Theatre Review: What The Butler Saw @ The New Vic


The London Classic Theatre is well-known for its skill in bringing new life back into classic theatre and has hit the spot again with its adaptation of Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw.

The play is set in a psychiatric clinic managed by Doctor Prentice and begins with the doctor interviewing Geraldine Barclay for a post as his secretary. It quickly becomes clear that the applicant has very few skills for the post and is only being interviewed because Prentice has plans to seduce the young girl.

His lecherous plans are interrupted when the doctor’s wife returns from an evening out. Mrs Prentice can hardly take the moral ground when she finds discarded clothing lying around as she herself has had an illicit encounter at the Station Hotel. Even worse for her is that a pageboy at the hotel – Nicholas Beckett – arrives with a selection of photographs that portray Mrs Prentice in compromising positions and demands money  in exchange for the negatives. An offer is made to Beckett by the unwilling model that he could fill the vacant position at the clinic.

Matters become more complicated when Government Inspector Dr Rance arrives on the scene with a snap inspection. In truth, Rance is eager to discover deviancy so that he can publish a book on his findings and there is plenty on offer for him to investigate as the attempts to hide Barclay and Beckett away become more bizarre and frantic. Even Sergeant Match becomes embroiled as he attempts to solve the mysteries.

On the face of it, this play has all of the elements of a classic farce with dissimulation, misunderstandings, lots of appearances in underwear and actors appearing as different genders. Certainly the play works at this level and the near-capacity audience was kept highly entertained.

However, a Joe Orton work runs deeper. As a young man from a poor background who was living  in a homosexual relationship that was illegal at the time of his creativity, Orton had much to rail against and felt that the establishment was corrupt and exploitative.

This is portrayed by the figure of Rance who represents the government and is keen to discover ways to promote himself at the expense of others. The Rances are the Establishment who hide behind their comparitive prestige and wealth to act in a way that brings their corruption to others. Barclay is the representative of the common people in her naivete as she is used and abused; Match is the supposed upholder of law and order who can be manipulated by those with influence and Beckett is the young man who has doubts about his sexuality and can be made to co-operate with the lure of money.

All of this was meant to shock the audienced of the 60s – none more so than the discovery of the missing piece of Sir Winston Churchill – and Director Michael Cabot has done a great job to capture both the farce and the hidden meaning of Orton’s work. Ably assisted by a more than capable cast and an imaginative set and costumes designed by Bek Palmer the one part that misfired – pardon the pun – was the gun fight where the sound clearly came from off stage and just did not work for me. A very minor quibble in an otherwise excellent production.

Orton never lived to see his script put into practice. He was murdered just weeks after the final full stop was applied. With a notorious reputation as a playwright who made many alterations to his plays as they went into production, this version would maybe not have been the finished article especially given the legalisation of consensual intercourse between adult males that was imminent at the time of his authorship.

However, that is pure conjecture and we have to thank Cabot and his cast and creative team for breathing new life into a classic of British Theatre that deserves to be seen. Their efforts were highly appreciated by the audience.

This production has had problems during its stay at the New Vic as cast members have had to temporarily withdraw. Their replacements have had to pick up the baton with little time to learn the lines and scripts had to be occasionally used. It is a testament to the professionalism af all involved that there was little or no diminution to the performances. Congratulations!!

What The Butler Saw continues until July 6th and has a running time of approximately 2 hours 10 minutes including interval. For ticket information contact 01782 717 962