Offered up in a mood of seasonal jollity, 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.
Timothy Sheader's revival completes a mini-season of Pinero revivals - Dandy Dick on tour, The Second Mrs Tanqueray at the Rose, Kingston - that has reiterated, though not insisted on, the case for the great craftsman’s rehabilitation. Perhaps Trelawny of the Wells will complete the job next year.
Lithgow, meanwhile, ramrod tall, poker-backed and white-whiskered, cuts a wonderfully bizarre figure as a man whose position as the last defence of propriety in his own drawing room, as well as in public, has been rattled a little by lapsing into a late marriage.
He exudes a benign, airy manner in a light, quizzical voice, and he leads Sheader’s ad hoc company as if to the manner born, 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 (formerly the Widow in Kit and the Widow) and lyricist Richard Stilgoe.
Posket is caught out not with his trousers down, exactly, but under the table in an Oxford Street hotel on the night of a police raid. Justifying his Christian name with a hilarious account of his journey through town to Kilburn via the Lord’s Cricket Ground, he then has to face the offending hedonists in his own court the next morning.
One of them is his own wife, Agatha (Nancy Carroll), a fairly merry widow who has snared Posket on a foreign holiday by lying about her age and passing off her 19 year-old son, Cis Farringdon (Joshua McGuire), as a mere 14 year-old. And it’s Cis’s penchant for gambling and drinking that have led everyone into social disarray.
Pinero’s text has been tweaked a little by Stephen Beresford but it’s indicative of the play’s inoffensively satirical demeanour that Lithgow gets his biggest laugh not with entering in a sloping, befuddled manner, collar all askew, hair wispier than ever, but with cracking a gag about stockbrokers.
Still, he’s a joy to behold, and he adds lustre to the performance history of a role played over the years by Alastair Sim, Nigel Hawthorne (for the NT in 1986) and Ian Richardson.