The National Theatre’s Christmas offering, Pinero’s 1885 farce The Magistrate, proves entertaining at best but lacks the quality to transform this Victorian comedy into a contemporary success. Ultimately, it is director Timothy Sheader’s reliance on cheap laughs, born out of slapstick comedy, that prevents the witty interplay of language from driving the humour forwards.
The script itself, following the farcical consequences of Mrs Posket’s (Nancy Carroll) deception to her new husband (John Lithgow), is very funny; in claiming that she is thirty-one instead of thirty-six, Mrs Posket is forced to compound this lie by convincing her nineteen year old son Cis (Joshua McGuire) and the rest of society that he is only fourteen. It is the discrepancy between his behaviour as an adult and the expectations of him as a child that underpin the narrative thrust, with the audience very much included in the conspiracy.
The play’s “problem” hinges on the antic of the Cis and his strait-laced stepfather, the eponymous magistrate, and Mrs Posket’s efforts to conceal her deception; however, unable to ignore the contemporaneous age-dilemma in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, Sheader insists on stringing scenes together with musical numbers. Songs such as ‘It’s the little lies that get you into trouble’ end up not only stating the obvious in the context of the play, but actually detracting from the otherwise subtle dialogue. These attempts to make the play “audience friendly” veer dangerously from condescension to embarrassment.
A highlight of the play, however, was Lithgow’s morning-after monologue, in which the script was complemented by the direction – rather than suppressed by it – with deft physical comedy from the American actor plunging the audience into rapture. A confident performance was also given by McGuire; however, it was Carroll who sustained consistently high energy, taking command of the show whenever onstage. Something should also be said about the often-overlooked role of the set design. In this case the National Theatre’s budget was well-spent, with a subtle nod to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, manifesting itself through a seemingly unstable world, threatening at all times to collapse around the characters.
It has been noted that farce is simply tragedy sped up, and indeed there is often a sinister teleology to such dramas, in which the characters seem unable to escape the predictable decline in fortunes that are triggered by the snowballing of circumstances. Whilst a focus on levity is important, a sly recognition of the farce’s grave bedfellow would have done the script justice. Ultimately, The Magistrate offers the audience an entertaining evening, with one or two truly funny moments; however, Sheader’s production flattens out many of the nuances, whether through fear of onstage silence or a general misunderstanding of the play, leaving this production somewhat unfulfilled.
W. J. Humphries.