What The Butler Saw

published: Fri, 6-Feb-2004   |   updated: Wed, 4-Jan-2017
Programme cover

Dr Prentice in What The Butler Saw by Joe Orton for Star Bar Players at The Lon Chaney Theater. Directed by Mark Hennessy. February/March 1999. (Production dates were: February 26 & 27, March 5, 6, 7, 12, & 13.)

The play is a brilliant farce by a young British playwright from the Sixties, tragically murdered by his lover just as he was getting into his stride. What The Butler Saw is his best play, without question. The plot is much too difficult to describe in a small number of words; needless to say it involves scantily clad people, sexual situations, mistaken identities and, to crown it all, part of a statue of Sir Winston Churchill.

I have to say it's one of my favorite farces. I saw it in London, back in 1991 or 1992 I think, in the West End, and I laughed so much I must have fallen on the floor.

Ours was a riot of a production. As befits the farcical nature of the play itself, the production was also sometimes a complete farce. For a start, we couldn't find a Mrs Prentice, until Krysia graciously accepted the part. Michael, who played the Sargeant, was very reticent about revealing the part of Winston Churchill's statue that we wanted to have revealed at the end (Orton had provided two possibilities: a cigar or an erect penis, depending on how much you wanted to shock the audience; so guess which one we wanted to reveal!).

And then there were the performances. We were only just this side of being in control at the end during the frantic chase scene. One performance we managed to knock down part of the set, another we broke one of Mark's wife's family heirloom chairs by throwing the Sargeant into it (well, she shouldn't have agreed for us to use it; besides which they were divorced a couple of months later).

Everyone, but everyone was brilliant in their roles. Krysia was fabulous as the sexually-suppressed wife; Amber wonderful as the sexy but slightly dim-witted secretary; Joshua (Amber's boyfriend at the time) was fantasically funny as Nicholas the bellboy; and Paul bloody marvellous as the completely insane Dr. Rance.

By the way, it wasn't until I scanned the program cover that I realized Mark, the director, had put a definition of farce at the bottom. It makes the Gazette review (see below) even more puzzling.

Cast

Dr. PrenticeJulian Bucknall
Geraldine BarclayAmber Richman
Mrs. PrenticeKrysia Kubiak
Nicholas BeckettJoshua Bate
Dr. RancePaul Mathewson
Sargeant MatchMichael Tulloss

Review from The Independent

As usual, a very perceptive review from David Sckolnik.

Bravo Butler!

Star Bar captures twisted essence of Orton in new production

What the Butler Saw, a sexually-charged farce by the English playwright Joe Orton, is as funny as it is disturbing to conventional sensibilities, and the current Star Bar Players production really shows what that group can do with challenging material.

Orton, on the verge of major recognition when he was beaten to death in 1967 in England, did not live to see his final effort, What the Butler Saw, produced. The play is built with his signature style, displaying the confusion, perversion and desperation surrounding human sexuality, and relying on the foolishness of human behavior for the lion’s share of its comic impact. On one hand, Butler is one of those silly theatrical fluff pieces which depend upon wacky situations for their fuel. But Orton’s agenda assures a more confrontational experience.

The strong hand of Mark Hennessy, making his local directorial debut, can be felt throughout the Star Bar production. He has carefully guided his cast through the rich and sometimes verbose dialogue to performances that generally catch the twisted folly of it all. Crackerjack timing is of the essence, and Hennessy’s players hit the mark both in their line delivery and their physical gyrations.

Leading the way is Julian Bucknall as Dr. Prentice, the resident psychiatrist in the mental institution in which Butler is set. Bucknall gives a precious performance – filled with intelligence, boundless nervous energy and slapstick – proving himself an ideal interpreter of Orton’s complicated comedy.

No less impressive is Paul Mathewson’s Dr. Rance, a bravura reading of a two-dimensional government official. Mathewson is relentless in his formal, almost operatic delivery of the dialogue, a perfect foil to the naughty behavior of the other characters.

And Joshua Bates’ mere physical presence extracts laughter from the audience. The seriousness with which he interprets the role of Nicholas Beckett, a sexually-depraved bellboy makes for great comic relationships with his fellow cast members. He looks so fine in that blue dress! And when the law arrives in the person of Sgt. Match, Michael Tulloss’ calm and measured reading only gives broader space to his animated collaborators. (The blue dress, however, is not as flattering on him.)

