What The Butler Saw
by Joe Orton
Directed by Nikolai Foster
Curve Theatre, Leicester & Bath Theatre Royal Production
Bath Theatre Royal
Wednesday 29th March 14.30
Dakota Blue Richards – Geraldine Barclay, a prospective secretary
Rufus Hound – Dr Prentice, a psychiatrist
Catherine Russell – Mrs Prentice
Jack Holden – Nicholas Beckett
Ravi Aujia – Sergeant Match, police officer
Jasper Britton – Dr Rance, a hospital inspector
Joe Orton was murdered fifty years ago in 1967. He is rare in that ‘a Joe Orton play’ and ‘Ortonesque’ describe a style of farcical black comedy. What The Butler Saw was a posthumous production in 1969. The play was produced by the Curve Theatre in Leicester because that was Orton’s home town.
I’d always wanted to see it. In the early 70s, our remit was to find short extracts from modern plays for our weekly EFL shows (before we gave up and resorted to mainly original material). It was an era when my main recreational reading was modern play scripts, yet few of the plays came to Bournemouth and I had neither time nor money to see them in London. Nearly fifty years on, I’m finally catching up with those Orton, Shaeffer, Barnes and Stoppard plays I wanted to see so much at that time. I will admit that it seemed vaguely familiar this time, and sorting through our large box of programmes shows we saw it in 2008 in Salisbury. I’d totally forgotten. That’s why I started the theatre section … to cement these plays in memory.
We gave up on What The Butler Saw as a suitable source, though we performed the first scene, and it inspired us to a series of original psychiatrist sketches, probably more inspired by Karen’s previous temporary job as a secretary at the psychiatric clinic.
The role of Dr Rance makes me wonder about CBBeebies choice of names. My granddaughter always goes to the doctors hoping to meet the kindly Dr Rance (or Ranj?) from the TV toddler programme.
The title What The Butler Saw has nothing to do with the play, but with the Edwardian seaside penny in the slot machines where you wound a handle and peered through eyepieces to see someone stripping. In other words, the plebs view on what the privileged were getting up to. If we’re doing Ortonesque language, we might say No actual or indeed fictional butler has been optically affronted in the composition of this farcical dramatic entertainment.
Secretary Geraldine Barker (Dakota Blue Richards) and prospective employer (Rufus Hound)
The story, briefly. Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound) is interviewing a prospective secretary, Geraldine Barker (Dakota Blue Richards). Although she cannot type and shorthand is 20 words per minute, she is physically attractive. The horny doctor asks her to strip for an examination as part of the interview. She, as a total innocent, regales us with the tale of her adopted mother, who was killed when a statue of Winston Churchill was blown up in a gas main explosion, and part of Sir Winston’s intimate anatomy was embedded in her by the force of the blast.
Geraldine Barker on the couch (Dakota Blue Richards)
Enter Mrs Prentice, (Catherine Russell) with a tale of rape at the four star local hotel by Nicholas Beckett, a bellboy (Jack Holden). Beckett is trying to blackmail her with pornographic photos. Then Dr Rance (Jasper Britton) and the central character, arrives. He is raving mad, a government psychiatric inspector, employing every psychiatrist joke you have ever heard. He decides Geraldine is a patient, commits her and cuts her hair. The bellboy arrives.
Beckett (Jack Holden) has to dress up as a woman because the police are after him
Then we have massive mistaken identity and clothes swapping, so Mrs Prentice has Geraldine’s dress, Geraldine is dressed as Nicholas Beckett, while Beckett, the bellboy, is dressed as a woman in Mrs Prentice’s dress (brilliant walking in high heels by Jack Holden). Tons of gender and transgender jokes and comments. All is finally resolved after much bloodshed with a cod Shakesperean ending (see The Winter’s Tale / Twelfth Night / Comedy of Errors / Cymbeline) where all is explained, apparently justifying Dr Rance’s academic thesis on incest. Sir Winston’s brass penis is paraded as the final evidence. For non-British readers, the knowing laugh throughout is “policeman’s helmet.” While there is an actual police officer with helmet (Ravi Aujla) the phrase “policeman’s helmet” refers to the tip of the penis, always apparent in the circumcised version. Which is the bit of Sir Winston we finally see. The set has four entrances, a classic farce need, and Orton has it pointed out when a character asks why there are so many doors.
