Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Problem Play

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Problem Play

Article excerpt

What the Butler Saw Vaudeville, until 25 August Chariots of Fire Hampstead, until 16 June It's all Kenneth Halliwell's fault. By bashing in Joe Orton's head with a hammer, he brought the playwright's career to a premature halt when Orton was still experimenting with brittle and anarchic farces. Had Orton lived beyond 34, he'd have developed his technique and become a richer, truer and more rounded artist. And What the Butler Saw would now be a minor work by a major playwright. Instead it's a major work by a minor playwright.

Uneven in tone, lumpish in detail, unsure of its creative purpose, this is a problem play that doesn't merit its status as a classic.

Orton dashed it off in a few weeks and the script was discovered, after his death, lying in a drawer. The opening and closing scenes are dazzlingly original achievements but the middle section droops badly as Orton resorts to cliches - mistaken identity, crossdressing, dropped trousers - in his search for inspiration.

The setting is a psychiatrist's clinic. Dr Prentice, a randy shrink, is trying to rape his secretary while keeping the molestation hidden from his wife and from a visiting government inspector, who is himself certifiably mad. The dialogue between the Prentices reaches a glorious zenith of domestic savagery as they pick at the ruins of their marriage. Prentice calls his wife 'the mistress of the fraudulent climax' and 'a nymphomaniac' who will be 'sent to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin'. She concurs. 'My uterine contractions have been bogus for some time, ' she declares, as she slams the door on him.

It's a wonderful exit line. Until you try exiting on it. It rarely gets a laugh because the phrase sounds unlike anything a woman would say about herself. However, a callow literary conjurer like Orton, with no romantic experience of women, might well imagine a female character expressing herself in those terms.

The script is full of these nearly-moments and not-quite-there-yet gags. But the production, marshalled by Sean Foley, is as good as it gets. The famously complicated set looks neat, quietly stylish and, above all, believable. The cast are terrific. Samantha Bond's simmering, sophisticated ardour is perfect for Mrs Prentice. Omid Djalili plays the insane Dr Rance as a lovable, pop-eyed crackpot. And Tim McInnerny, as Prentice, is a joy to watch. He brings improbable quantities of fun, levity and warmth to a character who is nothing less than an alcoholic rapist. …

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