What the Butler Saw

Posted on: 20 June 2012 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green finds Joe Orton's satirical comedy fast, furious and truly entertaining.

Omid Djalili in Joe Orton's What the Butler SawA psychiatric institution in which the doctors seem far madder than the patients provides the setting for Joe Orton’s legendary 1967 satirical comedy What the Butler Saw, which is revived in an insanely funny new production, directed by Sean Foley, at the Vaudeville Theatre.

When psychoanalyst Dr Prentice instructs his new secretary to undress he doesn’t 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, social decorum is buried, madness mocks morality and laughter reigns.

This is Orton’s last and arguably finest work, written at the age of 34. As with his other plays, most notably Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot, Orton takes the genre of farce, shakes it about and turns it upside down, adding a subversive element. Admittedly the play has lost some of its shock appeal – when it was first staged in 1969, there were cries of “filth!” from the audience. But these days Orton’s mischievous wit –“You were attacked by a naked woman”, says the visiting inspector, “I don’t know whether to applaud your daring or envy your luck?” – still works wonders compared with the excesses of today’s so-called “in-yer-face” scatological humour.

I should point out that while the split second timing is generally spot on the production does get over frenetic in places and this tends to undercut our belief in the characters and situations. Yet Orton’s anarchic attack on traditional English sensibilities still manages to draw blood.

Director Sean Foley draws convincing performances from his hard working cast, most notably Omid Djalili as the senior psychiatrist inspector who appears determined to find evidence of as many forms of insanity as possible, all of which he plans to include in a book he is writing, Tim McInnerny as the philandering Dr Prentice, Samantha Bond as his rarely wife and Georgia Moffett, who brings a winsome charm to the role of the poor abused secretary. There is also effective support from Jason Thorpe as the policeman who gets sucked into all the mayhem and like most of the others ends up without his clothes.

This is a tricky play to pull off and can now, over 40 years after it was written, seem dated, but this production manages to surmount all the obstacles and with a mixture of fast and furious pacing and deft playing, manages to provide a truly entertaining evening in the theatre, all the more welcome in our grim economic times.

What the Butler Saw 
Vaudeville Theatre until 25th August 2012
Box office: 0844 412 4663

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