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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE MAGISTRATE
at the National (Olivier)

IF IT AIN'T BROKE
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN


Ignoring the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” The National Theatre has, of late, had an annoying tendency to tamper with some classic farces.

A couple of season’s ago, Richard Bean was brought in by Nicholas Hytner to give Dion Boucicault’s delicious London Assurance a face-lift, and director Jamie Lloyd recently took certain liberties with Oliver Goldsmith’s perennially popular She Stoops to Conquer.

For their latest seasonal foray, the National has invited Richard Stilgoe (words) and Richard Sisson (music) to provide a handful of Gilbert and Sullivan parodies to Pinero’s equally durable farce The Magistrate.

They’ve also commissioned an eye-popping set from Katrina Lindsay that opens and shuts like the pages of a pop-up book and is festooned with an elaborate circular cut-out of the London skyline. It’s very pretty and ingenious, to be sure. But, like the musical interludes, it takes its time to unfurl when surely the whole point about farce is that it should move at a frantic pace. 

As was the case with She Stoops to Conquer, it would appear from the way this production has been dolled up that director Timothy Sheader either has little faith in the material or simply cannot leave well alone.

Outside help isn’t necessary, as Pinero’s confection – in which a widow knocks five years off her age to secure a second marriage with a respected magistrate, then has to cope with consequences of having a 19-year-old son who believes he is only 14 – is an adroit, well-oiled vehicle for all who ride in her. And has been ever since it first premiered in 1885.

In this revival, American actor John Lithgow has been recruited to star as Aneas Posket, the upstanding magistrate of the title whose misfortune it is to face his wife in court and pass judgment on her as a result of some embarrassing occurrences the previous night.

Lithgow does a thoroughly professional job as he moves from respectability to humiliation, but humor has never been his trademark and his performance does little to obliterate the fond memories I still cherish of the great Alastair Sim in the role.

As Agatha, his domineering, age-conscious wife hoisted by her lying petard, Nancy Carroll is a delight. And there’s a standout performance from Joshua McGuire as her son Cis, who dresses as a 14 year-old but in every other respect behaves like the randy, smoking, gambling 19-year-old youth he is.

Indeed, all the performances have the requisite zest and pace. It’s just a pity that the creative team felt the need to meddle and embroider, thus reducing what could have been a cracking, first-class revival into a mildly enjoyable one.

 


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