ComedyNorth East & YorkshireReview

What the Butler Saw – Darlington Hippodrome

Reviewer: Mark Clegg

Writer: Joe Orton

Director: Michael Cabot

Anyone going to see What the Butler Saw expecting a Brian Rix-style Whitehall farce is going to get a lot more than they bargained for. They will certainly get the expected staples of such a comedy: philandering spouses, wild misunderstandings, semi-naked people hiding behind different doors, etc., but Joe Orton’s innocently titled subversion of the genre takes all of these elements and looks at them through a very twisted, satirical lens. Boundary-pushing when it was first staged in 1969 (only months after Orton’s tragic death), it could be argued that this piece is even more shocking today. In fact during the interval, this reviewer overheard a pearl-clutching member of the audience loudly describe it as “in such bad taste” as she exited the theatre.

Orton was often described as the enfant terrible of London in the late ‘60s, a time when attitudes were becoming more relaxed and the world (at least on the surface) was becoming more permissive. Orton was at the forefront of this revolution and the most interesting thing to note about this play now, is that in some ways, attitudes have gone backwards. Something written 55 years ago now seems both grotesquely distasteful, and yet also frighteningly relevant. London Classic Theatre has been exceptionally brave to revive this play. At a time when “old-style” comedians are bemoaning the fact that you can’t make a joke without offending someone anymore, and the words “woke” and “snowflake” are used ad nauseam, What the Butler Saw takes so many of today’s sacred cows, and herds them off a cliff. Subjects such as rape, child abuse, incest, sexual perversions, sexual identities, and a lot more are not only addressed, but are actually the subject of most of the jokes. The juxtaposition of these kinds of subjects being thrown around as people are dropping their trousers and frantically hiding behind curtains takes some getting used to, but that’s the point. There are also numerous references to a certain type of discontinued toy that used to feature heavily on jars of marmalade, which to today’s ears may be the most shocking thing of all.

As well as sending up the establishment, psychiatric medicine, sexual attitudes, and many other pillars of life in the 1960s, Orton peppers in a fair amount of absurd, surreal humour that’s all a bit silly. This helps sugar the pill and was clearly a big influence on Bek Palmer’s design which mirrors this surreal humour with set dressings very reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s cut-out animation from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This works very well on the whole, although the giant “hand of God” that hangs over the proceedings fails to be used in any interesting way. However, other than that, Michael Cabot’s direction is a lot of fun with some inspired little bits of business. He tightly corrals his players through the complications of much running around the stage while keeping everything clear to the audience, even when the plot gets ridiculously convoluted during act two.

The cast are all excellent. The philandering Dr Prentice is played by LCT regular John Dorney who manages to present Dr Prentice equally as charming and slimy. His many peccadillos are easy to forgive when the role is in the hands of such a charismatic performer. All of the characters become increasingly hysterical as the play progresses, and no one handles that better than Jack Lord as Dr Rance. Beginning as a straight-laced government official, Lord beautifully has the character become quite mad in such subtle increments that it is totally believable. Alana Jackson plays Geraldine Barclay the object of Prentice’s lust, Holly Smith is Prentice’s wife (whose excitement during the “climax” is hilarious), Alex Cardall is Nicholas Beckett the bellboy who starts with bribery but ends up disguised in women’s clothing, and Jon-Paul Rowden is the obligatory policeman who of course ends up with his trousers around his ankles.

It could be argued that this play is extremely dated and has no place in within modern culture. However, Orton was always a provocateur and it is testament to his skills as a writer that this still manages to provoke over half a century later. Orton’s script is intelligent, wordy, and very funny. Jam-packed with one-liners and satirical barbs, it is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It is brought to life brilliantly in this production and is perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 1969. Theatre should generate a reaction, and What the Butler Saw will definitely shock you, but (depending on your outlook) will also make you laugh. Pearl-clutchers and Snowflakes need not apply.

Runs until 22nd June 2024

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Naughty but Nice

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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