I love Joe Orton. I really, really love Joe Orton.
But to business.
What the Butler Saw was the last play from the man famously referred to as the Oscar Wilde of welfare state gentility. In the space of three short years Orton’s career as a playwright bloomed and blossomed to West End success; the wave of which he was surfing when he was horrifically murdered in 1967, an event that pretty much ruined his chances of writing any more plays, and our chances of seeing them. Oh, Joe…
…cross-dressing, heightened libidos, madness and chaos.
The play begins with psychoanalyst Dr Prentice (Tim McInnerny) interviewing Geraldine Barclay (Georgia Moffett) for a secretarial position. It soon becomes clear secretarial isn’t the only position he has in mind for the young dunce when he has her undressed on the analysing bed. But this is farce, so his wife makes an amusingly untimely entrance and all that gets thrusted is Geraldine behind a curtain. Mrs Prentice (Samantha Bond) wants her husband to give bellboy Nicholas Beckett (Nick Hendrix) the secretarial role. Beckett is blackmailing her, having taken uncompromising photos of their tryst the night before. Further interruptions from an inquisitive bobby (Jason Thorpe) and a government inspector (Omid Djalili) result in cross-dressing, heightened libidos, madness and, of course, chaos.
The set design is simple and effective, with that 60s blandness (off-yellows, lots of browns and dull greens), and has a great deal of depth: a corridor stretching back and garden to the side give a real sense of 3-dimensional space.
McInnerny is delightful as Prentice, deteriorating into an exhausted, sagging figure frantically trying to keep all his plates spinning in the face of inevitable defeat. Bond is distractingly stunning with her Miss Moneypenny figure. Thorpe plays the humming bobby figure with splendid timing and a sweet charm, while Djalili’s energy is ferocious and volume shattering (the Vaudeville theatre has tremendous acoustics).
…the voluminous, hyper-exaggerated delivery farce can call for.
I wonder though, if I didn’t enjoy reading this play more than I enjoyed watching this production of it. Orton was a master of language, and his plays have that exceptionally rare quality of being fun to read as flat texts. His structure, phrasing and use of words are exquisite, but these qualities are occasionally devoured in the mouths of actors. The ensemble do a fine job together, but some of the linguistic nuances and details are lost during the voluminous, hyper-exaggerated delivery farce can call for. This doesn’t detract from an audience’s understanding, but when I know a playwright is being linguistically fabulous and those pabulums are being scattered to the winds, it’s like a knife in the heart.
Orton’s work is fabulous. Really. His witty comebacks and one-liners bring the laughs up through your toes, and there are plenty of laughs in What the Butler Saw. For a play that features rape, incest, buggery, transvestitism and Winston Churchill, What the Butler Saw comes across as oddly wholesome, what with its Scooby Doo, everyone-hug-and-laugh ending. So my advice would be to both see it, and read it. It is very funny. It also has a man in drag, a woman in underwear, a broad-chested boy in pants, and a happy ending. What more could you ask for from a night out?