Written by Arthur Wing Pinero
Music by Richard Sisson
Lyrics by Richard Stilgoe
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Location: National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX, +44 (0)20 7 452 3000
Set Designer: Katrina Lindsay, Lighting: James Farncombe, Costumes: Katrina Lindsay, Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Starring John Lithgow, Nicholas Blane, Nicholas Burns, Nancy Carroll, Tamsin Carroll, Alexander Cobb, Christina Cole, Jonathan Coy, Richard Freeman, Don Gallagher, Amy Griffiths, Joshua Lacey, Christopher Logan, Nicholas Lumley, Joshua Manning, Joshua McGuire, Sean McKenzie, Sarah Ovens, Peter Polycarpou, Beverly Rudd, Roger Sloman, Jez Unwin
My father, a gentleman of some lateral stature, had booked our tickets just below the lighting desk in the Olivier auditorium. We sat on the left shoulder of that middle sweep of seats which comes raking backwards so hastily, only losing oomph just as the descending wave of the gallery breaks above it, and giving the Olivier such a strong vertical axis. We were pleased with the seats, and bickered politely over who should be made to take the one with the most leg room by the aisle. I love the National when someone else is paying. I love it when I’m paying, for that matter, but then I’m generally up in the standing room at the top, shifting quietly from foot to foot and hoping my calf doesn’t go to sleep during the second act. The memory of those trips lends a special piquancy to planting your rear end on the ample acreage provided by the management and knowing you’ve leased those spacious precincts for the next couple of hours or so.
Then a gentleman of even greater circumference took his place in front of me. The steep rake meant he didn’t obstruct my view, but I must admit he was a slight distraction at some points in the performance. John Goodman’s features are not easily mistaken, particularly when caught in relief between the rig directed at the stage and the faint glow from the control desk behind us. Watching John Goodman watching John Lithgow playing Aeneas Posket is quite a way to spend an evening. I think we can all be grateful John Malkovich didn’t happen to be in town, or the participles would have got entirely out of hand.
Arthur Wing Pinero has, as we previously pointed out, been having a hell of a year for a dead guy. The Magistrate isn’t one of his more famous works, but it provides the basis for a cheery seasonal show. Lithgow, the eponymous law-dispenser Aeneas Posket, is led astray into a night of fine dining and being chased by the police by his step-son Cis Farrington (Joshua McGuire), a very advanced lad for his age. Except of course Cis isn’t advanced for his age: when his mother (Nancy Carroll) married Posket, she eased five years from her age, thus putting her nineteen-year-old son back into the velvet suit and sailor collar of a fourteen-year-old boy. Confusion understandably reigns, not least amongst the music mistress and maidservant who find themselves curiously drawn to the charming little fellow.
Timothy Sheader’s direction and Katrina Lindsay’s design give the production a determinedly mannered twist, with hair and furniture both slanting precariously at times. To bolster this framing, a chorus of “dandies” in striped trousers, white faces and patent-leather hair appear between scenes with comic ditties. Their songs, written by Richard Stilgoe and Richard Sisson, firmly direct the audience’s attention to what this production considers to be The Point of the play. They include one about sins behind closed doors and little lies getting you into trouble, then one about how women must hide their age because they don’t have the opportunities to work for their living like men, and a big closer about how the magistrate ought to behave himself. They were pleasant enough, but frankly felt like the most old-fashioned part of the whole show. Anyone writing a patter song in the early twenty-first century is going up against the ghosts of Gilbert and Sullivan, and almost no-one can manage to beat those spectres. The songs were probably necessary, since Pinero’s play depends so much on the audience understanding what is essential and what is unimportant about the action onstage: without a quick pointer now and then it would be difficult to work out the significance of the devilled oysters or whether everyone lied about their age.
But there was a neo-Victorian edge of coyness about the patter, a “let’s-pretend-we’re-being-terribly-daring” smirk shared between an audience and acting company who were pretending to cross moral and social boundaries none of them believed in. The songs felt so old-fashioned because they insisted with such relentless sprightliness on their modernity and naughtiness. The show was at its best when it settled into being a farce with odd hair and people falling over onto couches. Lithgow’s impression of a dog attacking him, and McGuire’s scuttering around the stage in evening dress, were the real high points of the evening. Which I suppose is a plea for doing Pinero on his terms, and taking his silliness seriously.
The Magistrate runs through February 10, 2013 at The National Theatre, London. On January 17, a performance will be broadcast live via satellite to theatres in the UK, Europe and some US cities, and time-delayed in other countries. Further information may be found here.