The TheatreguideLondon Review
What The Butler Saw
Vaudeville Theatre Summer 2012
Mix the dry wit of Noel Coward with the frenetic farce construction of Ray Cooney and add in the little-boy naughtiness of Frankie Howerd or Benny Hill, and you have an approximation of the guilty delight that is a Joe Orton play.
Orton, who died in 1967, took great pains to be as shocking as possible in his comedies, and if we are perhaps not so easy to offend today, we can still enjoy the fun.
What The Butler Saw is a classic British farce, in which a man tells a simple lie to cover a peccadillo and then has to construct ever more elaborate lies to keep the first one afloat.
Here a randy psychiatrist interviewing a comely new secretary naturally enough asks her to take off her clothes. When his wife suddenly appears, he passes the girl off as a patient. But then, when he shoos the girl out, he has to account for both a missing secretary and a missing patient.
That's a perfect time for a government inspector to arrive, especially when the guy is barking mad himself and determined to misinterpret everything he sees.
Factor in a blackmailing hotel bellboy perfectly happy to put on a dress when asked, a befuddled cop, several furtive offstage couplings (one of them incestuous), and the severed private parts of a statue of Winston Churchill, keep everything moving at top speed, and sprinkle liberally with lines like 'I represent Her Majesty's Government, your immediate superiors in madness' and 'I'm a boy!' - 'Have you the evidence about you?'.
The audience can be in serious danger of hurting themselves laughing.
Director Sean Foley, a comedian himself, has exactly the right feel for this kind of farce, and keeps things at precisely the level of near-hysteria that is hilarious without spinning totally out of control, and he has a cast of master farceurs to work with.
Tim McInnerny can do rapidly-losing-control-of-events panic better than anybody, and actually generates some sympathy as the man at the centre. Omid Djalili may rely a bit too much on shouting as a fall-back when he isn't quite sure how to play a moment, but that random bizarre behaviour actually fits the mad government guy and so it works as often as not. And Samantha Bond is droll as the shrink's straying and progressively drunker wife.
Georgia Moffett, Nick Hendrix and Jason Thorpe have roles that are written as Generic Young Person, but they do them justice and keep up with the high energy of the farce.
It is barely possible that somebody somewhere might be offended by something in this play. I'm sure Joe would be delighted.
The rest of us will have to settle for just under two hours of non-stop hilarity.
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Review - What The Butler Saw - Vaudeville 2012
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