January 17, 1998: Pinero, The Magistrate

Savoy (matinee)

The ugliest fit-up in London is what the refurbished interior of the Savoy ought to be called, a tasteless combination of Art Deco and Art Nouveau, with patterned floor carpets and reddish-tan gilt wallpaper with large green balls the size of grapefruit in clusters painted into the upper corners. Fortunately, the lights do go down and then open on a large stage well-equipped with a double revolve which can be run simultaneously in opposite directions.

This is the Chichester Festival production of Pinero’s farce, with the impeccable Ian Richard­son as Aeneas Posket, magistrate of Mulberry Police Court. His monumental propriety as a lawgiver is wonderfully illustrated in a wordless opening sequence in which, on the outer revolve, Posket comes slowly into view, behind him a sculptor and a huge rough stone; Posket takes up a series of heroic poses, and then changes his mind just as the sculptor’s hammer and chisel are about to fall. He at length settles on the most pompous choice of all, the book of laws held high in his left hand while his right arm extends down, finger pointed, to admonish a presumed criminal. And so the venerable, punctiliously correct Posket is set up for the fall that inexorably occurs.

Pinero’s three-act farce demonstrating how the mighty can — and should — fall has been revived innumerable times, I would suppose. Its machinery creaks and groans fairly audibly, and yet it plays. Whereas in French farce the animal urges of civilized human beings are demonstrated and thwarted, at length, British farce, in this period at least, is typically about the thwarting of pretense at propriety. Spurious dignity is inevitably in for a come-uppance, or -downance, at the hands of Pinero when in a farcical mood. As long as the actors take their characters seriously, do not take the audience into their confidence to the effect that this is only a joke, and keep things going at an acceptably brisk pace, all goes well. As in this well-placed, spirited, and well acted production.

The first act is a bit tedious, but a necessary set-up for the scene in the Hotel des Princes in Act II, where reputations are threatened and even life itself becomes precarious, what with Captain Vale’s experience in a rainstorm on a balcony and then above on the roof of the hotel, from which he falls through the chimney into the very room from which his companion Colonel Lukyn has asked him tactfully to leave momentarily in order to accommodate the needs of Posket’s wife and her sister, who are looking to protect the falsehood Posket’s wife has told in order to disguise the true age (19) of her socially precocious son Cis Farrington. Cis himself meanwhile has lured the naive Posket to this very place, and when they in turn rush out onto the same balcony to avoid a police raid, they fall through the glass roof of the kitchen and run away, pursued as far as Kilburn by the police, with predictable insult to Posket’s dignity and clothes.

In Act III we see the hilarious results of Posket’s catastrophic lapse. Richard­son’s entrance in a dress suit almost completely destroyed by his night’s exper­ience is itself worth the price of admission. His right sleeve has come completely away from its moorings at the shoulder, and when Posket flings his arm out, finger pointed as in the sculpture of the man of laws (which, by the way, graces the center of Posket’s drawing room), the sleeve is thrown free of the arm and halfway across the room: one of the best laughs in the play. In this scene the encounter with Colonel Lukyn, who has gone through some pains to warn Posket that it is his own wife and sister-in-law who have been apprehended and kept all night in the cell along with Lukyn and Vale themselves, Posket’s stub­born­ness and thickheadedness triumph in highly amusing and self-convicting ways over Lukyn’s solicitude, common sense, and humanity.

All is of course eventually put right, and Cis, now a man of nineteen who in comic fashion comes into his own at the end, is nicely relegated to the provinces along with his bride-to-be, the female music teacher who from the start has had eyes only for him and who is happy to be sent off to Canada with him, leaving Posket’s happy home restored to tranquility and his sister-in-law happily engaged to the long-suffering dandy Captain Vale. Audiences will probably still love this silly, harmless stuff a hundred years from now. I have to admit, after a few inward groans, that it won me too.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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