This twinkly eyed revival of Victorian farceur Arthur Wing Pinero's 1885 romp was, by the NT's standards, a last minute fix, pulled out of the bag a few months back to replace Richard Bean's shelved Christmas show 'The Count of Monte Cristo'. But there's no air of 'rush job' to Timothy Sheader's super-stylised production.
For starters, 'The Magistrate' looks fantastic: Katrina Lindsay's 2D set is chocolate box Victoriana force-fed laudanum until it's gone a little nuts, all spiralling, abstract cityscapes and impossibly angled chintz. And it's not just the set that's gone through the looking glass – with their mad hair and retina-searing outfits, the cast seem to have escaped from a Tim Burton version of 'A Christmas Carol'.
Joshua McGuire gains a good foot in height from his vertiginous barnet as the impish Cis Farringdon, a 14-year-old whose prodigious appetite for bawdy is best explained by the fact he is, unbeknownst to himself, 19. The improbable lie was fed to him by his mother Agatha (Nancy Carroll), who shaved five years off her own age while being courted by her now husband Posket (John Lithgow), the hapless magistrate of the title.
Your fondness for Sheader's sumptuous production will depend on whether you like farce additive free or stylised to within an inch of its life. Personally, I couldn't get enough of the mad visuals and vaudevillian musical interludes, even if they conceivably betray a lack of faith in Pinero's source text.
Big American star Lithgow is a touch subdued in the first half, but his bewildered Posket comes into his own in the second as he brings his gangly physicality to bear on the aftermath of a wild night on the town with his stepson. McGuire is an excellent, cartoonish foil, full of wicked glee yet strangely sweet. But it's the reliably brilliant Nancy Carroll who gives the production a heart: her amplified everywoman injects enough soul into Agatha to make us sympathise with the ludicrous pickle she's got herself into.
Like most Christmas presents, Sheader's gaudy production is good fun at the time and liable to be forgotten shortly thereafter. But that's all in the disposable spirit of the season – you'd have to be a bit of a Scrooge to deny 'The Magistrate' was a hoot.