The Magistrate was programmed as part of National Theatre’s Live Broadcasts, which played on Wednesday 16th January.
Pinero’s 1885 farce was adapted as a successful musical comedy in 1917, which seems at the forefront of Timonthy Sheader’s mind in his creation of The National Theatre’s latest hit comedy. Whilst the first song by the group of mime-like singers, seemed to crash on the stage in a disorientating and limp fashion, their presence became increasingly sought after as the play gained momentum, and their lyrics were often very funny, if sometimes not a bit patronising with warnings like ‘it’s the little lies that get you into trouble.’
The catalytic lie referred to is told by the widowed Agatha Posket, who deducted five years off her age to make herself more attractive to second husband, a respectable magistrate. Chaos ensues as she retrospectively corrects her sons age from nineteen-years old, to fourteen year old. This has obvious repercussions, as the newly-elected step-father is led astray by this not so young boy and Agatha does everything she can to conceal the truth. This avalanche affect of deception and confusion is given a comical appraisal.
Yet like all farce there is the stagnant residue of the tragic, which seems to resonate with its modern audience. Not only does Pinero’s play recognise the hypocrisy of the legal system but more poignantly women’s lowly position in society and the constant pressure for them to be young and beautiful. This sounds curiously similar to Lily Allen’s song about a women whose life ends thirty. The comic predicament of Mrs. Posket’s position gives the play a timeless air. Although that is not to estrange it from its nineteenth century ideology (after all would we be surprised to see a fourteen year old boy drinking, smoking and canoodling? Probably not.) Yet the most sensitive presentation of Sheader’s acknowledgement of the past is in Cis as a manufactured dandy figure with his flowery gestures, emotive tone of voice and errect ginger quiff. Although modern audiences can relate, with a sudden surge of Russel Brands, it is important to recognise this as a product of nineteenth century thinking. The play flirts with sexual references and often hints at a certain gayness between the gentlemen, which was a Victorian fixation. It is no coincidence that the second half of the play is set in a saucy Parisienne hotel, a place of ill-repute and debauchery. This is a reminder of the times covert obsession with homosexuality, which of course climaxed with Wilde’s imprisonment.
In relation to the speed of the play, Sheader’s inclusion of chorus was most certainly a practical decision to relieve the relentless actors. The tension between performing a Victorian play on a relatively enormous modern stage means that the actors have to play it big, a tiresome prospect. The characters succeeded in doing this without making it contrived or becoming caricature, which is an easy pitfall. Nancy Caroll provides another award worth performance as Mrs Poskett, with her quintessential English elegance. One of the funniest scenes was in the second half, between her and Colonel Lukyn set in the hotel: filled with endless confusion and misconceptions, it is exactly what makes a great farce. Joshua McGuire is also very amusing as Cis as he drags around the lording Magistrate played by the fantastic John Lithgow.
The physical humour of the show was realised with perfect choreography that owes a lot to the level of talent the show employs. It is a great production that is loyal to its Victorian roots and coveys the play as a working piece of literature. The actors are taking a well deserved break at the moment, but if you missed it’s live broadcast the production is due to run until 10th February.