It is an anxious experience watching theatre live in a cinema. When you consider it, there are about 80 thousand people looking on from 60 countries, as opposed to the normal few hundred crammed into the theatre itself. This is the first of National Theatre’s live broadcasts for 2013 and having sat through the three hours of this offering, the Brits might have kept this one to themselves.
The Magistrate, a Victorian farce written by Arthur Wing Pinero in 1885, oddly stars American veteran John Lithgow as British magistrate, Mr. Posket, recently married to a middle-aged widow, Agatha Farringdon (Nancy Carroll). Both are happy with the marriage but Agatha has a secret. At the “neither here nor there” age of 36 following the death of her previous husband, she wiped off five years to make her 31 and hence more desirable. More than that, her seemingly little lie has had lasting ramifications with her pint-sized 19-year-old son Cis (Joshua McGuire) led to believe he is actually 14.
When old acquaintances of Agatha’s start emerging from the woodwork, her little lie requires some maintenance to avoid Posket finding out. Although, Cis’ outrageously frivolous behaviour for a boy his age is not helping to dispel any doubts and chaos is never far from erupting.
An improbable story such as this requires no small amount of overacting and unsurprisingly, most of the supporting cast lay it on with a trowel. A behind the scenes short film in the interval explains how challenging it can be to capture that essential comedic timing. Apparently, director Timothy Sheader conducts rehearsals without laughing in order to concentrate on getting that just right. I am inclined to think maybe it just wasn’t funny in the rehearsals because for me, the aforementioned trowel was far too big.
However, the play does have its moments. Carroll has an engaging presence as the perpetually stressed Agatha. Christina Cole and Nicholas Blane also provide good relief in supporting roles as Agatha’s sister Charlotte and fellow magistrate Mr Bullamy respectively.
Though, it is McGuire’s gleeful, misguided, Eton-collared Cis who provides much of the comic value. His eccentric flaming hairdo is juxtaposed with the fraught Posket whose increasingly dishevelled mop resembles a plume of smoke. Cis is the ignition, shall we say, to Posket’s crumpled newspaper. Like newspaper, Lithgow’s Posket does flap around an awful lot and does look prone to tearing. Unfortunately, as the leading man his presence is more irritating than anything else.
The pop-up book-inspired sets, designed by Katrina Lindsay to fold out to reveal each scene, are simple and each-catching with their crooked proportions and carefree angles. Combined with the caricatures who occupy them, they give a slightly Dickensian feel. The farcical plot to accompany is more in the vein of P.G. Wodehouse. It is a pity then that the characters have not the interest of Dickens, nor the humour or charm of Bertie Wooster. In addition, the jaunty musical interludes performed by a group of dandies include some inventive Gilbert and Sullivan-esque word-play from lyricist Richard Stillgoe but contribute little to the ensemble.
As far as the National Theatre’s reputation is concerned, this was a disappointing effort from a talented team and I hope their next live broadcast in March (a new play from Alan Bennett) delivers their good idea better success.
The Magistrate is screening at Cinema Nova in Melbourne on February 2,3,5 and 6.