Geraldine Barker is dressed as Nicholas Beckett. Beckett (Jack Holden) is dressed as a woman
Yes., the play was Orton’s masterpiece, as well as a massive influence on comedy thereafter. Oddly, there’s absolutely no effing and blinding at all. In 1967 it was wildly daring … homosexuality was about to be legalised. There are many “knowing” lines on sexuality. I don;t have a script, but Dr Rance mistakes “in the club” referring to the bellboy, for “in the pudding club” (i.e. pregnant) and adds Boys can’t get in the club – that’s half their charm. I noted the knowing line to the lad about to be arrested: So you imagine you will be safe from acts of indecency in a police station! “Indecency” was what homosexuals were charged with until the 1967 law change. I assume Orton knew about police stations. The lines fell over each other in memorability … as when Dr Rance suggests that Dr Prentice may have committed murder with necrophilia as a bonus.
The question is that Orton style. It is highly distinctive, and spawned not only a whole generation of comedy, but also rock music writing (step forward Chris Welch). I’ve found myself doing it. Monty Python did it. The style is stilted, slightly pompous, inflated language. Never say I don’t understand where I fail to comprehend will serve. In rock writing, this led to cliches like The record failed to trouble the chart compilers rather than a bald It wasn’t a hit. It’s straight (or rather queer), Orton. It’s hard to deliver on stage because of the line lengths, which encourage speed. This is partly length, but also that all the lines are articulate and clever. You don’t get Pinteresque humming and hah-ing and pausing … all of which pausing is good for the audience’s ability to digest the meaning of one line before the next appears. Wilde can play like that, fast and clever, as can Noel Coward. Simon Callow was on the radio and mentioned “Orton’s epigrammatic” style. The conundrum is that if you pause after a line you sound too pleased with the cleverness of it.
Another problem is that Orton had everyone speaking in the same deliberately inflated style, so there is no character differentiation or definition in the lines between the characters in the play.
Dr Rance (Jasper Britton) and Mrs Prentice (Catherine Russell)
Jasper Britton as Dr Rance has a handle on the style in the outstanding performance of the day. He can time it. He’s loud and clear. These Orton lines are long and deliberately convoluted, and we felt both Rufus Hound as Dr Prentice and Catherine Russell as Mrs Prentice took them too fast. In a word, they both gabbled. I even suspect it was the dreaded “matinee gabble” – let’s get through this as fast as we can, we have another this evening. The direction to me needs to find spaces in there. Add to it that while Mrs Prentice was supposedly swigging whisky throughout, she never appeared drunk (a Whitehall farce given). Rufus Hound was good on body language, poorer on articulation and line timing.
Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound) and Mrs Prentice (Catherine Russell). Yes, she’s in Geraldine’s dress
We also thought the gunshots (SFX) were weak, and they should have used starting pistols and blanks, not recordings. Generally, they lacked that perfect timing SNAP of great farce throughout … they’re in good company. Branagh and Brydon failed in a similar way in Painkillers last year. It’s something Brian Rix had in Whitehall farces, and the entire cast of Secondary Cause Of Death had in 2016, It’s a very special skill. Take Ravi Aujla’s collapse as the policeman from an overdose of pills. Very good. It got great applause … but I’ve seen actors who can do a total pratfall. This wasn’t. However, it’s a short run … really just three weeks overall, and gone, which is a shame. It’s the sort of production which would improve greatly on a longer run. Three weeks is what some London theatres would demand for previews before press night for a play with this much action, after all.
Overall? While the play is a masterpiece, the set was brilliant, and Jasper Britton as Dr Rance and the two young ones gave 5 star performances, three stars is my overall rating.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Pat Ashworth, The Stage ****
Dominic Maxwell, The Times **
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