Farce is back in fashion, it seems. Following on the heels of the successes of One Man, Two Guvnors and Noises Off in the West End we now have a revival of Joe Orton’s final play, an anarcho-subversive account of the genre, an ‘anti-farce’. First performed in 1969, two years after the violent death of its author, What the Butler Saw is like a dark twin to the traditional, conservative Whitehall-style farce, using the same tropes but in an irreverently ironic way.
Set in a psychiatric hospital, the fast-moving storyline becomes increasingly surreal. The director, Dr Prentice, attempts to seduce a prospective secretary he is interviewing, but is forced to pass her off as a patient when a visiting inspector, Dr Rance, arrives unexpectedly. Meantime, his nymphomaniac wife has arrived, pursued by a blackmailing bellboy from the station hotel, who wants a job in return for the negatives of their lurid encounter. As blouses are removed and trousers drop, clothing and identities are exchanged, with an investigating police sergeant being dragged into the alcohol- and drug-fuelled mayhem.
Orton has great fun having his cake and eating it too. What the Butler Saw works as a knockabout sex comedy, full of slamming doors, compromising positions and pratfalls, but also as a critique of British Carry On humour, with its far from good-clean-fun approach challenging accepted values. There are riotous send-ups of psychoanalytical theory, gender identity and hierarchical relationships, with the mental institution standing in as a distorted mirror image of the 60s social revolution.
Director Sean Foley (who brought elements of farce to his production of The Ladykillers at the end of last year) brings method to the madness on stage, though there could be a bit more variation in pace and volume. Sometimes Orton’s aphoristic wit is lost in over-the-top slapstick, but even if it is not at all subtle the manic second act flows irresistibly on a tide of inverted logic. Alice Power’s design, featuring four doors and a skylight for surprise entrances and exits, plus a curtain rail for concealments, re-creates a psychiatrist’s consulting room where the official order is quickly turned into chaos.
Even if the production never quite soars, the cast have a ball. Tim McInnerny’s Dr Prentice is a twitching, sexually frustrated man suffering a mid-life breakdown, increasingly desperate as he tries to extricate himself from the mess he has got into. Samantha Bond’s blowsy and tipsy Mrs Prentice staggers around in a haze of neurotic misunderstanding. Omid Djalili’s Dr Rance is barking in every sense (he has a tendency to bellow certain lines), analysing the bizarre goings-on with an academic authority that belies the obsessions of a voyeuristic pervert. Georgia Moffett engages as the innocent employment agency girl out of her depth, Nick Hendrix plays the opportunistic bellhop with faux innocent cheekiness, while Jason Thorpe is incredibly amusing as the paralytic PC who (inevitably) loses more than his uniform. In Orton’s comically twisted world, it seems the people who run the establishment are as irrational as those they seek to control.