Comedy loves small spaces. So the last thing you need is the wide-open expanse of the Olivier stage. But that’s the home for Timothy Sheader’s production of “The Magistrate,” a farce by Victorian playwright Arthur Wing Pinero. Katrina Lindsay’s entrancing sets unfold across the stage like a giant, black-and-white pop-up picture-book. But that and wonderfully deft performances from Nancy Carroll and John Lithgow notwithstanding, there’s a sneaking sense that the wrapping is better than the gift.
The 36-year-old widow Agatha (a spirited Carroll) has just married upstanding magistrate Aeneas Poskett (a nicely naive Lithgow). Unbeknownst to him, Agatha has shaved five years from her age, an act that begins to look less foolish and more foolhardy since it means she has to perform equal subtraction with her son Cis (Joshua McGuire) who is, inconveniently, 19. So when Cis’ blunderbuss of a godfather Colonel Lukyn (a pneumatic Jonathan Coy) threatens to drop in, Agatha realizes she must head him off at the pass. Or, rather, at the elegant but dubious hotel at which he is staying.
Unbenowknst to her, rampant Cis — whom everyone considers exceptionally advanced for being just 14 — has chosen to inveigle his gullible stepfather into goings-on at the self-same hotel. As everyone collides there, the humor builds to comedy mayhem with consequences involving the police. Reputation and propriety are at stake and the magistrate finds himself in the invidious position of putting almost every member of his family into court, himself included.
For all this to work, the initial set-up of the household needs warmth. There’s a delicious glow to James Farncombe’s color-drenched lighting, but what should be light and genial playing has congealed into something harder. In an attempt to fill the auditorium, the acting from almost everyone pushing too hard and the friction produced by such forced playing rubs the charm off the material.
The outstanding exception is the gleamingly assured Carroll whose split-second timing and perfectly controlled energy are more than equal to the demands of the space. The audience is fanned out across the wide auditorium but when Carroll delivers an aside with a toss of her bewigged head, her winning self-assurance whips everyone into her confidence.
A baleful, hound-like Lithgow achieves equal effect via his clown’s gift with stretched time. The more trouble his character is in, the more elaborate his physical business. Enormously tall but wonderfuly light on his feet, he moulds and builds laughter that keeps audiences in the palms of his pirouetting hands.
The less experienced actors, however, cannot match them and too many performances tend toward the shrill. Pawing the ground with anticipation, leaping over furniture and steaming up with excitement over every available woman, McGuire puts the boy into buoyant. But his exuberance elicits admiration for the actor rather than sympathy for the character.
Since the show is the National’s Christmas offering, jollity is ladled into the proceedings via the addition of chorus numbers that establish and intersperse the scenes. As befits the era, they are Gilbert & Sullivan pastiches with tart lyrics by Richard Stilgoe accompanying Richard Sisson’s crisp music. But for all their neat covering of scene changes, they add to rather than solve Sheader’s problems with pace.
The slot was to have been devoted to Richard Bean’s new adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo” but that proved not to be ready in time. There’s plenty of cheery Victorian-style amusement to be had in this replacement but it’s a shame that so much effort shows through.