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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Magistrate
Olivier Theatre  Winter 2012-2013

A classic farce is almost buried in an irrelevantly elaborate and sometimes stodgy production. The play's comic merits ultimately win out, but just barely. 

Arthur Wing Pinero's 1885 play set the pattern for a century of English farces by letting an innocent little lie generate mounting confusion and desperation, much of it falling on the heads of hapless innocents.

Here, the staid title character has married a widow who, out of feminine vanity, shaved five years off her age. But that forced her to change the age of her son as well and now everyone, including the lad himself, thinks this strapping young man is a precocious fourteen-year-old. 

The imminent arrival of an old friend who might spill the beans leads the mother to a secret meeting at the same hotel where the boy with tastes above his putative age has dragged his stepfather. People who must not meet (including a few others) keep coming perilously close to meeting, and a police raid leads to escape attempts and a court appearance and – well, you get the idea. 

The fun lies in the wife/mother's attempt to keep her lie afloat, the boy's seeming precociousness, the magistrate's wandering far outside his comfort zone, and the general rushing about. And it is good fun, each one of those comic areas offering almost foolproof laughs. 

Yet director Timothy Sheader evidently didn't trust the material, because he felt the need to gild and over-gild this already lovely lily. 

While some characters are played more-or-less straight (in the broad asides-to-the-audience nineteenth-century style), others are costumed and played as grotesques and cartoons, in almost every case winding up less funny as a result. 

Katrina Lindsay's set design places it all in a frilly gift box, including the once-a-decade employment of the Olivier's multi-level turntable, all totally unnecessarily, and director Sheader punctuates scenes with a singing chorus of white-faced 'Dandies' who are more seventeenth-century than nineteenth in look and feel. (Richard Sisson and Richard Stilgoe have written a series of cod-Gilbert-and-Sullivan songs for them that are quite clever, quite entertaining and quite irrelevant.) 

American guest star John Lithgow plays the title role and, though he starts very slowly, he eventually finds the comedy in the poor man's bewilderment at being places and doing things he's never experienced before. 

Nancy Carroll is effortlessly droll as the woman whose fibbing set everything in motion, but Joshua McGuire as the boy doesn't seem to have been told by his director whether, like Pinocchio, he's a real boy or a puppet. Almost everyone else spends too much time standing around looking lost on the large stage. 

There is much to enjoy in this revival of The Magistrate. But even as you're laughing, you'll sense that it would be even more fun without all the fluff and filigree stuck between you and the play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Magistrate - National Theatre 2012    

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