What The Butler Saw a classic example of farce at its darkest

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Joe Orton had a short life and an extremely brief career, but he left a lasting legacy and What The Butler Saw, at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre this week, is a classic example of his work.

He is deservedly commemorated in his birthplace Leicester by the square at the heart of the city’s cultural quarter being named in his honour, but his plays remain a little too quirky and wide of mainstream for some tastes.

They are well worth exploring, as even more than 50 years after his death, many of his lines continue to be perhaps surprisingly relevant as well as certainly very funny – and What The Butler Saw is an outstanding example.

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All the elements of classic farce are there – confusion, opening and closing doors, characters hiding, unexpected arrivals and sounds, along with clothes shed – but don’t expect a production reminiscent of Brian Rix or Ray Cooney.

John Dorney plays Dr Prentice in What The Butler Saw.John Dorney plays Dr Prentice in What The Butler Saw.
John Dorney plays Dr Prentice in What The Butler Saw.

This is far darker, including lines which are clearly aimed as satire on the social and political mores of the time it was written, the 1960s, but still relevant, and indeed prophetic, in so many areas.

The play takes place inside the office of Doctor Prentice (John Dorney, in great form), a sleazy psychiatric professional who is trying to seduce his newest potential recruit as secretary, Geraldine Barclay (Alana Jackson).

When he is almost caught in flagrante by his wife (Holly Smith), Prentice weaves himself into a web of lies which ends up being so intricate that it takes several changes of clothes, gunshots and a full venue lockdown to untangle the chaos.

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The cast of six in this production by London Classic Theatre, directed by Michael Cabot, handle the complex plot with great skill, and there are laugh out loud moments throughout.

Jack Lord impresses as Doctor Rance, a chaotic and slightly psychotic superior to Prentice, while the cast is admirably completed by Alex Cardall, who was on the Blackpool Opera House stage a couple of years ago as Andy Williams in The Osmonds musical, and Jon-Paul Rowden.

They respectively play Nicholas Beckett, a conniving bellboy from the local hotel who is blackmailing Mrs Prentice, and a bemused police sergeant who has been sent to investigate the misdeeds unfolding in the psychiatric hospital.

In typical farce style, the pace is frantic throughout, building to a shocking but highly amusing final scene.

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What The Butler Saw is a very entertaining piece of theatre well worth seeing. It’s at The Grand until Saturday, May 18 and performance and ticket details are at www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk or 01253 290190.

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