Both women, Krysia Kubiak as Mrs. Prentice and Amber Richman as the innocent secretary Geraldine Barclay, suffered from awkward starts the night I saw the play. Richman seemed contrived during her opening seduction scene with Bucknall but reveled in the situational ramifications as her character developed. Kubiak is miscast and misses much of the comedic bite of her angry, promiscuous character. But the unfolding of the bizarre events of the play serves to gradually strengthen her presence by show’s end.

David Sckolnik

(c) The Independent, 1999

Review from The Gazette

The next review is in from The Gazette. Yikes, Mark Arnest is complaining about plot, etc; things that would pass muster in a Shakespeare play (heck, practically all Shakespeare's comedies depend on people being mistaken for others). but not apparently in this one. Also, the whole point of farces is that any normal person found in such a situation would yell "Stop! This is silly!", but the characters in the farce do not; it's part of the humour, surely? Anyway, here's the review.

'Butler' proves farce shouldn't be played straight

"What the Butler Saw," a farce by Joe Orton being produced by Star Bar Players, is a play for those who take their stupidity straight.

There are wonderful lines (better said out loud than repeated in print), plenty of silliness, and lots of dressing and undressing - both cross and otherwise - in this spirited production. With the plethora of characters parading around in their underwear, Orton blurs the line between viewers and voyeurs.

But be forewarned: This is high camp, and the casualness with which Orton treats such details as plot and characterization can be more irritating than amusing.

Orton weaves a dense web of missing people, both imaginary and real, and madness, both imaginary and real. The play begins with Dr. Prentice, who runs a private clinic for the insane, attempting to seduce his secretary, Geraldine. Mrs. Prentice arrives, and the Prentices' cobra-and-mongoose relationship becomes clear.

Then Nicholas, a bellhop from the Station Hotel who dallied with - and photographed - Mrs. Prentice, shows up to blackmail her; Dr. Rance, a government psychiatrist, appears on a surprise inspection and quickly becomes suspicious; and a policeman, Sergeant Match, arrives to arrest Geraldine for possession of a particular piece from a statue of Winston Churchill.

After that it's a blur. Director Mark Hennessy and the cast have deftly - well, as deftly as is appropriate - managed the extraordinarily numerous entrances and exits, and the production is tight, if not tight enough for this leaky script.

But the production seems misconceived in one respect - namely, that most of the cast members attempt to act in a somewhat realistic manner. The problem is, when characters seem remotely like people, then you expect them to behave remotely like people - and these characters are constantly behaving in ways that render their membership in homo sapiens suspect. When Nicholas puts on Mrs. Prentice's dress, she fails to recognize either him - or her dress. When Dr. Prentice asks the sergeant to take off his clothes, the officer immediately obliges, even though he believes Prentice is a sexual pervert.

Perhaps this is why Paul Mathewson's Dr. Rance, who enters behaving like something you might see after drinking too much absinthe, is far and away the most successful character here. To be sure, Rance gets the lion's share of the best lines, but Mathewson's palpable insanity renders everything he does credible, while all-too-visible strings connect the other characters to the playwright's improbable machinations.

If no one else reaches Mathewson's level, the tremendous energy they expend is hardly wasted. Julian Bucknall plays Dr. Prentice with the right combination of horniness and irritation. Amber Richman is charming as Geraldine, a fresh young woman encountering her first truly impossible situation, while Krysia Kubiak exudes appropriate amorality as Mrs. Prentice. Joshua Bate is suitably ridiculous as Nicholas, and Michael Tulloss is both authoritative and genial as Sergeant Match.

The play must have been shocking in 1969, and it's still adult stuff, with its casual treatment of seduction, rape, incest and homosexuality. But much of it now seems labored, though the send-up of psychiatry is still funny, as every piece of misinformation starts Dr. Rance expounding on ever-more-preposterous theories.

Playwright Orton set out to become notorious, and eventually succeeded all too well when, at 34, he was brutally murdered by his lover. In addition to the several plays he wrote, he's spawned a cottage industry that includes at least two plays and a movie, "Prick Up Your Ears," about his life.

But judging from this play, Orton was very much a work in progress. The brilliant language in "What the Butler Saw" is compromised by laziness in plotting and characterization. And he occasionally prizes shock value over comic value, as in the case of the show's final gag. Without giving it away, the word "anticlimax" seems especially appropriate here.

Mark Arnest

(c) The Gazette, 1999