Review – What The Butler Saw, Masque Theatre, Playhouse, Northampton, 31st May 2016

What The Butler SawWe hadn’t seen any productions by the Masque Theatre before, but, after a suggestion by our friend and blogging colleague Mr Smallmind, we thought we’d bite the bullet for their production of Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw. I must be honest; Mrs Chrisparkle did take a little persuasion to agree to come, as the memory of some previous amateur productions she has seen is enough to bring her out in hives. Nevertheless, on the recommendation of our friend and on the strength of the play, we did it.

MasqueI’d always wanted to see a production of What The Butler Saw, but never have – in fact, I realise that this is the first time I have seen any Orton play on stage. I read all his works voraciously when I was about 16, finding them all completely irresistible, and for me they haven’t lost their edge one iota. This classic, blind leading the blind or rather mad leading the sane but but they seem mad, comedy is crammed with fantastically funny lines, strong characters and a beautiful sense of surrealism. It contains some of my favourite quotes from 20th century drama. Mrs Prentice tells her husband she is going to take up with an Indian boyfriend. In the real world this would lead to a response regarding marriage break-up, or jealousy, or fury, or some other emotion. In Orton’s world, however, the man replies: “you can’t take lovers in Asia, the airfare would be crippling”. Apart, of course, from the rather salacious nature of many of his plays, it’s that oddish use of language that really sets him apart from his contemporaries. Mrs Prentice, again, this time when cornered to admit that she’s been faking her orgasms: “my uterine contractions have been bogus for some time!” There’s a delightful bourgeois tone lurking in there. You could almost hear the 1970s Penelope Keith saying it. Even the reunion of twins at the end of the show is reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Joe OrtonWhat The Butler Saw wasn’t performed until 1969, two years after Orton’s death and one year after the withdrawal of censorship. I think the censor would have bridled at some of the content but would have been most uncomfortable when dealing with the missing parts of Sir Winston Churchill. Under censorship, you weren’t allowed to “represent on the stage in an invidious manner a living person or a person recently dead”; and interestingly it was only in the 1975 production that Sergeant Match finally got to hold aloft Winnie’s missing penis (for that, gentle reader, was the erroneous part of his statue lost in the gas explosion, which became embedded in Geraldine’s grandmother). Ralph Richardson, who played Dr Rance in 1969, couldn’t go along with that, so they made do with using Winnie’s cigar instead. Orton would have hated the lack of gumption. Anyway, it’s great to see the play still doing the rounds in both professional and amateur productions.

Dr RanceThere’s no point pretending that this was a perfect production because it wasn’t; nevertheless, I’m not going to criticise anyone who takes part in amateur dramatics because a) I haven’t the guts to do it myself and b) well, it would be churlish. To be fair, the little Playhouse stage lends itself very nicely to the production, and the six actors manage to perform a lot of physical comedy, often just in their underwear, without getting in each other’s way or tripping each other up, which is more than can be said for the recent production of Chicago at the Derngate. The only effect too far for this production was to recreate the security bars that surround the stage once Dr Rance has set off the alarm, making the Sergeant’s final appearance through the skylight more understandable; we just had a change of lighting and to work on our imagination instead.

Jof DaviesPeter Darnell directs the play at a crisp pace and with a nice feel for the nonsensical way in which we, the general public, will do anything that a doctor tells us to in the consulting room. From the cast, Mrs C and I both agreed that the ladies did a particularly good job. Lisa Shepherd gave a very confident performance as Geraldine, desperately clinging on to the idea that there must be some good reason why she’s dressed as a bell-hop, or maybe not dressed much at all. I also thought Nicky Osborne added a lot of oomph to the character of Mrs Prentice, delightfully conveying her open sexual nature and her frustrations at being lumbered with Dr Prentice. I enjoyed Jof Davies’ portrayal of hotel-boy Nick, matter-of-factly demanding money for the steamy photos he took of Mrs Prentice the previous night; and whereas Miss Shepherd could almost pass for a bell-hop on a dark night, there’s no way you could ever think Mr Davies could be mistaken for a female secretary; well, not in that dress anyway. But, then, that’s all part of the fun.

Michael GravesIt’s an ambitious play, with a lot of onstage shenanigans, and everyone gave it a good stab, and you can’t ask for more than that. Great fun, if not for all the family, then for everyone who’s ever fancied a little hows-your-father when they shouldn’t. On until Saturday 4th June!

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