The Magistrate, National Theatre (Olivier), London

The National Theatre’s Christmas production was to have been The Count of Monte Cristo, but this was postponed for further development. If its replacement is less than a sheer delight, it is not for lack of preparation time (the postponement was announced back in June) but rather, I suspect, the reverse. Director Timothy Sheader has had ample opportunity to exaggerate the supposedly “fun” aspects of Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1885 proto-farce, to invent new ones and, all in all, to create a caricature of pleasure rather than the thing itself.

Sheader excels as a director of musicals, and has inserted a clutch of numbers written by Richard Sisson (the Widow in cabaret duo Kit & the Widow) and Richard Stilgoe, and sung by a chorus of pinstriped operatic caricatures. Earlier this year another director of musicals, Jamie Lloyd, used a similar tactic in his revival of She Stoops To Conquer on this same stage; could we perhaps declare a moratorium on it now, and ask directors to trust the texts and productions of the plays themselves to do the rollicking?

Katrina Lindsay’s set is inventive but, again, overdoes matters with its crazy cartoon angles, fold-out locations and scene captions. The principal drawback though is that Sheader simply sets the acting in too high a gear during the second act, which is the zenith of the farcical business.

When three parties (magistrate Aeneas Posket and his implausibly manly 14-year-old stepson Cis, Cis’s mother and aunt Charlotte, and his retired-colonel godfather and a military colleague who is also the estranged fiancé of Charlotte) all coincide in the same room of a slightly risqué hotel during a police raid, there is hiding and dodging business aplenty, but matters have already been directorially driven beyond the point of near-frenzy.

Mrs Posket and Colonel Lukyn,for instance, have by that point engaged in several contests more of barking than of shouting, which is a waste of the talents of actors such as Nancy Carroll and Jonathan Coy. Even the undoubted star, John Lithgow, comes into his own only in Act III with a selection of fine embarrassed morning-after acting.

Sharper performances, with speed instead of exaggeration, would shave off a quarter of an hour; cutting the songs would save as much again; this would then be a nippy, hour-each-way production instead of one that takes too much time and effort only to mimic enjoyment.

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