WHAT THE BUTLER SAW
Curve, Leicester, Monday 13th March, 2017
Not more dreary confessions from Paul Burrell but Joe Orton’s final play, staged in his home town fifty years after he was murdered by his mentally ill boyfriend.
The play – a farce – has mental illness at its core. Set in the consulting room of Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound), the action begins with sexual harassment during a job interview and goes rapidly (and deliciously) downhill from there. The staples of farce are all present, from the set with its abundance of exits, to misunderstandings, disguise, physical comedy, and characters motivated by their foibles, all wrapped up in an absurd situation. What lifts Orton’s writing far above the usual Whitehall fare (all the rage at the time of the first production) is the quality of the writing. Deliberately provocative, the dialogue sparkles with Wildean epigrams. The seemingly frothy exchanges belie the dark underbelly of the world of the play – and, by extension, our society. And it retains the power to prick our sensibilities today, in this overly sensitive age when being offended is a time-consuming occupation.
Rufus Hound is in manic form as the lecherous psychiatrist – it’s almost as though he’s auditioning for a 1970s sitcom. Catherine Russell’s Mrs Prentice matches him for moments of hysteria but her own lechery is more coolly portrayed. Jasper Britton dominates as the pompous and tyrannical Dr Rance, imposing his psychoanalysis on what he perceives to be the case – he’d fit in perfectly in this post-truth world where those in authority have no regard for facts.
Ravi Aujla’s unfortunate police sergeant adds to the chaos while our sympathy is aroused by Dakota Blue Richards’s hapless Geraldine, an innocent embroiled in a nightmare. The ever-excellent Jack Holden makes a fetching page boy as Nicholas Beckett – I can’t decide if he’s more appealing stripped to his underpants or dolled up in wig and leopard-print frock….
Director Nikolai Foster keeps the action frenetic and the dialogue quick fire. The pace doesn’t let up for an instant – that would be death to a farce. Michael Taylor’s curved, clinical set, brightly lit by Ben Cracknell, provides a stark backdrop for these colourful characters, and the result is a relentlessly funny, morally questionable evening’s entertainment. That some of our laughter is uneasy shows how well Orton had his finger on the pulse, and the sheer, overt contrivance of the denouement blatantly mocks the excesses of the form.
A dark masterpiece, flawlessly presented – and I can’t help wondering what else Orton might have given us had he lived even a little bit longer.