This year’s seasonal show from the National Theatre is a venerable Victorian comedy called The Magistrate, by Pinero. Like Christmas itself, the show is sickly sweet; both annoying and oddly dated, and at the same time, timeless and hugely forgivable.
This being an English affair (and a very Londony one at that), there’s no whiff of French knickers about this farce. Instead of sexual innuendo, the worst that befalls our respectable family is some champagne and devilled oysters. The set-up is suitably preposterous. Entering into her second marriage to the Magistrate of the title, Agatha Posket lied about her age, dropping five years from the total. In doing so, she had to reduce the corresponding length of her son’s life, from 19 to 14. Stretching the limits of plausibility, her son, Cis, also believes himself to be just 14, despite having what seem like unnatural tastes for drinking and women for a “boy” his age. (Cue gags about his “swelling with agitation” around his 16-year-old music teacher.)
After a series of white lies, our muddled family end up chased by the police from the dubious Hotel des Princes, suffering various bumps and bruises along the way. The stakes are further raised the next morning as Magistrate Posket is unwittingly asked to sit in judgement on his own wife.
After much slow spoken exposition in the early scenes (talking to the audience at this time of year will always smack of unhelpfully of Panto) Timothy Sheader’s production gains momentum in the second act. The arrival of more stock characters from classic British small-screen farces (a hotelier who sounds exactly like René Artois; a Colonel clearly inspired by Lord Flashhart) helps power things along. By the time we get to the toe curling physical comedy of Posket’s troubled morning after, expertly played by John Lithgow (clearly enjoying himself), there are plenty of laughs to be had.
As expected at the National, this is a rich ensemble piece; but Nancy Carroll stands out for ensuring Agatha remains endearingly human despite the ludicrousness of her lies, and Jonathan Coy is excellent as the barrel-chested colonel, constantly threatening explode and blow his formidable moustache into the stalls.
We also loved the modern musical interludes by Richards Sisson and Stilgoe performed by a chorus of candy-striped dandies (although occasionally it felt like their mics weren’t cooperating). This being both Victorian and a farce, there’ll be elements that certainly won’t appeal to everyone; but for an evening of traditional Christmas entertainment, with flashes of modern innovation, there’s lots to enjoy here.
The Magistrate runs at the National Theatre, Southbank, London, SE1 9PX until 10 February. Tickets start at £12. Visit nationaltheatre.org.uk/the-magistrate to find out more. We saw this show on a press ticket.