It all begins with a botched attempt at seduction in a psychiatrist’s office. From there, the late Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw takes the audience on a wild ride riddled with cross-dressing and clever comebacks. No need to worry, though – as Dr. Rance assures us: “It’s democratic lunacy we practice.”
Comedian Rufus Hound takes the lead in What the Butler Saw as Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist first seen attempting to seduce his pretty new secretary, Miss Barclay, played by Dakota Blue Richards. In trying to cover up his infidelity upon the arrival of his wife, herself a victim of a seduction-turned-blackmail, and a government inspector for mental institutions, Prentice sets in motion a chain of events that becomes ever more chaotic as characters resort to switching identities in the hopes of escape.
Paired with the admirable demonstrations of physical comedy from Hound himself and Ravi Aujla as Sergeant Match, the mounting misunderstandings within the plot make What the Butler Saw a fine example of contemporary farcical theatre. Throw in a considerable dose of verbal sparring between Dr and Mrs Prentice, and more double entendres than anyone could shake a crudely-shaped stick at, and the whole play becomes a sort of cross between a pantomime and a 1970s sitcom.
While What the Butler Saw delivers plenty of laughs from beginning to end, it is worth noting that some viewers may find the regular, offhand references to rape and sexual assault to be less than amusing. On more than one occasion, Mrs Prentice casually remarks on the attempted “rape” of herself by a hotel page boy, and Dr. Rance repeatedly insists that Miss Barclay is a victim of incest. On the one hand, such remarks do heavily underscore the absurdity of the characters and their mentalities; at the same time however, it is understandable that such treatment of what many consider as delicate subjects is not to everyone’s taste. The treatment of certain characters when a maniacal Rance “certifies” them may likewise make for some uncomfortable viewing.
With its dramatic climax, its full-circle resolution, and its savage energy, What the Butler Saw is a watchable, well-acted and overall entertaining piece of comedy that puts a more modern spin on some classical theatrical themes.
What the Butler Saw is available to stream here