What the Butler Saw
New Theatre, 2018


Kate Stratford, On the Town / Theatre Now


October 6, 2018

There are no butlers in What the Butler Saw, just as there are no secrets. However, there is plenty of clever dialogue, sardonic epigrams, cross-dressing, incest, murder and a variety of sexual identities. And if that does not tempt you, then the directing by Danielle Maas should. It what can only be described as a brilliant subversive vision in how it serves the play, Maas has cast women as men and men as women in some roles – at times we have men-playing-women-playing-men and women-playing-men-playing-women. Adjust and get used to it – for this is a perfectly reimagined 21stcentury take on a 20thcentury identity politics play.

We meet Dr. Prentice (Ariadne Sgouros) in his surgery putting the moves on job applicant Geraldine Barclay (Martin Quinn). He requests she undress so he might get a good look at her to determine whether she’s suitable for work as his secretary. Although unsure, she agrees, hiding behind a curtain when the doctor’s wife (Jake Fryer-Hornsby) enters. She is followed by Nicholas Beckett (Madeleine Carr), a bellboy at the Station Hotel who aims to blackmail the sex-crazed Mrs. Prentice with pornographic photos. Enter Dr Rance (Amrik Tumber), a government inspector sent by Prentice’s “immediate superiors in madness”. Meanwhile a police officer (Andrew Guy) comes looking for a missing part of a statue of Sir Winston Churchill that was destroyed in a gas-main explosion.

As Dr Prentice’s lies pile up, the play collapses in upon itself, as all good farces should, into a wonderful chaos.  The energetic ensemble play off each other in this four-door farce with wonderful takes of comedy and timing. Very clever moments abound, exploring comedic elements only available when otherness is explored. The simultaneous pulling of the gin cork is a repeated joke which never stales. The handling of an old dial up phone is delicious. There is violence both emotional and physical, played out with a certain insouciance which serves the theme perfectly.

An unforgettable character in the play is the stunning design – for in this production, design elevates the show to another level. Tobias Manderson-Galvin’s set and costumes express a complete understanding of the function of farce and of this play in particular.

This is a 50 year old play but never feels like it. The issues it raises of gender and sexuality, of patriarchy and abuse, of identity and repression are (unfortunately) still with us. What this very smart, clever, funny  production shines a light on is that we have not progressed as far as we think.

As New Theatre presents Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, Brett Kavanaugh blusters and bullies his patriarchal way to a position of power and privilege despite a range of claims which attest to how unfit for such a position he is. Women are routinely raped, homosexuals and trans people are routinely criminalised or treated for mental illness all around the world. … “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

Joe Orton’s life was nearly as farcical as his work if you accept that the purpose of farce is to explore the darker side of human nature through exaggeration, comedy and violence. Gay, politically active, criminalised – he was bludgeoned to death by his lover weeks before the original production of Butler opened. I feel Orton would have been proud and excited by this production – it hits every mark. It makes us laugh, else we would have to cry.