The Magistrate: You Be the Judge


The playwright Arthur Wing Pinero (and, yes, Wing really was his middle name, as opposed to a more than usually unfortunate nom de plume) has had something of a chequered career since his Victorian heyday. His comedies and tragic dramas, immensely popular in their day, have somewhat fallen into neglect, the comedies for not being as funny as a contemporary audience would like and the tragic dramas for being…well, there are only so many paying theatre-goers who would today react in stunned horror to the revelation that a child is illegitimate. 

All of which makes the National’s decision to revive Pinero’s The Magistrate as its big Christmas show something of a head-scratcher. However, with the aid of a subtle but effective revision by the playwright Stephen Berenson, director Timothy Sheader has come up with a thoroughly enjoyable and, at times, hilarious romp through an old warhorse. The plot is simple farcical misunderstanding writ large. Upstanding magistrate Aeneas Posket, newly married to a younger woman, finds himself the unsuspecting stepfather to a 14-year old ‘boy’ who is actually a young man of 19, with five years knocked off his age. This boy, Cis, is something of a roué, and cajoles the unfortunate Posket into a rare night on the tiles at a seedy hotel. Chaos promptly ensues. 

The major selling point here is the casting of the great American actor John Lithgow as Poskett. As anyone who’s ever seen the fabulous Third Rock From The Sun will know, few can do pompous dignity undercut by mounting panic as well as Lithgow, and he’s in his element giving a magisterial (sic) performance as the much abused Posket. The English accent slips a few times at moments of high anxiety, of which there are many, but he still manages to give a compelling and hilarious performance. He’s ably backed up by Nancy Carroll as his wife Agnes, who’s every bit his equal in terms of double-takes, unexpected line readings and general charismatic madness, and there’s able support from Jonathan Coy as blustering military man Colonel Lukyn and from the splendidly bewigged Joshua McGuire as the ‘wretched boy’ Cis.

It’s not as side-splittingly hilarious as the National’s earlier hits One Man, Two Guvnors or London Assurance, and the Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque musical interludes are both distracting and not as funny as they think they are. It was perhaps a mistake to have them performed by anonymous dandies, rather than members of the cast, and Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics aren’t as witty as they need to be to make them compelling. Yet this is still one of the most amusing evenings out in town at the moment, and it’d be a hard-hearted wretch indeed who didn’t warm to Lithgow’s wonderfully rich and humane performance. Plus, there’s a splendid (and presumably) added joke about stockbrokers that brings the house down.

The Magistrate at The National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX, until 10th February 2013 . Running time 2 hours 35 minutes including interval. For more information and tickets see the website.


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