Theatre Review: What The Butler Saw

Date Posted: 17/05/2012

West End venue, the Vaudeville Theatre is staging this revival of Joe Orton classic, What The Butler Saw with a stellar cast.Carrie Martindale went to see if they lived up to their names.

The show summed up in one sentence… it’s witty, it’s risqué, it’s laugh-out-loud funny and ever-so-slightly offensive, camp fun.

Who should see it? Fans of 60s and 70s comedy and good old-fashioned British ‘Carry On’ style humour will utterly adore this show.

The story of Joe Orton is a tragic one. Murdered in his early 30s by his lover, Orton was a prolific writer whose black and scandalous comedies rocked audiences of the 1960s, and continue to do so today. It’s been a while since What the Butler Saw has been staged in the West End, and this revival has been a long time coming if the performance that I went to see is anything to go by.

It’s difficult not to judge a book by its cover; but as soon as I saw that the cast included stalwart performers, including Samantha Bond (most well known for the semi-improvised television comedy Outnumbered), comedian Omid Djalili, and Tim McInnerny (Lord Percy in Blackadder don’t you know) I knew that I had to see this show. Luckily for me, reviewing theatre is part of my job.

The Vaudeville Theatre is conveniently located on the Strand, just a few minutes stroll from Charing Cross station, and although it isn’t one of the larger theatres, the show is offering a group discount for parties of ten or more. The area is populated with restaurants offering pre-theatre dinner offers, also handy for group travel organisers to know.

The set is incredibly realistic; with psychoanalyst Dr Prentice’s consulting room a tour de force in 1960s interior design. But that’s not the most impressive thing: although the action exists in this one space, a skylight, a corridor, and an outdoor area to the side all make this set feel incredibly real. Along with the outfits and general sense of humour, audiences who grew up during the 1960s will be right at home watching this play.

‘Welcome to the madhouse’ warns the promotional material. And it is mad – with mistaken identity, cross-dressing, nudity and drunkenness all a par for the course – so it’s one of those shows that I urge you not to see if you are at all easily offended (the phrase ‘buried in a Y-shaped coffin’ is ‘vanilla’ language in this script). Remember, Orton was an out homosexual, and this naughty comedy oozes with his camp wit. One-liners and outrageous twists collide, as the characters lose the plot, their wits, and their clothes. Barbara Windsor and Sid James wouldn’t look out of place.

Tim McInnerny and Samantha Bond certainly stepped up to the mark, as philandering husband and wife with a taste for the whiskey bottle. I have never seen such fine ‘drunk’ acting, and it makes one wonder whether it really is watered down Coca-Cola in that bottle that they keep swigging from.

I glorified in watching the sumptuous Bond as she struggled in and out of each situation - and her clothes in the meantime. Georgia Moffett (Merlin, Doctor Who) is less impressive however as the naive Geraldine Barclay, but she does the job.

Omid Djalili was excellent as the government inspector trying to section anyone and everyone, although he had a hint of the pantomime about him – perhaps inevitable coming from a comedian. An unexpected delight is to be found in many ways from the young actor who plays Mrs Prentice’s lover and subsequent blackmailer; Nick Hendrix made my companion and I howl with laughter, and smile with pleasure at the same time.   

So, would I recommend groups to go and see this farce? Yes, I would - and I would urge you to take your family and friends too.

It’s a superb piece of theatre, and an exceptionally entertaining night out if you aren’t afraid of naughty language and aren’t adverse to seeing people stripping off at every moment.

Group travel organisers should take people to see this show if you want them to get the coach home with a smile on their face, because you won’t be disappointed.

What the Butler Saw is currently booking at the Vaudeville Theatre until the 25th August. Performance times are Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm and two matinees on Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm. A group rate is available for parties of ten or more people for Monday to Friday performances only.

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