WhatsOnStage Logo
Review Round-Ups

Review Round-up: What the Butler Saw at the Vaudeville

WhatsOnStage logo
Joe Orton’s final play What the Butler Saw has been revived at the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre, where it opened to press last night (16 May 2012, previews from 4 May).

Starring Tim McInnerny, Samantha Bond, Georgia Moffett and Omid Djalili, the production is directed by Sean Foley and plays a strictly limited season to 25 August 2012.

What the Butler Saw was first produced in 1969, two years after the author's untimely death. In it, sex-obsessed psychiatrist Dr Prentice (McInnerny) is frustrated in his attempts to seduce a secretary by the arrival of his nymphomaniac wife (Bond), over-enthusiastic inspector Dr Rance (Djalili) and a dim-witted policeman.

Michael Coveney

"…as Sean Foley’s energetic production, very well designed by Alice Power, is at many pains to point out, the real joy of this 1969 classic resides in its jewelled dialogue, which is as witty and aphoristic as Oscar Wilde’s, and pushed to the limits of indecency. As in Wilde, the humour lies in the rhythm of extreme antithesis, surprise vocabulary and an air of drastic finality … This makes the experience of sitting through the play slightly exhausting, but the ship stays afloat thanks to the brilliant comic contortions of Tim McInnerny as Dr Prentice and Samantha Bond as his braying, dipsomaniac, dissatisfied wife … Director of the madhouse operations is the visiting inspector, Dr Rance, whom the comedian Omid Djalili plays with a ferocious, but very limited, barking bullishness. Djalili’s technique of biting off phrases and spitting them out undermines the fluent brilliance of his diagnostic speeches and ludicrous conclusions. But there is so much to enjoy in every line of this play that the mechanics of the farce - which are perfectly aligned - can sometimes be taken for granted."

Michael Billington

“Joe Orton's final play, unrevised at the time of his death in 1967, is a hard one to get right, since it combines manic farce with non-stop social commentary. That doesn't excuse Sean Foley's production. Everyone bellows, barks, screeches and shouts so much that Orton's subversive wit gets buried under an avalanche of coarse acting ... from his first entry, Omid Djalili, playing a corrupt Whitehall official, delivers every line as if it were the climax of the play. All this is in the first 10 minutes. Any possibility of escalating mayhem goes out of the window ... Foley also paints the lily by having two of the main characters getting smashed on limitless supplies of whiskey: a joke-killer if ever there was one, since the nightmare of farce depends on people being painfully alert to their predicament ... even the magnificent Samantha Bond, as the shrink's sexually inordinate wife, is forced into overplaying her hand. The end result is a grotesque cartoon in which Orton is deprived of any real sense of danger.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Sean Foley has form with this kind of material, not least as director of The Ladykillers, but his production is strident ... Although there are passages where the timing is undeniably good, as farce requires, a lot of Orton’s jokes are delivered in a laboriously playful style, and the weaker ones (notably an extended gag about rape) feel regrettable ... Djalili is an affable comedian with a quick wit, yet his performance here is loud and pedestrian. Dr Rance is a man never lost for words, the embodiment of officialdom at its most absurd ... Tim McInnerny is impressively animated as Dr Prentice, the randy specialist who runs the clinic Rance is examining. He’s particularly adept at the physical comedy, much of which revolves around his entanglement with a job applicant who ends up being mistaken for a patient and later a bell boy. In this role Georgia Moffett has a winsome charm; she’s energetic too, and makes an especially whole-hearted commitment to the chaos."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"Something has gone terribly wrong here. Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw ... has long struck me as a comic masterpiece. Yet watching Sean Foley’s over-frenetic, emphatically zany new production there were long stretches that seemed almost sadistically unfunny, as the actors shouted, mugged desperately and avoided no cheap trick in their desperate pursuit of laughs ... There are moments that suggest what might have been. At his best Tim McInnerny captures the desperate panic of the true farceur as the philandering Dr Prentice, but the show would be hugely improved if he began with more of a slow burn ... And Georgia Moffett discovers moments of real pathos as the poor abused secretary. Omid Djalili is numbingly unfunny, however, as the mad shrink who wants to certify everyone he encounters, and I staggered out of the theatre feeling more exhausted than entertained.”

Tim McInnerny & Samantha Bond in What the Butler Saw. Photo: Simon Annand
Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Mr McInnerny is perfect for Orton. He has that trembling fervour, that crazed glint of eye, part David Haig, part John Cleese. Fifteen minutes in, I was in a state of merriment, not least because Samantha Bond had joined proceedings as Prentice’s wife. Miss Bond has the voice of Judi Dench, the physique of a netball player, the twinkle of a great comedienne. Then Mr Djalili’s government inspector Dr Rance appears: full-on from the start, a grating voice, a less-than-elastic face, wooden strides across the stage, blast, blast, blast of the lines. Perhaps this is how director Sean Foley wants him to play it. Whatever the origins of this performance, it is a mistake ... You have to admire the force and energy of the thing but I am afraid I zoned out well before the end."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Goodness, what an angry play. Joe Orton’s last work, posthumously staged in 1969, is the farce of fury ... The Lord Chamberlain’s censorship ended a mere year earlier, permitting Orton’s exhilarating cascade of references to nymphomania, pederasty, insanity, rape, schoolgirls being assaulted, rent boys and necrophilia. Yet it is the neo-Freudian fascination with sex, even stronger today, that is his target ... The director Sean Foley runs it full-tilt, loud and staccato, until there is nowhere left to go. Tim McInnerny disintegrates nicely as the psychiatrist whose attempt at seduction leads to chaos, and Samantha Bond, displaying ‘comedy legs’ as potent as the great Lipman’s, gives full nympho-comic value and subtle pathos ... it’s an angry play, and anger is best not shouted. I suspect the cast (especially Djalili) will gradually find more subtleties. But it’s good to see it back."


Tagged in this Story