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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Vaudeville


  Tim McInnerny and Samantha Bond/ Ph: Simon Annand

What a shame. I used to love Joe Orton. But the West End’s latest staging of What the Butler Saw left me thinking that times have moved on. Most of Orton’s hobbyhorses have been slaughtered, and his rampant sex farce set at the tail end of the swinging 60s is no longer really viable, or at least no longer really funny.
Epigrams, witticisms and ripostes spill out with a churning, non-stop regularity. Self-consciously clever bon mots on the make, they fall short of the likes of Wilde or Coward, who both knew a thing or two about modulation.
We are in a consulting room somewhere in suburban England. It’s a posh private clinic run by a randy psychiatrist who is persecuted by his nymphomaniac wife. He’s trying to seduce a would-be secretarial applicant. She’s trying to buy back her dress (and some indiscreet photographs) from a hotel bellhop who joined her in an indecent incident the night before.
The doctor’s beleaguered libido and his wife’s unsatisfactory indiscretions – to say nothing of the four bottles of scotch they get through in the course of this afternoon’s escapades – lead to confusions, cross-dressing, slamming doors, straitjackets, even attempted murder.
Because she is more nuanced than anyone else on the stage, Samantha Bond steals the show. She’s a wonderfully adept physical comedienne who gets progressively more knock-kneed with each slurp of scotch. (Anyone who sees this production will never again be able to watch James Bond’s Miss Moneypenny in the same innocent light.)
As her husband, Tim McInnerny gets more and more frantic as his day tailspins out of control. A single lie at the beginning of the play turns into a deluge of catastrophes that looks as if it will drown him before the afternoon is over.
The problem with this production is also probably the very reason it ended up being staged in the first place – Omid Djalili. He’s a hot name, a stand-up comic with a major following. But his approach both to Orton’s text and his fellow actors is quixotic at the very least. He plays an itinerant government inspector who actually turns out to be the most insane person on the stage. Short, bald, bulky and pugilistic, he both barks and grandstands. More a Zero Mostel than a Nathan Lane, Djalili has a tendency to treat the rest of the cast as if they were nothing more than his backup band.
The younger characters fulfill their briefs well enough, but in truth Orton simply employs them as pawns. Georgia Moffett is the quivering secretary. Nick Hendrix is the ineptly louche bellhop. Jason Thorpe is the brainless bobby who does a fine job as a drugged, nearly naked babbling policeman. The “surprise” dénouement, which adds incest to the list of the day’s multiple escapades, is as least as old as Plautus; but, these days, Roman farce is hardly at the top of the comedy to-do list.
Director Sean Foley scored a huge triumph just a few months back with his whimsical staging of The Ladykillers. Here he pushes everything too hard. Of course farce has to go at a breakneck speed, but this is downright exhausting.
There is none of the silly sacrilege of Loot to be found here, nor any of the darknesses in Entertaining Mr. Sloane (so successfully revived just a couple of seasons back with the astoundingly versatile Imelda Staunton turning in a master class performance of giddy subtlety and needy vulgarity). Instead What the Butler Saw is all intentional surface gloss.
Orton was dead before anyone even knew this play existed. Maybe, if he hadn’t been murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell, he could have hooked up with a top-notch director who might have helped modulate his script into something a bit less relentless.


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