What the Butler Saw, Swan Theatre Yeovil

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BY the time audiences saw Joe Orton’s final play, What the Butler Saw, in 1969, the playwright was already dead, murdered by a jealous lover in lurid circumstances.

Four years later Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus was first staged. Both plays parody the good old English Whitehall farce with its multiplicity of doors and dropped trousers, adding in biting comments about traditional British repression and the sexual revolution of the 60s. Both centre around the medical profession.

Now, Bennett’s play (which he is said to hate) is frequently performed, and Orton’s, hugely controversial at its premiere, has had its own share of revivals.

The versatile Swan Theatre company in Yeovil takes it on, under Holly Robson’s direction. In these days of MeToo, Weinstein, non-binary transitioning and gender-fluidity, Orton’s sideswipes at rigid sexual convention have the potential to be funnier than he could possibly have imagined. Sexual and gender attitudes have undergone an ocean-change since his day.

­But to maximise the potential of the comedy requires extraordinary comedy performances, rigorous direction and (perhaps most imp­or­tantly) a receptive audience.  The Swan Monday audience always raises money for a charity, and the tickets are sold on that basis to members and supporters. It’s an admirable system, but can lead to a less-than-theatrically aware response on opening night.
The result can be actors floundering for the reaction they expect to receive.

What the Butler Saw is set in a psychiatric clinic where Dr Prentice is interviewing a nubile young secretary. Inviting her to remove her dress for part of her already peculiar interview starts the ever-expanding round of clothing exchanges.

In the Swan production, the frustrated and fraught Prentice is played by Roger Mumford, with Sarah Easterbook as his randy wife, Eva Balanova as Geraldine, Jonathan Margetts as Nicholas the confused page boy, Alistair Cox as the upstanding example of a British Police Sergeant and the ever excellent Patrick Knox as the ministry examiner, Dr Rance.

I hope that the production reaches more of its potential by the end of  the week.


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