What the Butler Saw

Broadsheet critics may have rushed to judgment on What The Butler Saw. Johnny Fox sees razor-sharp wit and enduring brilliance in Orton's script, boxfresh after 45 years, and two central performances by Tim McInnerny and Samantha Bond to savour. At the Vaudeville Theatre.

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It’s tantalizing to wonder what might have happened to Joe Orton had he not succumbed at 34 to the hammer blows of his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell in their shared bedsit in Islington. Between 1964 and 67 Orton produced three of the most remarkable (and still frequently revived) comedies on the London stage: Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloane and What The Butler Saw

Would we now, approaching his 80th anniversary, be feting ‘Sir Joseph Orton’ like Coward or Terence Rattigan who, despite his notoriously closeted status and the fact he wrote the sort of ‘well-made plays’ that Orton ridiculed, invested covertly in the production of Sloane? Arguably – since you can’t libel the dead – because he’d sampled Joe’s personal rough charms as well as his scriptwriting. Might he have gone down the Ayckbourn route, delivering a play every six months whether it was good or not, or like his close contemporary Harold Pinter – who spoke the eulogy at Orton’s funeral – a sparser output studded with comedies of menace and wordy political satire? 

My guess is that, unless seduced by TV and Hollywood, he’d now be a sort of non-musical Stephen Sondheim, constantly driven by a desire to do something new, yet veering between crowd-pleasing accessible comedy of human relationships and a darker urgency in his more demanding works. Whether or not he might have approached Sondheim’s near-deified status, it’s clear that a massive potential was lost that August night in 1967.

Almost fifty years on, the broadsheet critics have not been kind to the newest revival of What The Butler Saw. Charles Spencer in the Telegraph called it “sadistically unfunny”, Michael Billington in the Guardian “an avalance of coarse acting” and Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail blamed “heavy-handed direction”. Set in a psychiatric clinic, a white lie to his wife about a girl the doctor is trying to seduce sets off a chain reaction of cross-dressing, nudity, misdiagnosis and strait-jacketed restraint.

Many of their criticisms were based on experience of earlier productions.  I’ve also seen it several times before including, an excellent version directed by Lindsay Anderson at the Whitehall in 1975, and Phyllida Lloyd’s scintillating National Theatre revival in 1995 with John Alderton and Richard Wilson when, as the naked pageboy Nicholas Beckett, a youthful David Tennant proved that not everything is necessarily bigger inside the Tardis. Most customers have never heard this script before, and it’s hysterically funny. Equally, Orton no more deserves nostalgic comparison than Coward, or Pinter, or Rattigan - all of whose mid-century plays have had new lives breathed into them by fresher direction and acting.

What it does need is pinpoint casting, only partially delivered here. Omid Djalili is more a comedian than an actor and unlike, say, Alexei Sayle or Lenny Henry, seems unable to bridge the subtle transitions between manic stand-up and the restraint and vocal variety demanded by a stage role. But at the core of the play you have, in Tim McInnerny and Samantha Bond, an almost ideal coupling of Dr and Mrs Prentice, the bewildered ‘normals’ around whom the mayhem revolves.

McInnerny has the perfect combination of physical comedy and mastery of double-take that makes him ideal for Orton. Nymphomaniac Mrs Prentice is always played by an actress with a classily distinctive voice which makes the filthy epigrams sound elegant: “my uterine contractions have been bogus for years”, “Have you taken up transvestism? I'd no idea our marriage teetered on the edge of fashion” - and apart from Judi Dench there is no voice more seductive or instantly recognizable than Samantha Bond’s. 

The junior cast members are weaker, too: pageboy Nick Hendrix making more of his remarkable body than of his three years’ RADA training, and Georgia Moffett floundering as the innocent secretary wrongly diagnosed as a mental patient.

Perhaps emboldened by his own success with The Ladykillers, director Sean Foley overlooks the delicate Wildean parody of the opening scenes and goes straight for full-on farcical shouting from the off, borrowing from Noises Off and One Man Two Guvnors to capitalize on what he sees as comedic zeitgeist. It doesn’t serve Orton well, since the dramatic arc of What The Butler Saw relies on relentlessly increasing elements of unreality towards an insane and all-encompassing climax. Foley’s problem is simply that it comes too soon.

Instead of introducing multiple bottles of whisky to make his two principals leglessly drunk, Foley might have intervened in the ‘jokes’ which fall flattest on modern theatergoing ears – there are several references to rape, and women asking for it, which caused the customers to tense and the lines about ‘white golliwogs’ either went over the audience’s head, or felt like an needlessly racist slur.

A week or so past press night, the production has settled.  It takes time in farce for the actors to catch each other’s rhythms and reciprocate the split-second timing, but it’s stabilizing now into an enjoyable evening. Calm Mr Djalili a little, and encourage the younger cast to emulate the timing and delivery of the experienced ones, and it could yet be a hit.

Name of Show: What The Butler Saw

Genre: Comedy farce

Playwright: Joe Orton

Premiered: 5 March 1969

This Production Opened: 4 May 2012

 

Tweet: Joe Orton's infamous psycho-farce What the Butler Saw gets a full-frontal full-throttle staging at the Vaudeville.

Synopsis: Caught by his nymphomaniac wife while attempting to seduce a secretarial interviewee, Psychiatrist Dr Prentice claims the girl is a mental patient and sets off a chain of misunderstanding and mayhem which results in cross-dressing and nudity as the plot becomes mountingly improbable. When an external assessor from the Ministry of Health turns out to be even more irrational than the patients, it's impossible to work out just which of the characters, if any, is sane.

Famous Moment(s):

  • The bellboy from the Station Hotel wearing nothing but a policeman's helmet.
  • The production of the 'private parts' of Sir Winston Churchill at a climactic moment.
  • Samantha Bond's drunken nymphomaniac Mrs Prentice.

 

Why See It: Despite his untimely death at 34, Joe Orton was one of the most significant and original playwrights of the 20th century, and his works are still hilarious today.  Tim McInnerny and Samantha Bond are brilliantly paired as the two central characters.

Caveat: This production isn't as sharp as the recent revival of Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane and comedian Omid Djalili is slightly adrift as the interventionist Dr Rance.

 

Trivia:

  • Joe Orton's promising career was cut short at age 34 when he was bludgeoned to death by his jealous lover in their shared bedsit in Islington.
  • Despite the fact he was notoriously closeted, and a writer of the sort of old-fashioned plays Orton abhorred, veteran British dramatist Sir Terence Rattingan secretly invested in Orton's productions.

Welcome to the madhouse, as Joe Orton's legendary 1967 comedy opens at the Vaudeville Theatre this spring. Starring Omid Djalili, What the Butler Saw is an insanely funny, full-throttle tour de farce. Hysterical one liners and outrageous twists collide, as the characters lose the plot, their wits, and their clothes. When psychoanalyst Dr Prentice instructs his new secretary to undress, little does he expect to be interrupted by his wife, her blackmailing lover, a meddling government inspector and an inquisitive policeman. But hiding a naked woman is the least of his worries, as libidos run riot, identities are swapped and social decorum is buried. Madness and mayhem mock morality, and laughter reigns supreme. What the Butler Saw is the last and arguably the finest work of one of this nation's most celebrated playwrights. A gloriously witty and shockingly hilarious comedy, you'd be mad to miss it!

Vaudeville Theatre

404 The Strand
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2R 0NH

Performances at the following times:
Monday to Saturday 7.30pm, Thursday and Saturday 2.30pm

Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes
Image credits:
What the Butler Saw © MJE Productions