'The Magistrate' review or 'A bit of a fumbling farce.'

'The Magistrate', Arthur Wing Pinero
National Theatre, Wednesday 22nd November 2012
Written for The Ham & High

John Lithgow: Not as funny as he looks here. Alas.

Well, at least it's not a pantomime. This year, The National's Christmas show was meant to be 'The Count of Monte Criste'. The show fell through and Arthur Wing Pinero's 1885 farce, 'The Magistrate', has been rustled up instead. Perhaps this explains the slightly slap-dash feel to director Timothy Sheader's nervous production.

There's actually a fairly solid farce hiding behind this shaky production. The comedy hinges on thirty-something Agatha Posket's decision to lie about her age to her second husband, the magistrate Aeneas Posket. In choosing to lop 5 years off her age she has also rendered her 19 year old son a mere lad of 15.

It's pretty dark if you stop to think about it – but it allows for plenty of silly comedy. The couple's son, Cis Farringdon, spends lots of his time 'innocently' cuddling ladies and hiding his erection. He's a fierce gambler, an avid drinker and even has a room at the local club. When Cis invites his step-father to dine with him, his mother's lies begin to unravel.

It's easy to see how Pinero's plot might emphasize the hypocrisy of both the judiciary system and the ageing men who insist their wives remain forever young. But this is a resolutely camp production, which panders for laughs and is much less funny for it.

John Lithgow is underwhelming as the titular magistrate. It's a plum role but Lithgow is not quite stiff enough at the start nor bamboozled enough at the end. Joshua McGuire is all sparkle and cheek as the deceptively young Cis Farringdon. Nancy Carroll is the only one not to overplay her role and her honest and precise performance gets the greatest laughs.

The farce never finds its feet. Some new musical interludes, penned by Richard Stilgoe and composed by Richard Sisson, do not help. Rather than jazzing up the show, they consistently puncture its momentum. A few dropped catches and missed cues undermine things further and this potentially slick farce is left floundering.

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