A Little Victorian Treat

The MagistrateNational Theatre

If The Magistrate now playing at the National Theatre teaches you one thing, it is to not trust lukewarm reviews; for this is a riotous comedy, an evening of light hearted frivolity, bizarre coincidences and seasonal mirth.

The MagistrateOver the years, Victorian comedy has not always been favourably received, lost beneath a mountain of melodrama and the sniping of later dramatists. Oscar Wilde sought to establish a more politically aware form of comedy and his fellow Irishman George Bernard Shaw dismissed much of it as ‘froth’. And, of course, there’s Ibsen’s move to naturalism and the solemnity of his works. But to go down that path perhaps misses the point. Whilst Arthur Wing Pinero‘s The Magistrate is one of the few commercial plays from the period to survive, it joins plays such as Boucicault’s London Assurance as sparkling evenings of comedy.

At heart, The Magistrate is something of a farce, though with considerably less innuendo. Agatha Posket (Nancy Carroll) is apparently happily married to Aeneas Posket (played by John Lithgow), a respectable magistrate in a London Police Court. Agatha, however, has a secret: widowed at the age of 35, she lied about her age to her new husband, claiming to be 31, and suggesting her son Cis was considerably younger. Apparently 14 but in reality 19, many are at a loss to explain how developed Cis is, how ‘adult’ his tastes and how attractive he is to women.

Unfortunately for Agatha, her son’s godfather, Colonel Lukyn, has reappeared on the scene. To make matters worse, by a number of coincidences – and all in somewhat shady circumstances – all of the characters end up at the the slightly seedy Hotel des Princes, and disaster seems inevitable, both for Agatha’s marriage and Aeneas Posket’s career.

What follows is an increasingly absurd set of comic capers, amongst which the finest performance was undoubtedly that of Joshua McGuire as the outlandish Cis Farringdon. A hit with the ladies, Cis also managed the double whammy of being an ultimate lad, clocking up hotel and dining bills and fobbing them on to someone else to pay. John Lithgow’s magistrate was equally strong in the way he presented the gradual meltdown of a respectable Victorian gentleman, and his realisation of his impeding ruin.

Pinero’s dialogue, free of the studied wit of Wilde, reveals how very far many Victorians were from our somewhat staid caricature of them, emphasised in this production by unstuffy direction from Timothy Sheader. The lack of vulgarity and incessant innuendo was particularly welcome – I’ve grown somewhat tired of directors who turn every line into a double entendre. Music from Richard Sisson and charmingly witty lyrics by Richard Stilgoe (yes, he of Nationwide fame) gave the play a slightly cabaret style at moments.

Indeed, for the student of Victorian literature this play is a treat, particularly in the way in which it reveals several tensions within late Victorian society. The double life of Cis Farringdon bears much resemblance to other representations of Victorian young men, not least the wayward Lupin Pooter in George and Weeden Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody and even Algernon Moncrieff in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Drunkenness, gambling, debt and all the other secrets of a young man’s double life clearly emerge as recurrent preoccupations in the literature of the period. Similarly, the threat of ruin hanging over the respectable Aeneas Pocket bears much resemblance to Sir Robert Chiltern in An Ideal Husband. Yet whilst Wilde or Shaw in Mrs Warren’s Profession are clearly critical of attitudes to class, wealth and sexuality, Pinero’s comedy lacks bite or serious comment and is perhaps all the better for it; as I am constantly reminded by students, not everything needs to make a political point.

So ignore the skeptics, sit back and enjoy something just a little bit different and which really won’t overly tax your mind – no bad thing for a cold January night.