“My uterine contractions have been bogus for some time”
The adage about theatre audiences turning to comedies in times of economic hardship is being increasingly borne out in the West End and with the arrival of What the Butler Saw at the Vaudeville, the Strand gains its second 1970s would-be laugh-fest. But as with The Sunshine Boys, my funnybone was far from tickled as this is a world of humour I just do not get. In Alice Power’s efficient, if needlessly quirky in its protuberances, set design, Joe Orton’s farce plays out in a psychiatric clinic in which all manner of mayhem is unleashed when a government inspector pays a visit at the same time as a doctor tries to seduce a young woman applying to be his secretary whilst his wife has her own sexual shenanigans to hide.
Orton’s intentions were clearly to subvert the farcical form here, to provoke traditional audiences out of their comfortable glow with his deconstruction of sexual and societal values, but this production simply doesn’t reflect that intelligence. What we get instead is something that plays as a straight-up farce. And for fans of the genre, there are some moments to enjoy, especially in the hands of Tim McInnerny’s sweatily lascivious Dr Prentice and Samantha Bond’s nymphomaniacal wife. But the production starts off in such a high-octane gear that there’s nowhere left to go but increasingly overboard in the endless chase for cheap laughs.
The biggest offender here is ultimately Omid Djalili as the visiting Dr Rance. Djalili does little to convince that he has much (any) range as everything is delivered in his customary bombastic style: occasionally this works as some of his lines suit this delivery but more than not, the character’s subtleties are largely bulldozed and one is simply left with the impression that this is just a continuation of his stand-up schtick. Conversely, the younger members of the cast make little real impact. Georgia Moffett is curiously unemphatic onstage as the would-be secretary and though Nick Hendrix’s randy bellhop is undeniably well suited to the various states of undress he finds himself in, there’s little than can be achieved with the role.
Sean Foley’s direction always seems to err on the side of the farcical largesse: so much of the dialogue is thrown away as the focus remains on over-egged mugging and horseplay – I felt sorry for what Jason Thorpe had to endure as the policeman – and the focus of the humour is thus fatally skewed. Particularly, the numerous and extended jokes about rape fell horrendously flat for me in this case: not having been convinced of the suitability of the context, I looked with dismay at the people hooting around me at what I found to be rather distasteful. Foley also fails to allow any build-up of momentum, so the production ends up being extremely one note. Some people may like the one note that is played, heaven knows the press night audience lapped it up, but if you’re not a fan of horribly dated productions stuffed full of rape jokes, then I’d advise steering clear.