There are few badges of honor more likely to encourage me to see a play than the words, “Michael Billington hated it!” With this recommendation and the positive reviews I heard from my friends on Twitter, I was quite enthused about The Magistrate. I don’t like modern farce but for some reason when you put people in bustles and tall wigs, suddenly the whole thing really works for me – women pretending to be men (most of them), adults being fobbed off as children (this play), parents not recognizing their offspring when dressed in servant’s rags (London Assurance) – the works. It is an escapist theater treat, my feel-good night out (though occasionally it doesn’t work, witness She Stoops to Conquer), and as a friend of mine prepared to visit from America, we cackled with glee about the fun we were going to have.
Sadly, though, pricing for The Magistrate wasn’t very wallet friendly: since my friend was not going to be here until after previews, we were left with the option of £38 OR £47 tickets. That’s not just doable for either of us. We thus decided to roll the dice and go for day seats and BANG! fortune smiled upon us and we had two in hand for the very back row for £12 each. Given that we were able to “upgrade” ourselves to center seats in the £47 with no effort due to the large number of empty seats (entire rows, in fact), I think the National might want to consider softening up the pricing a bit, at least in the circle.
What makes me sad about all of the empty seats is that this show was a hoot & a holler, with over the top yet utterly sincere performances (I don’t know how else to describe it) that perfectly sold the numerous asides detailing the character’s ridiculous quandaries. The sets and costumes helped make the outrageousness more believable – the women were dressed in nearly fluorescent greens and pinks (NOT Victorian at all!); the backdrop and furniture looked like a pop-up book; and the chorus, in their black and white stripes, fractally curled wigs, and flat white face paint, looked like they might have stepped out of Mary Poppins. We were in a world of heightened reality, where odd things could happen, and where society’s normal rules were turned upside down – all in the name of comedy, of course.
The story itself is fluffy, with the key comedy being the personalities involved and the lies they’ve been telling each other (and perhaps themselves): the magistrate himself, Aeneas Posket (John Lithgow), believes himself to be a man who upholds all of society’s standards, especially in regards to morality, yet is so easily deceived he’s unable to realize when he’s engaging in vice; his wife, Agatha Posket (Nancy Carroll) is perfectly willing to bully her husband into living up to those standards while realizing she’s come quite short herself; between the two of them there is certainly a pile of affection but also a lot of mask wearing. The most honest of the group is Agatha’s son from her first marriage, Cis (Joshua McGuire), who believes himself to be a child and yet has all of a man’s interests, such as gambling, drinking, and women. He, at least, is honest about the lies he is telling to people, but believes himself exempt from following anything except his id given that he is “but a child of 14.”
Oh my. I don’t think I’ve captured it very well – the secret conversations while “the mater” is out of the room; the apartment that Cis keeps to have his friends stay in; an entire scene during which a character is hiding on a balcony getting rained on; the police; and poor, poor Mr Posket’s return to work after spending the night running through the streets of London. Who would think a red necktie and a two pence tip could be so funny? But they were, and, sick as I am and sick as I was when I saw the show, I laughed and laughed and revelled in the warmth of a joyous tale merrily told. I could ask for no better Christmas present from the National, and neither could you, whatever Michael “The Grinch” Billington might think.
(This review is for an afternoon performance that took place on Sunday, December 2nd, 2012. It runs through February 10th. I would consider it well priced at 25 quid.)