What the Butler Saw – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve Theatre and Theatre Royal Bath present
What the Butler Saw
by Joe Orton
Directed by Nikolai Foster
Designer Michael Taylor
Lighting Designer Ben Cracknell
Sound Designer and Composer Adam McCready for Poetical Machines Ltd

In July 1967, Joe Orton completed What the Butler Saw. In August he was dead.

Nikolai Foster directs this latest revival on Curve’s main stage, prior to its transfer to Theatre Royal Bath. It is well documented that Leicester lad Orton was keen to get away from the city as soon as he could, and would likely be tickled to learn that fifty years since his death, What the Butler Saw is on the stage at Leicester’s main theatre (and whose address features a square bearing his name).

Does this subversive, pre-Theatres Act 1968 farce have a best before date? Much has changed in the world since then, particularly society’s attitudes to sexual politics, gender identity and mental health – all key themes of the play. How does it “sit” in 2017?

A camera shutter retracts, inviting us to look through the lens at the absurd sexual shenanigans taking place in Dr Prentice’s psychiatric facility. Young Geraldine Barclay arrives, thinking she is being interviewed for a job as Dr Prentice’s secretary, he tries to seduce her, Mrs Prentice makes a surprise entrance followed swiftly by an enterprising bell boy, Nicholas Beckett, with whom she has had a dubious encounter at the notorious Station Hotel.  Enter Dr Rance to sort it all out, with the help of the fine but dim Sergeant Match.

As Dr Prentice tries to cover up his misdemeanour, confusion reigns, flesh is exposed and copious clothes- and identity-swapping ensues. This is Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare on some sort of mind-altering drug as Orton throws caution, taste and logic to the four corners of the set. Michael Taylor’s set is in fact beautifully rounded, bright, white and perfect for the many exits and entrances.

Foster has gathered a strong cast who don’t over do the preposterous text. The Prentices’ lot is not a happy one, and Rufus Hound as Dr Prentice and Catherine Russell as his “nymphomaniac” wife, spar with venom.

Dakota Blue Richards and Jack Holden as Geraldine and Nicholas (and then as Nicholas and Geraldine) are excellent, as they make the best of their predicament.

Ravi Aujla plays it straight as the hapless policeman but it is Jasper Britton’s magnificently pompous Dr Rance, whose arrogant pursual of the “truth” whilst keeping an eye on his academic reputation, stands out in this production. His declaration: “I am a scientist, I state facts,” has resonance today; his authoritative air makes you believe what you know to be untrue.

This What the Butler Saw is attractive to the eye, with Taylor’s stunning set and Ben Cracknell’s impressive lighting design, together with some excellent performances. Some may be offended by Orton’s devil-may-care treatment of subjects for which we now handle with much greater sensitivity (rape, for example), but this play is meant to shock and challenge.  What still works though, is Orton’s distaste for the hypocrisy of those who abuse their authority and power over others.

Although not what I would describe as hilarious, and the humour is very much of a one-track mind, there are still many laughs to be had in this bawdy farce.

Images by Catherine Ashmore
At Curve Theatre 3 – 18 March 2017

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