Reviewed by James Karas
The Magistrate is Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1885 farce and it has received a major revival by the National Theatre in a production directed by Timothy Sheader. The production has many virtues but one aspect stands out above all others: the design.
It is indeed a rarity to start a review with mention of the design but in this case a major part of the feel and flavour of the production rests on the work Katrina Lindsay.
The play opens with a Gilbert & Sullivan-type of chorus singing about skeletons in the closet. This is not in the original script but part of the text revisions by Stephen Beresford. We are supposed to be in the well-furnished drawing room in a house in Bloomsbury. Dark paneling, heavy furniture, velvet drapes is what you would expect in the house of a Magistrate in the 19th century.
Lindsay places the sparsely furnished, brightly lit drawing room in a papier-mâché toy theatre. It is a model theatre that has been enlarged to fit the Olivier stage of the National Theatre, if you will. In fact, the drawing room and the two other scenes in the play will rise from below stage as if the production is just a child’s play.
The design sets the tone of an enjoyable lark, a plaything on stage and thus is the play delivered to the audience.
Happily the inventiveness does not stop there. The farce involves a highly respectable magistrate who goes to a hotel where he shouldn’t (as does his wife) and next day he ends up sending his wife to jail for seven days. Don’t worry about the plot – it’s a farce.
Where does the fun come from? Director Timothy Sheader gets the lion’s share of the credit for putting together a marvelously paced production full of hilarious stunts. Along with Lindsay, he has created almost a new work out of Pinero’s play.
John Lithgow plays Mr. Posket, the straight-laced magistrate who finds himself in all kinds of scrapes. Lithgow goes further than acting the shocked straight man. In Act III, the poor man arrives at his office after spending a good part of the night running away from the police. Here Posket describes the chase and Lithgow give a hilarious performance that is full of inventiveness and physicality that goes beyond what the text calls for. Give him an award just for that scene.
The farce emanates from the lies told by his wife Agatha played hilariously by Nancy Carroll. Posket is her second husband and she lied about her age and consequently about the age of her son. Now she is in danger of being found out. Shocking!. Carroll is given plenty of opportunities for screaming, screeching and in fact permissibly over-acting. This is a farce.
Causing much of the fray is her son Cis (Joshua McGuire) who is supposed to be 14 but chronologically and hormonally is much older. McGuire is physically agile as he jumps over furniture and chases Beatie, the pretty music teacher (Sarah Ovens). An exuberant performance.
The high-powered production is carried by a cast of feverish performers. Worthy of praise: Nicholas Blane as Magistrate Bullamy, Don Gallagher as the hotel proprietor, Jonathan Coy as Colonel Lukyn, Nicholas Burns as Captain Vale and Alexander Cobb as the servant Wyke. With his hair sticking up, Cobb has to run almost all the time to great comic effect.
Farce depends on quick action, quicker reaction, slamming of doors, misses and near-misses. The Magistrate has all of those things in spades providing a wonderful evening at the theatre.
The Magistrate by Arthur Wing Pinero opened on November 21, 2012 and continues at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/