After staging a long and varied run of new writing, Hampstead Theatre dips into the archives to bring us an energetic new production of Joe Orton’s frantic and, in its time subversive comedy, set in a psychiatric clinic.
The play is textbook farce in the Fawlty Towers mode, all slamming doors and mistaken identities. Dr Prentice’s attempts to seduce the girl he’s interviewing for a secretarial job set in motion a series of events that leads to guns being waved around, secrets being revealed and men running about in dresses.
The cast fully embrace the mania of the material. As the oily Dr Prentice, Jonathan Coy achieves that Basil Fawlty quality of making his potentially monstrous character vaguely sympathetic. Malcolm Sinclair also gives a great performance, one steeped in the tradition of classic British comedy, as the appalling Dr Rance, a man who sees signs of insanity everywhere he looks. And, with a drink permanently in her hand, Belinda Lang does an admirable job of playing the increasingly hysterical Mrs Prentice, though her unrelenting shrillness eventually starts to grate.
The younger members of the cast were equally up to the job. Geoff Breton (excellent in BBC2’s recent adaptation of The Rotters’ Club) was well cast as cocky hotel bellboy Nicholas Beckett, managing to be charismatic despite spending most of his time on stage wearing only an unattractive pair of blue Y-fronts. Joanna Page, as secretary Geraldine Barclay, also got well into the swing of things, even though she too had to contend with some unflattering 1960s undies.
David Grindley (who was behind Hampsteads revival of Abigail’s Party and whose production of Neil La Bute’s Some Girl(s) is currently playing in the West End with David Schwimmer) directs with considerable verve, rapidly cranking up the action and cleverly choreographing the many exits and entrances. And the set by Jonathan Fensom (who worked with Grindley on Abigail’s Party) is really quite superb, full of neat period details and managing to give the real sense that the clinic extends beyond the stage.
What The Butler Saw was Orton’s last play, completed in July 1967, less than a month before he was killed by his lover Kenneth Halliwell. Genuinely shocking in its day, Orton’s writing still has the power to unsettle – though this is partly down to its ideas about women and mental illness; the casual attitude towards rape leaves a particularly queasy feeling.
Whereas something like The Importance Of Being Earnest still zings and sparkles as a piece of theatre, Orton’s play occasionally feels like a museum piece – a time capsule comedy. What The Butler Saw contains some acutely funny lines, of that there is no argument, but a lot of the writing left me cold. Perhaps some of the play’s satirical impact was lost on me but I found this production appealed more as a portrait of what was considered funny in 1967, of what was once considered politically and morally edgy, than as a comedy for the here and now – it felt dated in a more obvious way than, say, Abigail’s Party. Having said that the majority of the audience were clearly lapping up the double-takes and the growing onstage insanity, so – on the level that counts – David Grindley’s revival has to be considered a success.