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What the Butler Saw

The Stage and Television Today 19th July 2001, Valerie Grosvenor Myer

Joe Orton has been dead for 35 years and his cynical amorality has lost much of its power to shock. Having seen only sluggish productions of his posthumous play, I was unconvinced of its merits. Jeremy Sams’ immaculate version, superbly staged and performed at breakneck speed without loss of clarity by a distinguished cast at the Arts (Cambridge), is an eye-opener.

Orton’s reiterated theme is the abuse of power, and the core of this dizzying farce is satire on the psychiatrist who imposes his partial and wrongheaded interpretations of human behaviour on other people. As Rance, Benjamin Whitrow, with the trace of a Viennese accent, is sinister as well as comic. Michael Pennington is Dr Prentice and Jane Asher his elegant wife. As Geraldine, innocent victim of Prentice’s lustful manipulations, Kate Alderton is fresh and touching. The blackmailing pageboy is played by Edward Clarke and David Cardy is Sergeant Match (though why no stripes on his uniform?). This is team playing of the highest order, with superb timing.

After the gunfire and bloodshed, the farce transmutes into a Freudian romance of incest and long-lost relatives, drawing on the archetypes from classical tragedy which preoccupied the author. The set by Robert Jones is technically brilliant. The psychiatrists, when the shutters come down, are caught in a trap of their own making. The famous fire escape is here a stairway between heaven and earth, as suggested by Orton’s partner Halliwell. The final climb suggests redemption for the characters.


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