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 The Theatreguide.London Review

What the Butler Saw
Hampstead Theatre Summer 2005; Criterion Autumn 2005

Joe Orton's deliberately offensive (at least for its time) farce is given almost as good a production as you could hope for, which means, a few minor flaws aside, it is funnier than just about anything else around.

Orton produced less than a handful of plays in his short career in the 1960s, but they were enough to add a word to the critical vocabulary.

'Ortonesque' is an adjective that can really only be applied to his own work, so unique is it. Imagine Noel Coward on holiday, allowing himself to be naughty as well as witty, and add in a strong touch of Ray Cooney farce, and you get a vague sense of what the adjective implies.

Here, the director of a mental hospital is interviewing a new secretary, so of course he asks her to take off her clothes. Enter his wife and also a government inspector, so, naturally enough, he passes her off as a patient being examined.

But when he shoos her out of the room, he now has both a missing secretary and a missing patient to account for.

See where it's going? Factor in a randy hotel clerk (Don't ask) who's perfectly willing to dress up as a woman when asked, and make the government man determined to interpret anything anyone says or does as a symptom of madness, and we're well into farce country.

Ah, but to make it Ortonesque, we also have to pepper it with lines like 'A lesbian friend of mine has just announced her engagement to a Member of Parliament' or exchanges like 'I'm a boy!'- 'Have you the evidence about you?'

We have to swing rather wildly in attempts to be shocking - 'I represent Her Majesty's Government, your superiors in madness'.

An offstage character is reported to have had a bizarre accident with a statue of Sir Winston Churchill, and a broken-off piece, the private part Orton suggests was inadequately symbolised by his cigar, keeps coming up (as it were) in conversation.

One thing Orton (who died in 1967) could not have guessed was the way in which standards of taste and tastelessness have changed since then, and some members of the modern audience might be more offended by the casual assumption that secretaries are fair sexual game (merely a comic clich in his day) than in a plot that works its way out through the revelation of several illicit and in at least one case incestuous couplings.

But if the passage of time gives a slight overlay of quaintness to Orton's plays (like looking at Victorian pornography), it actually adds to the delight, perhaps nostalgically reminding us of a time when we could be shocked.

(In some ways his modern counterpart is Martin McDonagh of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, who does with witty over-the-top violence what Orton did with sex.)

Anyway, the only criticism to be made of David Grindley's current production is that it occasionally meanders, only intermittently capturing the frenzy so essential to this kind of farce.

Malcolm Sinclair as the single-minded government man and Jonathan Coy as the doctor are both excellent, Coy interestingly and effectively doing the one bit of realistic acting among all the other stylized performances, thus capturing the sense of the one sane man trying to survive in a world gone mad. 

Belinda Long gives a slightly more conventional Sybil Fawlty-style performance as the wife, but does it very well.

The play is short - well under two hours even with an interval - but you will laugh almost continuously from start to finish, and you might even be shocked occasionally. Joe couldn't ask for more.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  What The Butler Saw - Hampstead Theatre 2005
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