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What the Butler Saw

Joe Orton
Hampstead Theatre
(2005)

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Director David Grindley is keen to transfer his production of Joe Orton's anarchic farce to the West End. Despite a cast that does not contain the big names that producers love, it may not be wise to bet against his succeeding.

This is a delightfully funny evening that does not seem in any way dated (although some of the political satire may now be completely missed) even though the play is almost forty years old. Combine that with Grindley's record this year - he has directed Kevin Spacey and David Schwimmer and his amazingly successful revival of Journey's End is coming back to the West End very soon - and maybe What the Butler Saw can make it.

The plot is a classic, set in a madhouse, almost everybody that we see qualifies for incarceration but none of them is a patient.

Its director, Jonathan Coy's Dr Prentice, may have a nymphomaniac for a wife but is not above a little innocent lusting after his prospective secretary, played with wide-eyed innocence by Joanna Page. He is tempted by her blonde hair and Alice band but far more so by her dark green dress, the bottom half of which is practically missing. His unconsummated infidelity will inevitably lead to disaster, not only for him but for everyone within his ambit.

His poor wife, played by Belinda Lang with a dreadfully grating voice, has similar problems after a night in a hotel clothes closet with a handsome, toyboy bellboy who has a fine line in blackmail. The latter is played by fresh-faced Geoff Breton, on leave from drama school.

Introduce Malcolm Sinclair, particularly convincing as a prim and proper Government Inspector who looks uncannily like Neville Chamberlain but has greater strains of madness than anybody else; and when the police turn up searching for Sir Winston Churchill's private parts and the molester of a school full of young girls the recipe is perfect for farcical madness.

Jonathan Fensom designed the set for Abigail's Party, also directed by Grindley and his archetypal doctor's waiting room brings that to mind with its little subtleties such as 1960s fabric designs and a half-seen aquarium, complete with peacefully swimming goldfish, in an ante-room.

The reason that this production succeeds so well is Grindley's talent for comic timing, combined with a great, surprisingly moral, script and his actors' abilities to deliver absurd lines as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Eventually, the pace hots up with almost naked actors appearing and disappearing through four separate doors in true farce style.

This is the first theatrical revival under Anthony Clark's directorship at Hampstead and in the programme notes, he appears to regard this as something of a defeat for a new writing theatre. However, following some very uneven programming during his first two years, its success should ensure that it will not be his last.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher