What The Butler Saw

Joe Orton
London Classic Theatre
New Wolsey, Ipswich

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John Dorney & Alana Jackson Credit: Sheila Burnett
Alex Cardell & Holly Smith Credit: Sheila Burnett
Alex Cardell in What The Butler Saw Credit: Sheila Burnett

It’s funny how tastes change over the years—especially tastes in comedy. Some translate—others do not.

Playwright Joe Orton was a man of his time. And in his time, he was extremely successful. But he was definitely of that '60s generation of writers who were pushing the boundaries of decency while burning with the need to say something about the times they lived in.

Orton actually never got to see this play performed as he was killed by his lover just two weeks after he’d finished writing it. This should lend the play poignancy, but in some ways you feel it could have done with bit of a rewrite. Orton is sending up a certain class of people, but he over-labours the point almost to distraction. This play still has the ability to shock and make you laugh. But it's got to be watched through the prism of the times it was commentating on.

As for genre, this is frenetic farce with bells on. Literally. Think of a cross between Monty Python, Brian Rix and Benny Hill played at breakneck speed and you probably get the picture.

The action all happens in a psychiatrist's office and revolves around the hapless Dr Prentice, whose clumsy attempts at seducing Geraldine Barclay, a young woman he is interviewing for the post of secretary, are interrupted by his drunk, nymphomaniac wife who has spent the night chasing the bellboy, Nicholas Beckett, at a nearby hotel. Said bellboy is not all he seems, as he has followed her home with the aim of blackmailing her over secret photos he’s been taking. Into the mix is added another psychiatrist, a manic Dr Rance, sent to inspect Prentice’s practice, and a policeman on the trail of the bellboy who has also been up to no good with a party of schoolgirls.

There ensues some of the classic situations of farce—cross dressing, mistaken identity and endless revolving doors—while the plot gets more and more ludicrous until the explosive ending.

The cast give it their all, quite a lot of the time called to run around in their underwear. John Dorney as Dr Prentice is suitably sleazy, Jack Lord as Dr Rance increasingly mad, Holly Smith as Mrs Prentice ranges from seductively drunk to rising hysteria. Alex Cardall is a nonchalant bellboy and Jon-Paul Rowden the hapless policeman, Sergeant Match.

Alana Jackson as Geraldine Barclay, the put-upon secretary, has to remain the sane voice in the room, and does so with remarkable aplomb in spite of the indignities she is subjected to.

The set is wonderfully '60s, all angles and uncomfortable furniture, the lighting harsh, the colours primary.

Towards the end, the action gets even more manic as alarms go off, people get shot and general mayhem ensues.

This play is not for the fainthearted and there are an awful lot of crude sexual references, so only for the broadminded too. But if you want to see a Joe Orton played for all its worth—or a slice of 'sixties stage culture—then this is for you.

Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes

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