While trapped in our homes due to the Covid-19 lockdown, the generosity of theatres all over the country means that we can enjoy shows from venues we might not normally visit. This production of Joe Orton’s classic 1967 madhouse comedy, from the Curve Theatre Leicester, is one of many examples of plays from places I’m afraid I’ve never been to.
A word of warning: the recording is very much for archival purposes, as the camera is static and at the back of the auditorium. It’s a long way from the broadcasts put on for cinemas by NTLive. The sound quality is poor. But, to be positive, it’s closer to your average trip to the theatre – there’s even coughing and chatting from the crowd that you can pretend to shush if you like!
What the Butler Saw is a great play. Orton’s mix of crude farce, Wildean epigrams and just a touch of horror is extraordinary – clever as well as funny. Director Nikolai Foster gives the show the speed it needs, as outrageous characters all descend into a “democratic lunacy”, while a talented cast delivers the often complex dialogue assuredly.
Rufus Hound and Catherine Russell both give star turns as the unhappily married Dr and Mrs Prentice, who run a madhouse and should qualify as inmates. Hound starts off nicely reserved, although not missing any chance to be saucy, and escalates the action marvellously. Russell ensures her character matches her husband for malice and has a great icy edge. Dakota Blue Richards and Jack Holden acquit themselves well as a prim secretary and a blackmailing hotel bellboy who cross-dress and change identities to great effect. Stealing the show is Jasper Britton as the visiting government inspector, Dr Rance. Britton delivers Orton’s convoluted nonsense superbly, with terrific ravings and delightfully delivered crazy theories. He is, of course, the maddest of a mad bunch.
Best of all, Orton’s play still shocks. The question of how our squeamishness might have changed since it was first written is raised: Dr Prentice as predator is surely more uncomfortable, likewise the jokes about sexual assault and rape. But Orton’s queasy incest theme and satirical highlighting of all kinds of hypocrisy haven’t faded in their power at all. The “pointless and disgusting” subject matter and increasing improbabilities, handled with Orton’s fantastic energy, pose a challenge as well as plenty of laughs.
Available for the duration of the lockdown