Review – What the Butler Saw, Vaudeville Theatre

Monday 21 May 2012

Was it a cigar or a phallus?

Edna Welthorpe (Mrs) would not have enjoyed the post-show discussion following the Whingers’ visit to the Vaudeville Theatre to see a preview of What the Butler Saw for the Whingers found themselves mired in struggles to recall the ins and outs of Winston Churchill’s private member vis a vis the Lord Chamberlain.

The conversation came about because what’s produced at the end of this production is quite clearly a dildo designed to provide added pleasure (to whom we couldn’t say) courtesy of some wishful anatomical thinking on someone’s part. It makes absolutely no sense as it is quite clearly not the remaining part of a statue of Winston Churchill – either cigar or a penis – as hinted in the text.

According to John Lahr’s biography Joe Orton “originally wanted Churchill’s penis to be displayed; but the Lord Chamberlain would not allow it… His producer Oscar Lewenstein… had predicted the cut on the grounds of libel”. Of course, by the time WTBS was finally staged Orton was dead and the Lord Chamberlain’s interference in what appeared on the London stage was over.

But anyway, the point is, it would have been funniest with the cigar and less funny with a statue’s phallus, the use of a dildo is just nonsensical.

Anyhoo… Libidinous psychiatrist Dr Prentice (Tim McInnerny) attempts to turn his examination couch into a casting couch when he interviews a potential new secretary (Mrs David Tennant Georgia Moffett) and then keep this misdemeanor from his nymphomaniac wife (Samantha Bond). The shenanigans that result are as bonkers as one might anticipate in the land of farce: expect generous dollops of rushing through doors, semi and totally undressed characters and much inadvertent cross-dressing.

There is also almost as here about madness, deception, medication, self-medicated whisky-swilling, familial bickering and making-up as there is in Long Day’s Journey into Night (another posthumously first-produced play – that’s two in a month. What are the chances?). And who would think Orton had so many parallels with O’Neill? But then again, these are probably what they call “universal themes” in the papers of record.

It’s all hugely politically incorrect; there are gags about lunacy, rape, incest and buggery. And who these days – unless of course you are in fact Carol Thatcher reading this – would dare utter the ‘G’ word? Fortunately Sean Foley has directed the cast to make sure most of it keeps us laughing.

It is played to the hilt, albeit occasionally over the top which is not necessarily an altogether bad thing in the circumstances.

McInnerny’s Prentice displays wonderfully frantic desperation as he heaps one deceit on top of another; the lunatic is running the asylum despite having no real patients.

Samantha Bond teeters around gamely in high heels, but it’s not only her feet that are arched; her Bond-by-name Bond-by-nature (not to mention Miss Moneypenny) credentials suggest she’s taken the baton from Roger Moore by turning the raised eyebrow into an artform.

Omid Djalili‘s Dr Rance is rather shouty but convincingly self-deluded and gets some huge laughs, none more so than when he corpsed (although we hope this has not since evolved into learned rewarded behaviour); he also got the biggest round in the curtain call.

Nick Hendrix‘s bellboy and Jason Thorpe‘s police sergeant suffer the twin indignities of spending much of the evening in their underpants or women’s clothing splendidly and there’s similar suffering from Moffett who is excellent as the prospective secretary Geraldine Barclay.

But the play’s the thing and if its desire to shock has lost some of its flavour on the bedpost over the decades Orton’s subversive cynicism and hilarious use of language still shines through.

We saw this ages ago during a preview and were rather surprised when the reviews were so generally sniffy. We still think it’s a four and better than the last version we saw at the National Theatre many moons ago despite its rather starry cast: John Alderton, Richard Wilson, Nicola Paget and a then almost unknown Mr Georgia Moffett. Of course that was back in the days when the National could still be bothered to rustle up a proper theatre poster.


6 Responses to “Review – What the Butler Saw, Vaudeville Theatre”

  1. Lauren Says:

    MR Georgia Moffett? Bit harsh…

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    Glad to hear you enjoyed it. I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of this truly funny production. I’m guessing the critics’ own conservatism is finally showing through. The halo of the hagiographic era of Orton is now so distant that Billington and that monkey at the Telegraph are now free to grouse about plays with sexually transgressive characters. I guess they really just put their knickers in a twist!

  3. Lauren Says:

    Just saw the date of the production & realised you were referring to Tennant – I thought you were calling her a ‘Mr’!

  4. JA Says:

    Very few laughs when I saw it. Really dislike Djalili!

  5. Sandown Says:

    I saw that National Theatre production of the play, many years ago. By chance, on the same evening, Harold Pinter was in the audience, together with Lady Antonia.

    Apparently Nicola Paget had once had an affair with Harold, and she practically shouted her lines at him.

    It wasn’t very funny either.

  6. Ged Ladd Says:

    Daisy and I also saw that NT version “back in the day”. I didn’t think it was so bad, but Daisy really hated that production and wouldn’t now consider seeing the play again, ever. C’est la vie.

    I had forgotten that David Tennant had been in that production. Whereas I did remember that Nicola Paget had been in it. But then, having a crush on Nicola Paget had been compulsory on the curriculum when I was at school. Mind you, so was having a crush on Leslie Ash later in my school days.

    Ged’s digressing again…

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