Jack Lord as Doctor Rance, Alana Jackson as Geraldine Barclay, John Dorney as Doctor Prentice Picture: Sheila Burnett

What The Butler Saw

Derby Theatre


London Classic Theatre brought their revival of Joe Orton’s classic farce, What The Butler Saw, to Derby this week as part of a nationwide tour which recently took in Ipswich, where Orton secured his first job as a theatre stage manager having just graduated from RADA.

Orton’s public and writing career, which began in 1959, was colourful, impactful and tragic, culminating in his murder in 1967 by his lover, subsequent to which this play was performed and produced posthumously.

I was immediately struck by how this half century old comedy focuses on an older man, Doctor Prentice, (John Dorney) attempting to seduce his secretary Geraldine Barclay (Alana Jackson), and how it echoes both the contemporary #MeToo  movement, and Orton’s own experiences with a lover several years his senior.

At its heart this is a farce, underpinned by satire. Prentice's wife (Holly Smith) unwittingly disrupts her husband’s overtures to his now concealed and naked secretary. But his wife has problems of her own - compromising photos of her own infidelity taken by a bellboy.

The arrival of a government clinic inspector, Doctor Rance (Jack Lord), at the clinic, followed by an inept policeman, Sargent Snatch (Jon-Paul Rowden) does not help. Farce, mistaken identity, gender swaps, slapstick and double entendres ensue over two slick fifty minute Acts. Director Michael Cabot moves proceedings along at breakneck speed resulting in the final scenes in Act 2 becoming a blur of activity and laughter for the hardworking cast of six.


All of this is framed by a colourful, superbly designed Pop Art set by Bek Palmer, reminiscent of Wayne's World, Monty Python and Warhol, brightly lit by Hector Murray.

Beneath the superficial comic veneer lies a dark textual underbelly. The dialogue, often shouted, is delivered at quickfire breakneck speed, so fast that you have to listen hard whilst gasping: "did they really say THAT ? "

To the modern ear, the content is uncomfortably close to Jim Davidson doing a midnight show (complete with a gag about Winston Churchill's penis) at a holiday camp, has the brash aplomb of Oscar Wilde, and the comic guile of a Shakespeare comedy (particularly the gender swaps). This is not dated, nor has dated, like a Ray Cooney farce has.

John Dorney is fabulous as the lusty psychiatrist, Doctor Prentice. Jack Lord exudes supercilious arrogance as the clinic inspector, Doctor Rance, who sees madness in all things. Alex Cardall is magnificent as bell-boy blackmailer, Nicholas Beckett.

Somehow he convinces both as a lothario, and lady boy in a slinky leopard-print dress. Jon-Paul Rowden's bumbling and dutiful Sergeant Match is a delight. While Holly Smith as Mrs Prentice plays the prim and proper neglected wife who longs for a good seeing to, with vim, brio and sassiness, and loves her every minute on stage.

Superficially, there is the appearance of a standard farce, with doors closing and opening, shouting and characters in their underwear. However, as act two develops, so other themes surface. Orton playfully toys with the idea of what madness is in a mad world. His observations on heterosexual and homosexual relationships, and lust generally, are more awkward, particularly the frequent references to pederasty. His jibe at the treatment that young men could expect at the hands of the police reflect his own experiences as a gay man when homosexuality was illegal.

However you cannot beat a good laugh, and these were plentifully delivered by an excellent cast. The warning against Royal indiscretions and the perils the middle class faced with a post War Labour Government, delivered with a waspish smile by Holly Smith, benefitted from their newfound contemporary currency.

A hugely enjoyable and entertaining play and performance. But remember, if you are offended by any of the jokes - it is what Orton would have wanted. Continues until Sat 15-06-24 then continues on nationwide tour. 

Gary Longden


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