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Victorian farce with a modern twist

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TOmagistrate1

The Magistrate

DIRECTOR: Timothy Shearder

CAST: John Lithgow, Nancy Carroll, Joshua McGuire and |the rest of the hysterical cast

UNTIL: February 23, 24, 27 and 28

RATING: ***

It’s astonishing to see what can be done with a Victorian farce written 130 years ago. In a play that’s as much about the production as the performances, the set becomes as much a participant as the marvellous writing. And don’t forget those crazy hairstyles of especially the men.

Making his directing debut at the National Theatre, Olivier award-winner Timothy Shearder turns The Magistrate on its head as he adds music in almost Gilbert and Sullivan fashion to comment on the comings and goings of the bumbling magistrate, Posket (Lithgow), married to widow Agatha (Olivier Award-winning actress Carroll), without realising that she’s been less than honest about her age – and as a result, that of her son’s.

There has to be a blow-out. Fearing that all might be revealed and lost, she and her son set a farcical romp in motion that has everyone scurrying around in hilarious fashion.

Actually, says the director, the music was introduced to help with the fantastical set changes and it works a charm.

One could see the production for the sets alone inspired by pop-up books and in principle, that’s how they work. It’s almost like having a giant rosette on stage that unfolds one set after another in spectacular fashion and gives the story a fairy-tale quality of the Mad Hatter kind.

But then there’s also the cast. Farce might appear like rollicking fun, but because it is such a physical performance, the precision timing is breathtaking and part of the fun. There are some action scenes where if one of the actors misses a step or swings an arm too high or low, it could all come tumbling down.

But it doesn’t, and the energy and exuberance of every perform-ance is pure pleasure to behold.

Who would have thought that Lithgow, so terrifying as the predator in a recent Dexter season, could be such a clown? In the title role, he is given glorious free rein in some exhilarating sequences to let go and he does so majestically.

We know he’s a fabulous actor, but to see this display on stage extends his range magnificently. It’s such fun to watch, keeping you in stitches, but also wonder.

As his sparring wife, Carroll starts off quite shrill, or so it seems, until one gets the exaggerated style and her particular character that is simply superbly executed. One cannot believe that her voice could last for a run. The two of them just blast each other off stage.

It’s the kind of theatre that even non-theatregoers will enjoy. And from a professional stance, actors and those still studying their craft will be simply stupefied by the spectacle.

In a theatre that attracts a world audience, they can afford to stage what seems to be an extravagant production, from the actors to the costumes, hair, make-up and set.

But all of that adds to what is just a gloriously joyous experience. From the text, with some of the lines matching the Maggie Smith clangers in Downton Abbey, to the direction that had such fantastical vision and, of course, a cast that picks up that baton and careers off, leaving those watching quite breathless. It’s heady stuff.

• The Magistrate screens at Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau, February 23 at 7.30pm; February 24 at 2.30pm; February 27 at 7.30pm and February 28 at 7.30pm.


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