Review Round-up: Mixed bag for MagistrateDate: 23 November 2012
Directed by Timothy Sheader and with a cast also featuring Olivier Award winner Nancy Carroll, The Magistrate runs at the NT Olivier until 10 February 2013. It will participate in the National Theatre Live scheme and be broadcast in cinemas on 17 January.
The production, which received a mixed bag of overnight reviews, replaces the National's postponed Richard Bean adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, which was also due to be directed by Sheader.
Arthur Wing Pinero's genial Victorian farce welcomes that fine American actor and Broadway stalwart, John Lithgow, to the Olivier stage as the distressed police magistrate, Aeneas Posket. Lithgow... exudes a benign, airy manner in a light, quizzical voice... commanding both stage and large auditorium with an effortless and wide-reaching charm. The show is highly enjoyable if not uproarious, Katrina Lindsay's design opening like a gift box and wrapped in a big red bow that suggests the unsuitably scarlet cravat of the Mulberry Street police court of the third act. And it's populated with a chorus of bewigged, waist-coated dandies singing clever pastiche Gilbert and Sullivan written by a new team of composer Richard Sisson... and lyricist Richard Stilgoe. Pinero's text has been tweaked a little by Stephen Beresford but it's indicative of the play's inoffensively satirical demeanour.
I have great respect for the play; which is more, I feel, than could be said for director Timothy Sheader who gives us a gussied-up, semi-musicalised version that suggests a lack of confidence in the original. Unable to let well alone, Sheader's version gives a comic chorus who, thanks to Richard Sisson's music and Richard Stilgoe's lyrics, tell us things like "It's the little lies that get you into trouble." I think we could have worked that out for ourselves.The best performances come from Nancy Carroll who makes Mrs Posket a ratty virago... and from Jonathan Coy as a peppery, pigeon-chested colonel. Farce, they say, is speeded-up tragedy; but here the songs both slow the action down and pointlessly adorn Pinero's still-viable, time-proof play.
Director Timothy Sheader offers us this amiable Victorian comedy, which has its winning moments, but never quite achieves those blissful farcical heights when it becomes physically impossible to stop laughing. It all feels a little tame and rather desperately Sheader tries to gee it along with Gilbert and Sullivan like songs between scenes, performed by a chorus of tiresomely zany dandies. Nor do Katrina Lindsay's oddly angled, cartoon-like set designs help a play that actually needs to evoke a sense of prim Victorian respectability. Nancy Carroll however proves genuinely touching...whose innocent lie leads to a spiral of chaos, while the diminutive Joshua McGuire is both funny and more than a touch creepy as the boy who doesn't realise he's a man.
Arthur Wing Pinero's play premiered in 1885 and now feels a little dated. Yet it still has charm, and here in the title role it features the distinguished American actor John Lithgow. Timothy Sheader's broad production introduces musical elements (a strength of the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, which he runs): pseudo-Victorian interludes with lyrics by Richard Stilgoe. These slow proceedings down. The same could be said of the notably ambitious design by Katrina Lindsay, which... owes something to the cartoons of Gerald Scarfe and occasionally looks like an expensive Christmas decoration. It's the performances that ensure the show's appeal. Lithgow does a good job of making Posket charmingly earnest. Nancy Carroll savours the absurdities of Agatha's deceit - and also, along with Christina Cole as her sister Charlotte, adds more than a touch of glamour. The play, which has been given a polish by Stephen Beresford, is unapologetically ridiculous. But the more Wildean lines and jolts of wit mean The Magistrate remains likeable seasonal fare.
The spirit of Norman Wisdom - with a sprinkling of Gilbert and Sullivan - is galloping through the Royal National Theatre with its revival of The Magistrate. With John Lithgow as Magistrate Posket, his composure unravelling like a ball of wool, and the marvellous Nancy Carroll as his growly tigress of a spouse, this show has a strong cast. It is young Joshua McGuire who sends it cascading into farcical anarchy, however. He plays Cis with double-takes, clicked heels, bulging eyes (and trousers), swaggering walks, jaunty hat angles, a gawpy smile and... to make matters even more perfect he is only about five foot tall. Pure Wisdom, if not even better. It starts a little slowly with a Gilbert and Sullivan-style musical number written by clever Richard Stilgoe but we have more such songs later and they are keenly witty. Add Mr Whippy hairdos, sets with a cardboard-cutout feel, some glamour from Christina Cole as Agatha's sister, a bristling colonel from Jonathan Coy and a rattling pace, and you have a Victorian corker of a show.
It... provides a glorious vehicle for John Lithgow, Broadway's most Patrician-seeming actor... He's wholeheartedly hilarious in a fine display of reactive comedy acting, and at the top of the second half provides a masterclass in descriptive solo narrative acting too... The roles of the wife and her son are blissfully taken by the wonderful Nancy Carroll and the pint-sized Joshua Maguire respectively. Carroll is one of our most seriously gifted comic actresses, a natural successor to Maggie Smith and Fiona Shaw... Sheader's slick, handsome production - with Katrina Lindsay's clever sets folding out of the Olivier revolve like a pop-up picture book - also boasts witty ditties, newly penned by Richard Sisson (music) and Richard Stilgoe (lyrics), for a show that delightfully continues this year’s rediscoveries of the plays of Arthur Wing Pinero.