What the Butler Saw

  • Our critic's rating:
    Wednesday, May 16, 2012
    Review by:
    Peter Brown

    Discovered after the author was brutally murdered by his lover, 'What The Butler saw' is a play that is often described as Joe Orton's best work, and is worth seeing on that basis alone. First performed in 1969, it is a testament to the seismic shift in moral attitudes which took place in the UK during the liberated, swinging 60s. Only a year before 'What The butler Saw' was first seen on stage, the Lord Chamberlain had sway over what could and could not be seen in the theatre. If 'What The Butler Saw' had been offered-up for the Lord Chamberlain's consideration, it would probably have been savagely cut, and perhaps not even allowed to be performed at all. How times change.

    That gives you a flavour of the nature of the material this play contains. Joe Orton lampooned almost every department of the establishment, especially the police, courts, politicians, doctors, the church and many others. In the hands of this master of extreme farce, almost no subject is exempt from ridicule. And that won't sit too well with some, because highly sensitive and emotional issues such as rape and child abuse are all treated rather casually. However liberal or broadminded you might be, there are moments in this play when it is impossible not to wince in discomfort. But that, I think, is the way Orton meant us to feel. Luckily, there are plenty of other, joyously funny moments in a play wrapped in Orton's wonderful language which gleefully draws on the officialese of the bureaucrats, twisting that vocabulary into sometimes chokingly funny constructs.

    Dr Prentice is a psychiatrist. When we first meet him he is interviewing a young girl, Geraldine Barclay, for a job as his secretary. But very quickly we realise that Prentice has a different kind of employment in mind for the young woman. He dupes her into getting undressed so he can perform a 'thorough examination'. Just at that point his wife appears which forces Geraldine to hide naked behind a curtain. Mrs Prentice has troubles of her own. Her dalliances with a page boy at the infamous Station Hotel have put her in an awkward position as the young man has photographs of their lovemaking, and wants a secretarial job which Mrs Prentice wants her husband to provide. If that wasn't enough, Dr Rance, a government inspector, turns up, discovers Geraldine and when Prentice tells him that she is a patient, Rance promptly commits her. From thereon, the plot gets more and more ridiculous so that we ultimately feel like Mrs Prentice when she asks Rance “Does any of this make sense to you?”. It doesn't and it is not meant to, but there are some brilliant moments of sparkling comedy along the way.

    With a play that teeters on the brink of total collapse almost at every turn, director Sean Foley skilfully manages to keep the whole thing afloat and moving along at a cracking pace. Tim McInnerny as Dr Prentice bears a striking similarity to Basil Fawlty from the famous BBC series 'Fawlty Towers' in both his appearance and the fact that his plans are continually thwarted by bureaucracy or his wife. Omid Djalili is the domineering government inspector who commits people for insanity at the drop of a hat, and seeks to embellish his professional standing by publishing his dubious theories. Samantha Bond as Mrs Prentice, spends most of her time drinking whisky (as does her husband) and ends up tottering about the consulting room in a drunken stupor. Nick Hendrix makes his West End debut as the page, Nicholas Becket, and will no doubt acquire many ardent admirers as he 'bares all', revealing a strikingly athletic body. And Georgia Moffett and Jason Thorpe provide good support as Geraldine and Sergeant Match.

    'What The Butler saw' is farce taken to an extreme that not only satirises almost every element of society, but also the genre itself. Given that approach, Orton inevitably sailed close to the wind in terms of taste, but nevertheless concocted a play which is still raucously funny in places and, unlike many shows, gets better as it reaches its predictably ridiculous conclusion.


    "Everyone bellows, barks, screeches and shouts so much that Orton's subversive wit gets buried under an avalanche of coarse acting."
    Michael Billington for The Guardian

    "This is a monotone, sometimes clunky production which could do with a lighter, fresher touch. It seems crazy, yes, but also a bit dated."
    Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

    "Something has gone terribly wrong here. Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw...has long struck me as a comic masterpiece. Yet watching Sean Foley’s over-frenetic, emphatically zany new production there were long stretches that seemed almost sadistically unfunny, as the actors shouted, mugged desperately and avoided no cheap trick in their desperate pursuit of laughs...I staggered out of the theatre feeling more exhausted than entertained."
    Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    Guardian - Daily Telegraph -

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