What the Butler Saw
New Theatre, 2018
Jade Kops, ‘Broadway World’
Oct 6, 2018
Reviewed on: Thursday 4th October 2018, 7:30pm, New Theatre
Joe Orton‘s cross-dressing mystery farce WHAT THE BUTLER SAW is re imagined for a new era by Danielle Maas (Director) with mixed results. The work that shocked audiences when it premiered in London in 1969 retains some relevance on its commentary on the science of mental health research but the expression of sexuality and the idea of adding an extra layer of cross dressing leads to a production that is significantly less confronting to modern audiences.
The premise of WHAT THE BUTLER SAW, which doesn’t actually include any butlers, is that the audience gets to look in on as the middle aged psychiatrist Dr Prentice (Ariadne Sgouros) is attempting to hoodwink the innocent young potential secretary Geraldine Barclay (Martin Quinn) into a sexual encounter but he is interrupted by his wife Mrs Prentice (Jake Fryer-Hornsby). Whilst Geraldine is hidden, the nature of the Prentice’s relationship is exposed as a volatile marriage where Mrs Prentice has an insatiable sexual appetite and Dr Prentice tries to make out he’s more interested in science despite the naked ingénue behind the curtain. Oblivious to her husband’s indiscretions Mrs Prentice shares the news that she’s been seduced and sexually assaulted at the local hotel by a bellhop Nicholas Beckett (Madeleine Carr) who seeks to blackmail her whilst also on the run from Sergeant Match (Andrew Guy) for another series of assaults. Mixed into the madness, government inspector Dr Rance (Amrik Tumber) drops in to assess the clinic with the hope of adding material that will make his proposed new book a best seller.
Whilst the work already includes a great degree of costume swapping in the guise of subterfuge to avoid scorned wives, inquisitive and ambitious inspectors and imminent arrest, Maas has chosen to add an extra layer of cross dressing to have four of the performers start in drag to create their base characters. Whilst amusing and a little perplexing at first as to the purpose of the reworking of four initial expressions, particularly when the remaining two performers are presented as written, this cross dressing doesn’t really cause the surprise of the work’s original staging that one would assume Maas is trying to echo. To a degree Tobias Manderson-Galvin’s costume design tries to assist in creating the shock-value, particularly with Fryer-Hornsby’s revealing bodysuit but the conservative clothing of the other characters reduces the impact that could have been achieved and New Theatre is not usually shy of venturing into.
Where the work retains a relevance however is the continued questions as to the robustness of the science around mental health as both Doctors seek to have the other certified insane whilst they ignore the facts of the situation. The continued challenge of determining the truth about science and the prevalence of fabricated ‘facts’ and ignoring reality in favor of what will sell the book Dr Rance is writing remains constant from the time Orton wrote WHAT THE BUTLER SAW and the present day of ‘fake news’, sensationalism and underrecognized science institutes. Orton’s text is clever and comic whilst also being somewhat predictable for 21st century sensibilities where it takes more to scandalise audiences. Tobias Manderson-Galvin’s production design adds to the farcical nature of the work with a post war duck egg blue doctor’s office presented in a box set that includes four doors to allow the inhabitants of the house to get lost in the confusion, but the gag soon wears thin
Whilst Sgouros and Tumber do well at presenting progressively more absurd doctors the stand out performances come from Fryer-Hornsby and Quinn. Quinn presents a delightfully innocent girl fresh out of high school and horrified by Dr Prentice’s ethics or lack thereof. Fryer-Hornsby captures Mrs Prentice’s pompous arrogance and droll distain for her husband brilliantly and his physicality is fabulous if not alarming as he totters around in stilettos with some seriously surprising pratfalls.
WHAT THE BUTLER SAW is fun for a piece of absurd light comedy but don’t necessarily expect the shock levels that the original incited.