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Theatre Review: A bad case of underage drinking

The Magistrate Chichester Festival Theatre, Sussex
John Padden seems to be cornering the market in the boy-man roles. It's no wonder. If you can imagine what Norman Wisdom would be like if he were tall, lanky and potentially a real danger rather than just a liability, then you'll have gathered something of this actor's stage persona. For Matthew Warchus, Padden was a superb Peter Pan - half other-worldly Puck, half clumsily bolshy and irresponsible teenager. He's in his element again now, playing the stepson in Nicholas Broadhurst's Chichester production of Arthur Wing Pinero's The Magistrate.

Where the arrested development of Peter Pan is wilfully self-imposed, in Pinero's farce it's an imposition from outside. Cis Farringdon is 19, but he and all the rest of his immediate acquaintance believe him to be 14 - a lie put around by his mother, who has taken five years from her own age in order to bag the title character as her second husband.

A worrying mix, in his Eton jacket, of body language that is a boyish scrawl and body language that spells precociously knowing toff-about-town, Padden's Cis comes across as a youth who'd like nothing better than a good snog and a win on the horses followed by a nice bedtime story. Playing farce on an epic stage like that at Chichester can't be easy, but he covers the distances with a wonderful comic nippiness, holding his upper half very straight as if he's just about to break into a negligently bravura Tommy Tune-style tap dance.

As the naive magistrate-stepfather whom Cis lures to a louche hotel for late-night drinkers, the great Ian Richardson leaves the flirtatiously poisonous Urquhart far behind, bringing his matchless comic timing and technical skill to a role that is, in truth, a bit of an awkward fit for him. Pinero's philanthropic magistrate is a pompous innocent led into baffling territory by that hormonal storm in a teacup, Cis. With his long fastidious face, its expression once brilliantly likened to that of "Dame Edith Sitwell being served a noisome vittle at Renishaw", Richardson can be many things but a gullible innocent is fairly low down the list. You can see why, for the generation before mine, Alastair Sim has remained the touchstone for this part - those panicking poached-egg eyes designed by nature to convey a rather dodgy brand of seraphic guilelessness.

Richardson isn't helped by a production that tries to disguise the basic inappropriateness of the space with added visual comedy sequences. For example, the magistrate's very funny soliloquy about the ignominious flight from the hotel is acted out on whirling contrary revolves, which robs the vocally gifted Richardson of making it a verbal highlight. The off-stage courtroom business is likewise reprised as spectacle etc, etc. Given the proscenium play tastes of its target audience, Chichester, with its epic stage, is in an ironic position. It's as though the Festspielhaus Bayreuth were to have ended up catering for the Gilbert and Sullivan crowd. Is the repertoire so barren of plays that would bring that space properly alive and tickle the fancy of this theatre's loyal punters. Entertaining, well acted and undemanding, it's perhaps not this Magistrate that needs to be pulled in for questioning.

To 18 Oct. Booking: 01243 781312