Undressing the Nation: What the Butler Saw at the Vaudeville

Saturday 5th May 2012 (second preview)

In an interview in 1964, Joe Orton talks about the impact which being in prison made on his writing, saying in characteristically colourful style that “It affected my attitude towards society. Before I had been vaguely conscious of something rotten somewhere, prison crystallised this. The old whore society really lifted up her skirts and the stench was pretty foul.”  At the same time, he began to feel more detached from his writing, and something clicked. 

Over forty years later, his last play ‘What the Butler Saw’ has lost none of its dark humour and underlying distrust and contempt for the institutions of society.  We wonder if he would have savoured the irony of being murdered in his bed by a mentally unstable lover, when mental illness, real and imagined, looms so large in his final play, which was posthumously produced in 1969.

Sean Foley, fresh from his success with the Ladykillers, has assembled another talented and high-profile cast, and gives this production the slightly disjointed, wacky style it needs, like an impolite version of Wilde, or a slightly more intellectually demanding version of the Carry-On series.  As Psychiatrist Dr Prentice, Tim McInnerny is the embodiment of professional complacency, believing he has the right to undress and seduce his would-be secretary for his own amusement.  It is only the process of trying to cover his tracks which leads to his gradual disintegration, as those around him begin to reach the conclusion that it is he who is insane.  McInnerny has perfect comic timing, and the ability to make the most absurd bits of stage business both hilarious and pathetic.  He is superbly matched by Samantha Bond as his dominant and demanding wife.  Pulling an unfeasible number of whiskey bottles from a desk drawer and becoming steadily more drunk as the play goes on, she is given some of the funniest lines, along with perhaps the most bizarre back-story, all of which she carries off to perfection. 

As Dr Rance, the government inspector of mental health services, Omid Djalili stands out as a comedian rather than a comic actor.  His is not the most subtle performance, but Djalili is intrinsically funny and brings a pompous energy to his scenes which ultimately works, because his character is meant to be an authority figure who really knows nothing.  Nick Hendrix as the blackmailing bell boy seeking a career change, and Jason Thorpe as the overly trusting Sergeant Match, bring the physical comedy to a new level, whilst Georgia Moffett somehow manages to retain her dignity despite being sectioned twice, having to dress up as a boy and spending most of the play in her underwear.

We wondered if Sean Foley had grown a little too fond of wonky sets whilst working on the Ladykillers.  Whilst we love the period styling, the rake seemed rather exaggerated, and we found ourselves a bit confused, with the set clearly looking like a hospital, whilst the script refers to a private clinic in the doctor’s home.

Minor quibbles aside, this was an expertly executed farce, offering plenty of outrageous humour, and an enjoyably dark look at the establishment, which nearly half a century on, is still recognisable.  Joe Orton would be celebrating his eightieth birthday in January had he still been alive, and we can’t help wondering how many more scenes this butler would have seen.

And our top tip of the day: it’s always worth asking at the half price booth if you don’t see what you want listed – we would have missed this one if we hadn’t.

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