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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

What The Butler Saw
The Curve, Leicester, 2017      December 2020

Joe Orton was a one-of-a-kind writer whose plays could combine broad farce, high verbal wit and Benny Hill-style little-boy naughtiness in one hilarious package.

What The Butler Saw the title evokes the spirit of Victorian pornography is a very, very funny play that can, in an inspired production, leave you in pain from laughter. And even a rather plodding and uninspired production like this one from Leicester's Curve in 2017 can't really get in its way.

This video record of the production is worth seeing for the play itself more than anything they do with it.

A psychiatrist hiring a new secretary naturally enough has her remove her clothes. When his wife arrives home (from an amorous misadventure of her own) unexpectedly, he passes the undressed girl off as a patent. But that raises the question of what has become of the secretary.

A bellboy from a local hotel (having disentangled himself from the doctor's wife only minutes earlier) is convinced with surprising ease to put on a dress and wig to play the secretary. But that leaves us with a missing bellboy.

You get the idea. Complicating matters considerably is a visit from a government inspector ('I represent Her Majesty's Government, your superiors in madness') with the uncanny ability and determination to misinterpret everything he sees, making it all seem even worse.

You can see the opportunities for pushing someone out one door just as someone else is coming in another, or of having to come up with ever-more-elaborate lies to cover the lie just exploded.

You might not anticipate jokes ranging from the surprising ('But I'm a boy!' - 'Have you evidence about you to support that claim?') to the venerable ('Have you suffered from lapses of memory before?' - 'I've forgotten.')

I haven't tested this precisely but I'd bet that there isn't a thirty second stretch anywhere in the play without a laugh.

But to make all this really work requires speedy pacing, as the rushing about gets ever more frantic and complicated; snappy timing, to make sure all the verbal punchlines register; and over-the-top playing, to exploit the near-cartoon quality of the characterisations. And, isolated moments aside, none of these does director Nikolay Foster guide his cast to.

Entrances and exits, near misses and moment of panic that should be choreographed to the split-second are not. What should be the simultaneous exit and entrance through separate doors of characters who must not meet becomes an exit, followed by a few seconds of bare stage and then an entrance.

Punchlines that should inspire an imagined 'Ta-da!' rimshot are swallowed or allowed to go by barely noticed. Characters like the mad government man, who should escalate to ever-higher levels of absurdity, are allowed to remain almost I'll admit not quite normal. Indeed, no one in the large cast really registers.

None of this spoils Orton's play it is far too strong for that but too little of it helps.

The video recording, clearly meant just for the theatre's archives, is very basic, with a single static camera at the rear of the audience. The sound quality is weak, and to get the most from Orton's wit you will rely heavily on the helpfully-provided subtitles.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  What The Butler Saw - Leicester Curve 2020