It’s tantalizing to wonder what might have happened to Joe Orton had he not succumbed at 34 to the hammer blows of his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell in their shared bedsit in Islington. Between 1964 and 67 Orton produced three of the most remarkable (and still frequently revived) comedies on the London stage: Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloane and What The Butler Saw.

Would we now, approaching his 80th anniversary, be feting ‘Sir Joseph Orton’ like Coward or Terence Rattigan who, despite his notoriously closeted status and the fact he wrote the sort of ‘well-made plays’ that Orton ridiculed, invested covertly in the production of Sloane? Arguably – since you can’t libel the dead – because he’d sampled Joe’s personal rough charms as well as his scriptwriting. Might he have gone down the Ayckbourn route, delivering a play every six months whether it was good or not, or like his close contemporary Harold Pinter – who spoke the eulogy at Orton’s funeral – a sparser output studded with comedies of menace and wordy political satire?

My guess is that, unless seduced by TV and Hollywood, he’d now be a sort of non-musical Stephen Sondheim, constantly driven by a desire to do something new, yet veering between crowd-pleasing accessible comedy of human relationships and a darker urgency in his more demanding works. Whether or not he might have approached Sondheim’s near-deified status, it’s clear that a massive potential was lost that August night in 1967.

Almost fifty years on, the broadsheet critics have not been kind to the newest revival of What The Butler Saw. Charles Spencer in the Telegraph called it “sadistically unfunny”, Michael Billington in the Guardian “an avalance of coarse acting” and Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail blamed “heavy-handed direction”. Set in a psychiatric clinic, a white lie to his wife about a girl the doctor is trying to seduce sets off a chain reaction of cross-dressing, nudity, misdiagnosis and strait-jacketed restraint.

Many of their criticisms were based on experience of earlier productions.  I’ve also seen it several times before including, an excellent version directed by Lindsay Anderson at the Whitehall in 1975, and Phyllida Lloyd’s scintillating National Theatre revival in 1995 with John Alderton and Richard Wilson when, as the naked pageboy Nicholas Beckett, a youthful David Tennant proved that not everything is necessarily bigger inside the Tardis. Most customers have never heard this script before, and it’s hysterically funny. Equally, Orton no more deserves nostalgic comparison than Coward, or Pinter, or Rattigan – all of whose mid-century plays have had new lives breathed into them by fresher direction and acting.

What it does need is pinpoint casting, only partially delivered here. Omid Djalili is more a comedian than an actor and unlike, say, Alexei Sayle or Lenny Henry, seems unable to bridge the subtle transitions between manic stand-up and the restraint and vocal variety demanded by a stage role. But at the core of the play you have, in Tim McInnerny and Samantha Bond, an almost ideal coupling of Dr and Mrs Prentice, the bewildered ‘normals’ around whom the mayhem revolves.

McInnerny has the perfect combination of physical comedy and mastery of double-take that makes him ideal for Orton. Nymphomaniac Mrs Prentice is always played by an actress with a classily distinctive voice which makes the filthy epigrams sound elegant: “my uterine contractions have been bogus for years”, “Have you taken up transvestism? I’d no idea our marriage teetered on the edge of fashion” – and apart from Judi Dench there is no voice more seductive or instantly recognizable than Samantha Bond’s.

The junior cast members are weaker, too: pageboy Nick Hendrix making more of his remarkable body than of his three years’ RADA training, and Georgia Moffett floundering as the innocent secretary wrongly diagnosed as a mental patient.

Perhaps emboldened by his own success with The Ladykillers, director Sean Foley overlooks the delicate Wildean parody of the opening scenes and goes straight for full-on farcical shouting from the off, borrowing from Noises Off and One Man Two Guvnors to capitalize on what he sees as comedic zeitgeist. It doesn’t serve Orton well, since the dramatic arc of What The Butler Sawrelies on relentlessly increasing elements of unreality towards an insane and all-encompassing climax. Foley’s problem is simply that it comes too soon.

Instead of introducing multiple bottles of whisky to make his two principals leglessly drunk, Foley might have intervened in the ‘jokes’ which fall flattest on modern theatergoing ears – there are several references to rape, and women asking for it, which caused the customers to tense and the lines about ‘white golliwogs’ either went over the audience’s head, or felt like an needlessly racist slur.

A week or so past press night, the production has settled.  It takes time in farce for the actors to catch each other’s rhythms and reciprocate the split-second timing, but it’s stabilizing now into an enjoyable evening. Calm Mr Djalili a little, and encourage the younger cast to emulate the timing and delivery of the experienced ones, and it could yet be a hit.

Date reviewed: Wednesday 13th June 2012 
Image © MJE Productions

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.