The Magistrate, National Theatre
Each year the National Theatre open the Olivier to the biggest and often the jolliest show in town. This year it was absolutely no exception as The Magistrate came to town. A Victorian farce by Arthur Wing Pinero (no I hadn’t heard of him either!) it tells the story of Agatha Posket, a lady who, in a rash moment, told a little white lie about her age to the titular magistrate Aeneas Posket, knocking 5 years from her not substantial 36. Pretty harmless you would have thought. But the spanner in the works is her young son Cis. It has been put out there by his mother that he is a young lad of 14 in order to play along with the minor discrepancy in her age. He is, in truth, 19 and don’t we know it. He drinks, he gambles, he is partial to a cigar and is an absolutely outrageous flirt. He also is somewhat a man of leisure, taking rooms at a hotel by the name of the Hotel des Princes. The farce comes when Agatha discovers that Cis’ godfather Colonel Lukys is on the way to the house and may well put his foot in it concerning the truth behind Master Cis’ and therefore his mother’s age. I shan’t say anymore regarding the plot for fear of spoilers but let’s say japes and misunderstandings ensue.
The performances in this show are just lovely. John Lithgow, star of Third Rock From The Sun (a show with which I was extraordinarily obsessed with in my younger days.) plays the eponymous magistrate as a sweet but somewhat exasperated man who gets dragged against his will round London town on a merry chase with the devilish Cis Farringdon, not quite comprehending how a boy of 14 can be quite as devious as Cis appears to be. Lithgow, an American, although he is very good, always seems somewhat out of sync with the rest of the cast. His accent would slip every now and then and I got the sense that his Americanness was jarring with the staunch but daft Victorian style of the play. The real star, for me at least, was Joshua McGuire as Cis Farringdon, the tearaway son who leads the others off down the garden path. McGuire has been most recently seen as Isaac from The Hour but there wasn’t a jot of innocent Mr Wengrow to be seen here. Cis is mad, bad and dangerous to know and McGuire relishes that. He is all crazy blond hair, frenzied hand motions and crackling humour. He is a real presence and gets a lot of the best laughs, especially in the juxtaposition of the butter-wouldn’t-melt expression and the dirty humour that is spewing from his mouth. The comedy is heightened (no pun intended. I should hope so, it was a useless pun) by the fact that, and it seems shallow to say so, McGuire is very small, particularly when seen next to the towering Lithgow. His height adds weirdly to the realism, he does appear to be an older man who looks like one with far fewer years.
Honourable mentions go to Nancy Carroll and Christina Cole as Agatha Posket and her sister Charlotte. It was the second time I had seen Carroll in performance this year and once again she was absolutely brilliant. She sparkled and her funniest moments came from the pure exasperation and exhaustion at trying to keep up with the lie that she has spawned. She is fabulous, especially during the moments in which is hysterically mad, screaming at her husband in full, throaty voice. Cole as sister Charlotte is a daft and silly flirt which comes back to bite her in the bum in her pursuit of lover Horace Vale. She giggles, she fans and she is really very pretty. The women are, however, portrayed as a traditional Victorian woman, fainting at the first sign of anything that may have caused any distress but the production can be forgiven for this, as it does appear to stick quite closely to its source material, a piece that does seem to be very much of its time.
A huge amount has to be said for the set. The silhouette of London carved out in a great white circle looking extremely festive to tie in with the rest of the show. As the audience trickled in to take their seats the set started with a huge red Christmas bow, heralding the show before it had begun. I’ve have only ever been to see productions in the Olivier at the National (not because I’m a snob or anything, I just keep missing the stuff in the other theatres!) so I know how amazing the huge drum revolve can be when used to full effect. And it truly was used here with the sets emerging out of the floor and unfolding like an enormous Christmas card which was accompanied by a great many oohs and aaahs, a bit like at a firework show. The actual decoration was extremely pretty and my inner interior designer was itching to know what the wall paper, a sort of swirly William Morris affair.
Music played a key role here with some extremely catchy songs that had been composed specially for the show. Be warned, these WILL get stuck in their head. Tying in nicely with the rest of the festive nature of the show, the songs were somewhat reminiscent of an old fashioned music hall show, a lovely link back to the time of the source material. The final ensemble number contained knowing references to the show and its cast, with one line (and you will have to excuse me, they were singing pretty quick so I’m not quite sure what they were saying) about John Lithgow coming to do farces at the National.
All in all this show is a big frothy confection ideally suited for the festive period. It may not be Shakespeare but dammit it is is good fun.
Here’s a trailer if you want to check it out- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAO6M7MtHdk&list=UUs0YVGdenZi5VNXofY1y6uQ&index=3
Photos come from here-http://elliottfranks.photoshelter.com/gallery/The-Magistrate-19th-November-2012/G0000.ZMSPpI.3CE