Joe Orton’s Hilarious “What The Butler Saw” on Stage at The Mark Taper Forum


Courtesy Photo

Although “All About Eve” is not in the same genre as Joe Orton’s scathing satire “What The Butler Saw,” there was one line spoken by Margo Channing, played by the iconic Bette Davis, that could very easily sum up the high-voltage shenanigans that take place in the current revival at the Mark Taper Forum: “Fasten your seat belts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night.”  Written in 1967, “What The Butler Saw” was Orton’s last play, and biggest commercial success.  Shortly after its debut in London’s West End, Orton was murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell.

John Tillinger’s brilliant direction keeps the action moving at breakneck speed, barely giving the audience time to catch its breath between laughs.   Orton’s satirical masterpiece takes place on James Noone’s set of an insane asylum, with several doors strategically placed for the characters to make hasty entrances and exits, much like the slamming doors you would see the classic tradition of French bedroom farce.  

Orton uses the theatrical style of a sex farce as his backdrop to shoot comic lethal spears into the absurdities of just about every aspect of England’s social structure and no aspect of society was safe from his exquisite barbs veiled in the most delightful dialogue. Orton makes a mockery of psychiatry and psychiatrists, religion, government, politics, cross-dressing, homosexuality, the woeful state of marriage and fidelity, as well as illustrating through his delicious dialogue how a psychiatrist could twist the truth to support his diagnosis. 

An almost naked Geraldine Barclay, (played by Sarah Manton) is confused as to why she needs a physical exam at an interview for a secretarial position. Photo: Craig Schwartz

The play begins with the head of the mental hospital Dr. Prentice, a handsome, but lecherous man, played exquisitely by Charles Shaughnessy, who is a master at split second mercurialtransitions.  He is interviewing a sweet young thing for a secretarial position and when asked about her family, she says:  “I lived in a normal family.  I had no love.”  Ms. Barkley (delightfully played by Sarah Manton) reluctantly answers Dr. Prentice’s very unprofessional questions.  At the conclusion of the interview, he insists on performing a physical exam and instructs her to remove her clothing. With great trepidation, the young woman complies  and thus starts the comedy of mistaken identities.  While disrobing, Ms. Barclay asks the doctor if he is married and his wife’s current location.  The not-so-good doctor answers, “She is attending a meeting with her coven.”  Well aware of his wife’s infidelities he adds, “My wife is a nymphomaniac.”  But not all seductions go as planned as his wife appears unexpectedly, putting what he hopes is a temporary damper on his planned dalliance. 

Frances Barber gives a hilarious performance as the most confused Mrs. Prentice in "What The Butler Saw" on stage at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo: Craig Schwarz

Mrs. Prentice, the wife in question, is brilliantly played by Frances Barber, who gives a top-notch, comical performance.   Her many hilarious freezes when stopped dead in her tracks by the play’s parade of shocking and surprising moments, are hilarious and as the libidinous seductress, she kept the audience howling with laughter.  The more confusion she encounters, the more she takes another belt of booze, which at first she pours into a wine glass, but as the events get more and more confusing, bypasses the glass, and drinks directly from the bottle.   Oh by the way.  Mrs. Prentice has just had a brief interlude with the bellhop at a hotel who is blackmailing her with lewd photos demanding that her husband hire him for the open position of secretary.  

L-R: Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead) and Dr. Prentice (Charles Shaughnessy) sign an admission slip committing a most sane Miss Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton,) to the insane asylum. Photo: Craig Schwartz

Sarah Manton's character of Geraldine Barclay is confused as Dr. Rance tries to convince her that she's insane. Photo: Craig Schwartz

The next outrageous character to appear is Dr. Rance, commandingly played by Paxton Whitehead, a real nut job of a psychiatrist sent by the government to inspect the hospital and to evaluate Dr. Prentice’s performance.  It turns out he’s also a sexual predator and when he finds the innocent Ms. Barclay hiding naked behind a curtain, he, too, decides to have a go at her.  Poor thing;  she’s in way over her head and eventually is committed to the hospital by Dr. Prentice, who signs the admission document to save his own hide.  

L-R: Angus McEwan as Nicholas Bennett holds a package containing incriminating evidence as Mrs. Prentice (Frances Barber) assures him of her help. Photo: Craig Schwartz

Rod McLachlan as the fumbling, but lovable Sergeant Match. Photo: Craig Schwartz

 Next up is the young bellhop, Nicholas Beckett who shows up at the hospital wearing his uniform.  Wonderfully played by Angus McEwan, who at one point does some cross-dressing culminating in a “Full Monty,” covering his willy with a policeman’s cap belonging to the implacable Sergeant Match, played to perfection by veteran American character actor Rod McLachlan.  The good sergeant is probably the poster child for Orton’s vision of inept law enforcement.

The craziness continues throughout this Two-Act play.  Dr. Rance accuses Dr. Prentice of being mad to which he replies:  “I’m not mad.  It only looks that way.”  Another one of Dr. Rance’s twisted gems, “You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world.  It isn’t rational.”  Finally, in a very funny version of a Shakespearean ending, facts are uncovered that conclude the play with an unexpected and frankly somewhat  shocking dénouement.

Throughout the play’s action, Orton’s genius is revealed in his double-edged ability to critique social hypocrisy and keep the audience in stitches of laughter. It’s no wonder that the play feels as fresh and relevant today as it did when first produced in the 1960s, and Mr. Tillinger’s production does an splendid job of keeping alive Orton’s anarchic spirit.

Technically, the production is spot on with the Lighting Design by Ken Billington and John McKernon, Sound Design by John Gromada, and Costume Design by Laurie Churba Kohn all enhancing this pitch perfect production.

Mark Taper Forum

135 N. Grand Avenue

Los Angeles, CA 90012

Run:     Tuesdays – Fridays: 8:00 pm

            Saturdays:  2:30 pm & 8:00 pm 

            Sundays:      7:00 pm

            Sundays:  Nov. 30, Dec. 7, 14, 21 -  1:00 pm & 6:30 pm        

Closing Date:  December 21, 2014

Tickets:  $25-$70

             213. 628.2772 or


Closing:  November 12, 2014 

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