The Vaudeville, I think, could be my new favourite theatre in London. Overshadowed slightly by its neighbouring Adelphi on the Strand, the 600 seater is large enough to feel regal and dramatic, yet sufficiently intimate to see and hear everything, clear as a bell, from wherever you sit. There is adequate leg space, delightful staff and ENOUGH LOOS FOR GIRLS. Relishing a new enthusiasm for the place, I was fortunate enough to attend a preview of What the Butler Saw, the outrageous final play of dramatist Joe Orton before his tragic murder (bludgeoned to death by his homosexual lover).
The production is a sort of anarchic sexual pantomime, yet riddled with just enough biting satire to elevate it from a mere silly spectacle. The opening scene thrusts us (connotation intended) into the consulting room of psychiatrist Dr Prentice, hilariously played by Tim McInnery, interviewing a prospective new secretary (Georgia Moffett). The “interview” involves Prentice instructing the bug eyed blonde to “remove all her clothes, lie back and think of the ending of her favourite novel”, which coincides with the arrival of his nymphomaniac wife (the gorgeous Samantha Bond), who herself has been “interfering” with a hotel bellboy in a linen closet. Prentice’s attempt to hide the naked girl cues a wonderful spiral of mistaken identities, feigning madness and cross-dressing, overshadowed by the continuous search for Winston Churchill’s private parts and a limitless supply of Bell’s Whiskey. It sounds, and is, ridiculous, but Orton’s total shamelessness is admirable, and his witty one-liners drive the performance with a fierce pace.
There are some great lines. Prentice declares his wife is “harder to get into than the reading room at the British Library”, while she shrieks when finding him clutching a dress “Have you taken up transvestism? I’d no idea our marriage teetered on the brink of fashion.” Orton ridicules insanity, politics and sexual debauchery with aplomb throughout; the climactic discovery that the four main characters are in fact related (and thus have committed A LOT of incest) is the final nail in the coffin for middle class morality. Their family tableau in the play’s final moments, hugging and sharing congratulations over their sexual prowess, is nightmarish – but wickedly funny. Similarly the straightjackets, ironically bestowed upon possibly the sanest characters in the play, are a mockery of sanity itself.
Omid Djalili as the officious Dr Rance stole the show for me; his melodramatic flouncing brings real physical comedy to the production. Samantha Bond is devilishly sexy, with a voice that could cut glass – but Nick Hendrix as the bellboy was the show’s weak link; I found him too OTT and irritating amongst a cast of professionals.
What the Butler Saw is a rib tickling fusion of silly, weird, and hysterically funny. One word of advice. Don’t take your grandparents, it won’t be suitable for them.
What the Butler Saw runs at The Vaudeville Theatre until August 25th. You can book tickets here.
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