What the Butler Saw, Vaudeville Theatre, London

What a lot of laughs there are in this Joe Orton revival! How few of them are by Orton! Which is absolutely not to accuse Leicester’s greatest playwright son of being unfunny. In the few years leading up to this, his final play, he perfected the authorial voice of a depraved, polymorphously perverse 1960s Oscar Wilde. Here, when psychiatrist Dr Prentice accuses his wife of nymphomania, she haughtily replies, “My uterine contractions have been bogus for some time!” Later, Dr Rance, whose inspection of the Prentice clinic is interrupted by a chain of outrageous events in which he sees a bestseller, declares that his book will include “incest, buggery, outrageous women and strange love cults catering for depraved appetites. All the fashionable bric-a-brac.”

Sean Foley’s years of experience in the deliriously funny duo The Right Size have made him probably Britain’s best director of farce. However, sometimes the acting side slips away from him. The first rule of farce acting is “play it serious”. Here, the high-calibre cast led by Tim McInnerny and Samantha Bond as the Prentices and Omid Djalili as Rance leave us in no doubt that their characters believe every twist and turn of the drink-and-drug-impregnated tangle is fiendishly important ... but not that they do, not that they are those characters.

They are so busy being overwrought that they smother the aphoristic filth of the script, the verbal smoothness that should counterbalance the chaotic behaviour. Djalili, in particular, spends much of the second half expertly eliciting laughs from tics of performance while failing to “sell” almost any of the many gags in his lines. Bond and McInnerny have the excuse that their characters are growing progressively drunker, which gives them freer rein as matters accelerate.

The finest performance is in the comparatively minor role of Sergeant Match, who is in a bewildered search for mostly non-existent people and for “the missing parts of [a statue of] Sir Winston Churchill”. Match is played by that hugely talented physical-comedy actor Jason Thorpe, whose instincts and understanding of the form realise Foley’s ideas to an extent frustratingly lacking in his comrades’ performances.


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