First produced in 1885, this is a farce written by English playwright Sir Arthur Wing Pinero. Received favourably by both critics and audiences when it was first staged, it was later turned into a musical version in 1917. Here, director Timothy Sheader (the current artistic director of the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park) picks-up and homes in on the musical possibilities of the play and gives it a makeover which stops rather short of being a full-blown musical version, but nonetheless opts for a style which has much in common with that popular genre.
The play is about Mr Posket, a magistrate for the Mulberry Street Police Court. He is married to Agatha who has a son, Cis, by her first marriage. Cis is an extremely precocious and 'forward' boy who seems much older than the 14 years he is supposed to be. He flirts with servants and his piano teacher, smokes, drinks, gambles and has a room at a hotel. No wonder Cis acts beyond his years, because he is really 19, though he doesn't know it, and neither does anyone else, apart from his mother it seems. We quickly learn that Agatha lied about her age to Mr Posket and, to sustain that lie, had to knock 5 years off her son's age as well. Unfortunately, Agatha's lie is about to be exposed as an army officer and Cis's godfather, Colonerl Lukyn, is about to fetch-up at the family home. Agatha attempts to meet with the Colonel at the same hotel where Cis has his room, and where Cis coincidentally takes his step father on a night out.
A chorus of dandies give us a musical introduction to the play, and pop on and off to round-off acts. Richard Sisson's music is hummable enough, with lyrics by Richard Stilgoe. The chorus have exaggerated hair styles, white faces, and loud, but sumptuously-designed costumes. In fact, the whole production is meticulously executed down to the very last detail. Katrina Lindsay's set is complex, inventive and stunning. The Poskets' drawing room unfolds like a child's story book or one of those fancy greetings cards, complete with furniture in place. And the Olivier's giant drum revolve is put to good use again delivering the room at the Hôtel des Princes. Slanted door and window frames give a kind of off-beat, exaggerated feel to the piece, and the edges of the set are cut-out to define a cityscape. The acting style is also exaggerated and deliberately (and unashamedly) melodramatic. Joshua McGuire as Cis, races round the stage sporting a ginger hair-do shaped like an ice-cream cone, and his stature is sufficiently small to convince us that he may be younger than has actual age. Jonathan Coy's Colonel Lukyn is pointedly blimpish and John Lithgow as Mr Posket is the respectable magistrate who finds himself facing a moral dilemma thanks to being led astray by his boisterous stepson.
In spite of the hugely impressive production values on display here and the undoubted clarity of Mr Sheader's directorial vision, the play itself fails to deliver a commensurate level of humour. Though it looks gorgeous and inviting, this is not a successor to 'One Man, Two Guvnors', even if there are some similarities. The main reason is because some of the humour belongs to a different era and the situations are tame. There are, however, some nice touches both in terms of direction and in the dialogue. When John Lithgow's magistrate is back in his office after a night 'on the run' and he is trying to wash, he tires to stretch his shirt to wipe his face, but without success. And a dopey constable manages to handcuff himself. In Arthur Wing Pinero's script, we find some clever, comic touches too. Referring to her son, Agatha tells us that “a day will come when he can no longer be pacified by a stick and hoop”, and her current husband says: “I'm different to her first husband – I'm alive”. But the basic premise – a child who is older than he is supposed to be – is too small a vehicle to sustain the play for its duration, and the remainder of the concept seems thin and lame for modern audiences. It left me wondering if Timothy Sheader found the same problem with the play, and thus substituted form to cover the absence of comic substance.
"Farce, they say, is speeded-up tragedy; but here the songs both slow the action down and pointlessly adorn Pinero's still-viable, time-proof play."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Director Timothy Sheader offers us this amiable Victorian comedy, which has its winning moments, but never quite achieves those blissful farcical heights when it becomes physically impossible to stop laughing."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"A Victorian corker of a show.."
Quentin Letts for Daily Mail
"There’s a certain clunkiness, and a few of the jokes are inane. But the more Wildean lines and jolts of wit mean The Magistrate remains likeable seasonal fare."
Henry Hitchings for Evening Standard