What The Butler Saw is Joe Orton’s last play; in fact it wasn’t produced until after his death. The play is a black farce about the goings-on in a mental institution, and everything is going on: nymphomania, hustling, homosexuality, cross-dressing, nudity, crazy therapists with their own hang-ups, a police officer, a naked bellboy from a nearby hotel, a young woman looking for a secretarial job who ends up used, abused, and naked, a philandering husband, a sexually hungry wife, and a doctor from headquarters who is crazier than everyone and sees sexual perversity in any situation. Just your usual Orton play, except this time it is a farce. All the characters and their peculiarities end up interacting, to hilarious results. And there is lots or running around, fast-paced “business,” quick changes, witty bitchy dialogue, and Orton’s disdain for all things hypocritical, institutional, and sexually uptight.
To take this play is an act of courage both for the cast and for the director. A false move or an unmotivated action can result in the collapse of the deck of cards. I saw this production opening night and things were still a little uneven. The cast was really quite excellent. John Walcutt played Dr. Prentice, the philanderer and the man with the nymphomaniac wife. It is this actor’s job to react to everything that happens as he builds lie upon lie to “explain” the situation. He is in a constant turmoil of the non-stop dodging of responsibility and Walcutt carries it off admirably. Melinda Parrrett plays his wife and, of all the players, seemed to be the most on top of things; an excellent performance.
Ciaran Joyce is the bellboy and seems to have a ball playing the sexual and ethical ambiguities of his character. Amanda Troop plays Geraldine Barclay who comes looking for a job and ends up with her hair shaved and wearing men’s clothes. Jerry Della Salla is the stolid Sergeant Match who must undergo his own humiliations.
Geoffrey Wade is the quite madman from headquarters who has come to evaluate the clinic. Full of twitches, he sees perversion everywhere and wants to use it for a book he is writing which he hopes will bring him fame and fortune. Wade has some impossible speeches but handles them with great skill.
Orton was out to point fingers at professional psychologists who loved to tell him how pathologically disturbed he was. He also takes on the police, the sexual hypocrisy of the general population, and the madness of the world he found himself in. As I stated earlier, I saw this production early on and it was still finding its pace. There also seemed to be uneven direction on the part of Alan Patrick Kenny and sometimes the actors appeared to be winging it.
To be fair, Orton often rewrote his plays after they opened, but he never had a chance with this play so it remains an enormous mountain to climb. What The Butler Saw will be at the Odyssey Theatre until March 11.