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What The Butler Saw at the Vaudeville Theatre, London
Tim McInnerny and Samantha Bond in What The Butler Saw. Photo by Simon Annand.
What The Butler Saw
By Joe Orton
At the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2.
Booking until August 25, 2012
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell

Sean Foley, fresh from his great success directing The Ladykillers, returns with a revival of Orton’s last great play but it strikes a somewhat false note.

Despite his great comic track record, including The Play What I Wrote and despite wooing top stand-up comic Omid Djalili to a West End acting debut the mix doesn’t really gel.

Set in the examining room of a private clinic, the rollicking farce unfolds from the moment the lecherous Dr Prentice (Tim McInnerny) attempts to seduce his prospective secretary (Georgia Moffett) by getting her to undress at her interview. When the haughty but amorous Mrs Prentice (Samantha Bond firing on all cylinders) interrupts them, the deceptions and evasions begin. She, in turn, is being seduced and blackmailed by a horny young bellboy (Nick Hendrix) to whom she promises the position of secretary to her husband. Before long everyone seems to be in their underwear. Into this maelstrom comes Dr Rance (Djalili) who is on a government inspection of the clinic and madder than anyone he is investigating. Orton’s portrait of the power crazed clinician, spouting psychobabble, totally blind to what is in front of him and obsessed with absurd officialdom, is a glorious assault on the self absorption of the psychiatric profession, where every experience is just fodder for a case study.

Orton structured his great plays as classic farces and while the ridiculous plot here could do justice to any boulevard comedy, Orton was intent on a more serious purpose. His anarchic sensibility sought to expose the hypocrisies of the time about sexual mores or the nature of sanity vs insanity. It was, after all, the period of RD Laing and his fashionable theories about ‘The Divided Self’.

From the outset Orton’s language recalls Wilde with its reflective aphorisms. Characters frame every discourse with a witty aside. The play exists on two levels, functioning both as a farce and comment on it at the same time, not an easy task for a director. For farce to work it has to be played for real but here there is the added component of the heightened language to deal with and this can stall the action. Here the beautifully cadenced sentences stuffed with antitheses and jewelled metaphor need to be given time to breathe and the tempo has to constantly alter. It’s a tall order but sadly in this case the wit is often lost in the frenzy and the play comes across as merely strident.

In the supporting parts Moffett is confident and perky as the much put upon secretary and Jason Thorpe gives us a gloriously gymnastic turn as Sergeant Match. Orton loved poking fun at dim police officers and their officialese such as “I’m asking you to produce or cause to be produced…”

The cast at times are at sea here and while experienced thesps such as Bond and McInnerny pull through (he gives Prentice just the right air of pomposity), those less so, such as Djalili or Hendrix, end up giving one-note performances. Djalili, famed as he put it for playing “Arab scumbags” in action movies, is a gloriously physical performer but his use of hissing is quite misplaced as is the over indulgence in the whisky bottle by Dr and Mrs Prentice. All these are unnecessary embellishments to the script. There is no need to gild a lily.


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