Strong artistic directors have to steer a steady course through sometimes choppy theatrical waters. And they also have to know when to change the route too, if necessary. Nick Hytner, programming the annual, lucrative family slot in the Olivier Theatre that has previously brought us War Horse, Coram Boy and His Dark Materials under his watch, originally announced a new stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo by Richard Bean for this year, and tickets had already gone on sale when he took the unusual decision to withdraw it.
Don Gallagher (Achille Blond), Christopher Logan (Isidore), Joshua McGuire (Cis Farringdon) and John Lithgow (Posket) in The Magistrate at the Olivier, National Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
But the commitment to employ director Timothy Sheader, the artistic director of the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, to make his National Theatre directorial debut was honoured, and he was tasked instead with producing a new production of Arthur Wing Pinero’s classic Victorian comedy The Magistrate, last seen in London at the NT over 25 years ago in a production that starred the late, great Nigel Hawthorne in the title role.
It now provides a glorious vehicle for John Lithgow, Broadway’s most Patrician-seeming actor, to return to the National (where he previously brought his solo show, Stories by Heart, from Lincoln Center for a couple of performances in 2009) for a more extended run. He’s wholeheartedly hilarious in a fine display of reactive comedy acting, and at the top of the second half provides a masterclass in descriptive solo narrative acting too, as he recounts his character’s flight from a private members’ club with his young stepson through the streets of London to avoid arrest - only to find his wife and her sister arraigned before him in the dock the next morning as he presides over the local Magistrates’ court, for being in exactly the same place that he’d been at.
But Lithgow, watching the hypocrisies of his life tumble around him, isn’t the only person around whom life’s certainties are falling apart. His wife’s desperate secret - that her 14 year old son by her first marriage is in fact all of 19 (and no wonder he therefore talks not once but twice of “swelling with expectation” when around a young woman, and already smokes, drinks and is a member of a private club) - is threatening to be exploded, too, by a visit from the boy’s godfather.
The roles of the wife and her son are blissfully taken by the wonderful Nancy Carroll and the pint-sized Joshua McGuire respectively. Carroll is one of our most seriously gifted comic actresses, a natural successor to Maggie Smith and Fiona Shaw but more comically truthful and less stylised than either. I’ve previously seen McGuire play Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe. The London stage keeps turning out new stars, and both are destined for greatness.
There’s also a peach of a performance from Beverley Rudd as a buxom maid also much taken by McGuire’s young Cis. But then the whole show is a testament to NT casting at its finest, with terrific turns throughout from the smallest roles to the biggest.
Sheader’s slick, handsome production - with Katrina Lindsay’s clever sets folding out of the Olivier revolve like a pop-up picture book - also boasts witty ditties, newly penned by Richard Sisson (music) and Richard Stilgoe (lyrics), for a show that delightfully continues this year’s rediscoveries of the plays of Arthur Wing Pinero that has already brought us revivals of Dandy Dick and The Second Mrs Tanqueray, with Trelawny of the Wells still to come at the Donmar in the New Year. The result may, in the end, lack the deft physical comedy flourishes of One Man, Two Guvnors, but the play is just as crisp, clever and detailed to provide a rich Christmas comedy feast.