Peter Cook once famously said he went to the theatre to be entertained, not to see plays about rape, sodomy, and drug addiction - because he could get all those at home. Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw gives us all this and then some more (though we only get to see the drugs onstage).
But this is no grim morality tale of life amongst the underclass. Rather, Orton’s last play is a sparkling and at times wild farce of order, rapidly descending into chaos and staying there, set in (where else?) a psychiatrist’s waiting room. Orton gives us the familiar farce material of mistaken identity, two-thirds of the cast down to their underwear, and mad-as-a-sack-of-ferrets authority figures, overlaid with his own distinctively taboo-busting wit which takes on everything from incest to Winston Churchill.
Directing team Ian Forrest and Mary Papadima bring out the riskier elements of Orton’s vision towards the end of the play when, after an energetic physical interlude during which the play’s two female characters are forcibly placed into straitjackets and, it seems, pushed into traumatised catatonia, the action momentarily stops dead as an eerie red light fills the stage. After that, Orton’s breathtakingly sardonic happy ending – accompanied at one point here by the Beatles’ "All You Need Is Love" - comes as a genuine relief.
Like Wilde, Orton is deceptively difficult to do well, not least because even his brand of subversion dates.This production deals with this sensibly by grounding itself firmly in the late 1960s, and Amy Ewbank’s dumb-blonde secretary, talked into taking her clothes off within five minutes of beginning a job interview, is a perfect Carry On period piece. Patrick Bridgman’s Sergeant Match – seemingly fresh from a going-over at the hands of Miss Marple - is an amusing incarnation of the stock ‘stupid policemen’ character from a seemingly more innocent age.
However, Robert Calvert’s Dr Prentice – whose predicaments drive much of the early action - appears only mildly discomfited as his world spirals towards complete anarchy. Maggie Tarney’s trip from Fanny Cradock-esque sang-froid to silenced dejection as Mrs Prentice, and Stephen Ley’s satisfying transformation from man from the ministry Dr Rance to blood-letting voyeur, are much more in tune with the play’s trip to farce’s outer limits.
This early performance found it difficult to build comic momentum, with several noticeable line fluffs as well as talking through laughs.
Overall, Orton’s jokes are well served by this production, but it doesn’t fully capture his dizzyingly irreverent vision as well as it ought to.