Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Blair Williams, Nicole Underhay, Graham Harley. Photo by Sian Richards

In the opening scene of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, a doctor is interviewing a pretty young woman for a job. He tells her to undress and lie on his psychiatric couch. Before long his loud wife arrives, huffing and puffing. A virago of a wife discovering a naked woman in her husband’s office should be a hilarious situation in the theatre if not in real life.

In addition to the above, we notice that there are four doors leading into the doctor’s office. What we have, of course, are the basics of a farce. True to form, we will soon see the doctor’s wife in her undies and a page boy from a hotel and a cop will also take off their clothes. The four doors will be made very good use of and with any kind of plot we should be laughing heartily if not rolling on the floor.

We also notice that even though the play has the structure and trappings of a farce, it also has a dark, satirical side that is very different from, say, a piece by Georges Feydeau. Orton turns the world on its head and presents comic and cosmic lunacy. This is a thinking man’s farce.

After watching the current production directed by Jim Warren for a while you notice something even more serious: you are not laughing. The psychiatrist’s office which may represent the world upside down is neither funny nor satirical. The characters speak and act as if they are in a TV sitcom on Valium. The production does not move anywhere near the pace of a farce and even at a slow speed, it is not funny.

The basic problem is that Warren has simply taken the wrong approach to this acidic comedy. He did not want to give it the speed and flavour of a farce and he did not find a satisfactory alternative in treating it as a comedy at a slower pace. The result is a failed production. Farce, like Longfellow’s little girl, when it is good, it is very, very good but when it is bad, it is horrid.

The hapless actors who had to carry the unlit torch of the production were as follows: Blair Williams played Dr. Prentice, the henpecked and mad psychiatrist. Nicole Underhay is the nubile girl who gets to run around in her bra and panties when not dressed as a boy. Brandon McGibbon as Nicolas, the hotel page, runs around in his underwear or in a dress.

Brenda Robins is the imperious Mrs. Prentice who spends a night in the linen closet with the hotel page and she gets to run around in her underclothes as well. Oliver Dennis plays the policeman Match and he too is stripped of his clothes. Graham Harley as Dr. Rance is not asked to strip, thank God.

It is all to no effect.

Opening night jitters can cause even the best actors to muff the occasional line. It is usually not worth mentioning. This opening night must have been especially nerve-wracking because there was an inordinate number bungled lines.

What the Butler Saw, which premiered in 1969, was Joe Orton’s last play and is considered a hilarious dark farce. There is no evidence of that in the current production.

What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton opened on August 25, 2010 and will play until September 18, 2010 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666.

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