What the Butler Saw

(Brisbane Arts Theatre)


Brisbane Arts Theatre’s latest offering has a misleading title. Would-be theatre-goers shouldn’t expect a standard cluedo caper rather, a frolic in the murky (and in this case, comic) depths of psychoanalysis. Instead of a phial of poison in the library or a revolver drawn in the kitchen, it’s Freud and high camp for this comedy from British playwright Joe Orton.

The audience is introduced to psychoanalyst Dr Prentice (Nigel Bell) who is interviewing a young secretarial applicant in a Miss Geraldine Barclay (Jen Culter). A serial adulterer, Dr Prentice can’t keep his hands to himself and comes within a whisker of being caught in a compromising position by his wife (Selina Kadell), who’s fresh from a stay in an infamous local hotel. To keep his partner unawares about his latest turn at infidelity, the not-so-kind doctor bundles Miss Barclay behind a curtain before Mrs Prentice tells of her sordid night before at the hands of hotel worker Nicholas Beckett (Adam Massey).

Enter the the young concierge in question, who with compromising pictures of Mrs Prentice in hand has blackmail on his mind. Hoping to put the pieces together is the maniacal Doctor Rance (John Stibbard), a self-styled Freudian fanatic who enters in a flurry of finger pointing. Mr Beckett wants his money, Miss Barclay stays bundled up in the examination room, Mrs Prentice wants a straight answer from her husband as to the whereabouts of his new secretary and the furtive Dr Vance is suspicious as to the sanity of allcomers.

It is safe to say that Orton was a fan of farce of the most unpredictable and technicolour order. By the time Dr Rance has his colleague fashioned as a “fetishist, tranvestite, bisexual murderer” midway through the second act, the diagnosis doesn’t raise an eyelid. Even Sergeant Match (Peter Dakin), the local bobby called in to quell the disorder, finds himself semi-naked on Dr Prentice’s examination table by the show’s end.

What the Butler Saw is pleasingly performed by Arts Theatre without being splendid. Director Graham McKenzie presents an entertaining and polished show (notwithstanding a few mumbled lines) that works well on a script that relies too often on sporadic laughs. Culter is convincing as the wide-eyed would-be secretary whose plight the audience in turns laughs at and sympathises with.

Nigel Bell is comfortable as the flustered, lily-livered and misunderstood Dr Prentice, while Kadell sizzles with sexual assertiveness, allowing the sparks to fly nicely between the couple. Massey and Dakin are capable actors, but both rely too heavily on the inherent humour of their lines in their delivery. The antithesis is Stibbard who (for the most part) acts the rest of the cast off the stage. At times he appears to be trying too hard, but the energy required to buoy Dr Vance at the dizzying, frenetic level to which Stibbard takes him is both commendable and enjoyable.

There didn’t seem to be any children viewers in the audience on opening night and this was certainly reassuring. While much of humour could and does exist entirely at a physical, madcap level it must be said that What the Butler Saw is not at all fit for younger viewers. The humour often crosses from benign innuendo into crass, sexually charged comedy. The script is beyond provocative, even when considering its psychadelic ’60s vintage. Orton has Mrs Prentice’s alleged rape/seduction by Beckett repeatedly (and gratutiously) tossed around for shock value and for some audience members, including my viewing partner and myself, the pancake-flat delivery of some of Orton’s more blunt humour bordered on poor taste.

Most of the fixed set is used throughout to amusing effect, while effective and clever blocking keep a rattling pace for the show. The constant entries and exits called on by the script are handled well, avoiding any static stage time.

It’s a play that’s hard to make head or tail of at times, but this is certainly part of its appeal as a fast-paced, topsy-turvy piece of theatre. Perhaps it’s not so ironic that in this comedy of mistaken identity and questionable sanity, it’s only after the straitjackets come out that all is revealed in a thoroughly zany and unpredictable, yet satisfying ending.

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— Cameron Pegg
(Performance seen: Fri 30th January 2004)