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