Review: The Magistrate at the National Theatre (starring John Lithgow, Nancy Carroll)

Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Magistrate was not the first choice for a Christmas show at the National, but as Christmas productions go, it’s a perfect seasonal treat: expertly directed by Timothy Sheader, it’s light footed, frothy, witty, with a twinkle in its eye and a spring in its step.

For anyone familiar with 19th century farce, the plot has few surprises: Agatha Farringdon, a young widow with a son, married the Magistrate Mr Posket and a little lie at the time of her wedding has complicated her life ever since. The more she tries to cover it, the more things twist and turn out of her control. At the same time, her husband and son succumb into their own temptations, as a result two imperfect worlds collide with – as they say – unforeseen consequences.

The plot might be less than surprising but the fun is in the spaces in between: all characters are good but have little weaknesses that lead them down the wrong path. As a result, they are both funny and sympathetic. Musical interludes, although performed in the style of 19th century operetta, throw hooks to the present with sly contemporary references. A joke with a banker towards the end is milked for all its worth.

The acting is first rate: Nancy Carroll as Agatha Farringdon, beautiful and majestic, really comes into her own as her character starts to lose control: her features frozen in embarrassed horror, she momentary lapses in the most unladylike reactions: spitting food while talking or squealing while horrified. It’s blink and you ‘ll miss it and therefore very funny. John Lithgow as the timid  Mr Posket starts undecided and conflicted, and his indecision and panic escalate to a unforgettable scene of mime and comedy at the beginning of the second half.

Joshua McGuire, possibly the only adult actor who could pass as a fourteen year old, plays the desires of his character in the ambivalent space between childhood and early manhood with hilarious results. Jonathan Coy, fresh from the Old Vic’s Noises Off, makes the starchiness of his Colonel Lukyn the punchline of many scenes. The rest of the cast performs at the same standards with no weak link in the supporting roles.

The set is impressive: often resembling a pop up book or a christmas decoration, often unfolding from high above the Olivier or down below, it reinforces the fairy tale feel of the story. This is a place that bad things happen and lessons are learned, but eventually everyone lives happily ever after.

Whoever saw London Assurance and She Stoops To Conquer, two other National production in recent years, knows what to expect: high production values, great acting, exquisite timing, uncomplicated laughs and a fat big wink at the audience. It’s definitely time for Christmas and mince pies and mulled wine. More complicated things will have to wait.

Revstan gives her own verdict here.

P.S. Jonathan Coy is not in the cast list as it appears at the National Theatre website: and he wasn’t part of the all-cast number at the curtain call. Was he a late addition to the cast? Anyone knows?

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