Theatre Review: What the Butler Saw

Theatre Royal Bath until 30 May
Words by Melissa Blease

During his short but prolific career, English playwright Joe Orton amused, infuriated and shocked mid-1960s audiences with his scandalous black comedies, of which Entertaining Mr Sloane (themes: repressed sexuality, Oedipus complex-related murder; inappropriate seduction) and Loot (social attitudes to death; the questionable integrity of the police force; the hypocrisy of the Catholic church) remain to be enduringly popular, constantly analysed and regularly revived – the reputation Orton garnered as ‘a rising star of the alternative British intelligentsia’ almost 60 years ago still endures, it seems, today.

Orton’s own, inimitable recipe for success could be described as being seasoned with a liberal splash of Monty Python, a scoop of The Benny Hill Show, a few drops of Alan Ayckbourn’s (in)sensibilities, a dash of Oscar Wilde’s wit, a soupçon of Kenneth Williams’ audacity and a side order of magic mushrooms… but mostly, it’s very much all his own, crazy-genius work.

He completed his farcical tour-de-force What the Butler Saw in July 1967, just a month before he was brutally murdered, at the age of 34, by his lover, the actor Kenneth Halliwell (who committed suicide immediately after committing the crime). As a result of his tragic, untimely departure, Orton never had the opportunity to put what he called, in his diary, “the final polish” on the script. Would we know that, had director Michael Cabot not explained the backstory in his fascinating Director’s Note, in the programme? To the contrary, it doesn’t feel like there’s any unfinished business in this production.

Yup, Orton’s back on the road again, this time in the capable hands of London Classic Theatre, a company with a big reputation for breathing new life into definitive dramas that must never be allowed to be put into retirement. Fasten your seatbelts! It’s quite the bumpy ride…

Holly Smith as Mrs Prentice and Alex Cardall as Nicholas Beckett

If farce could be described as a comedy that seeks to entertain an audience through situations that are generally highly exaggerated, extravagant, ridiculous, absurd and improbable, What the Butler Saw ticks all those boxes.

During the course of an interview for a prospective secretary, pervy psychiatrist Dr Prentice persuades guileless Geraldine Barclay to take all her clothes off and lie down on his curtained-off examination bed in the corner of his office; cue Mrs Prentice barging into her husband’s workplace bringing all her own crazy baggage with her.

Holly Smith as Mrs Prentice and John Dorney as Doctor Prentice

Frocks are exchanged (long story) and a blackmailing bellboy enters the mix (ditto previous parenthesis). Enter Dr Rance – a government medical inspector investigating Prentice’s practise – and doltish young copper Sergeant Match, who bring further opportunities for utterly insane set-ups and scenes to guide us through this highly-convoluted yarn. Infidelity, transvestism, misogyny; rape, incest, constant political/’establishment’ takedowns; social mores, class wars… and lashings and lashings of whisky knocked back at the speed of light – it’s all pure Orton, at his resolutely brazen best (or worst, depending on your perspective).

Bek Palmer’s clean-lines set – one-part Michelangelo, two parts Dali, all parts Python-esque – further adds to the slightly queasy sense of almost obscene surreality, while the ensemble cast tell us all we need to know about a bunch of largely unknowable, unstable individuals who carry this Daedalian drama to its riotously ridiculous conclusion.

Jack Lord as Doctor Rance, Alana Jackson as Geraldine Barclay, and John Dorney as Doctor Prentice

But is What the Butler Saw a play for today? 55 years since it premiered, dramas questioning considerations around morality, gender identity and adultery are commonplace, our attitudes to sexual abuse are, thank goodness, rather more enlightened than they were back then, and a general lack of respect for authority and political figures is… well, you know how it is. But while the play may not be described as being ‘relevant’ today, London Classic Theatre have given us a slick, bold, fast-paced, energetic insight into why What the Butler Saw is a terrific theatrical timepiece that everybody needs to see at least once.

Photo credit: Sheila Burnett

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