then onto the Donmar’s forthcoming Trelawny of the Wells, it seems that Arthur Wing Pinero is having something of a moment. With his predilection for writing good central parts for women, this has to be a good thing though having only now seen two of his plays, I’m left a little intrigued as to just what kind of writer Pinero actually is. Regardless, I would love it if someone to put on his 1899 play The Gay Lord Quex, though I doubt it would be as good as the version in my head…

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 10th February

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