What the Butler Saw

Joe Orton
Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
(2010)

Joe Orton's last play, not performed until more than a year after his brutal death at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell, is a finely-honed farce stuffed full of Orton's distinctive wit and innuendo.

Set in a mental institution in the 1960s but not featuring any actual patients amongst the madness, the play starts when head psychiatrist Dr Prentice is interviewing Geraldine Barclay for the post of his secretary and, in an attempt to seduce the innocent girl, asks her to take off her clothes and lay on the couch to be examined.

Of course his wife arrives sooner than expected and Prentice starts to create a web of lies to explain the presence of the girls' clothes in his consulting room, which is complicated by bellboy Nicholas Beckett who is blackmailing Mrs Prentice over some erotic photographs he took of her the night before, the arrival of a policeman to arrest Beckett over an incident at the hotel involving a party of schoolgirls and to question Barclay about a missing part of Winston Churchill's statue and a senior psychiatrist Dr Rance who certifies people on little evidence of their insanity and then constructs elaborate stories to explain their psychological motivation for their actions.

As the lies and confusion grow, people lose or swap their clothes and even their sex, and when the guns come out and the security shutters close things become really chaotic. The final string of coincidences make Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest look realistic.

This is not an easy play to get right as there is the problem of getting the variations in pace just right that is essential for any farce to work together with dialogue that, like with Wilde, is so full of clever witticisms that it is extremely difficult to deliver it in a way that sounds conversational rather than like a standup comedy routine. This production doesn't entirely succeed in getting over these difficulties but has some very good moments and some good performances.

The pace is fine in some parts but in others it misses completely and the plot and comedy suffer for it. There are some bits of stage business that either take too long or is not integrated with the dialogue so that the characters stop speaking while something happens, killing the momentum. The ending is rather odd as, after all the fairly realistic action of the rest of the play, we suddenly get music, dance and psychedelic lighting effects; surely the ending as written stretches credibility enough without this?

As Dr Prentice, Robert Calvert struggles to make these contorted sentences make sense early on and in the later parts just seems too laid back for the person in the centre of a farce. Maggie Tagney has much more success in the part of Mrs Prentice with some very good comic delivery. Stephen Ley is wonderful as Dr Rance as his explanations of people's behaviour get more and more outlandish and theatrical. Adam O'Brian is very good as Beckett, with pretty good support from Amy Ewbank as Barclay. Patrick Bridgman completes the cast with a fine comic performance as Sergeant Match.

Despite its flaws, there is much to enjoy in this production and some great comic moments, such as Dr Rance's very over-the-top theatrical flights of fancy and the final revelation of the barely-plausible connections between all the characters which is satisfyingly hilarious.

Playing to 6 November

David Chadderton