“I’m not mad. It just looks that way,” is one of the famous lines uttered in the farce by Joe Orton, “What the Butler Saw.” The line said by Dr. Prentice, (Charles Shaughnessy—yes, the dad from “The Nanny”) explains this play to a tee.
Dr. Prentice is a psychoanalyst who is trying to use his power to seduce his new secretary, Geraldine Barkley (Sarah Manton). He also happens to be married to an alcoholic nymphomaniac (Frances Barber). She too happens to be in a bit of a pickle after discovering that the bellboy (Angus McEwan) she fooled around with took compromising pictures of her, which he is now using as blackmail. Take a moment to take that in, because that’s just the beginning of the madness to come.
What starts out as a small lie to avoid being caught soon becomes a wildly hysterical tangle of misunderstandings and cases of mistaken identities. Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead), a government official sent in by Dr. Prentice’s superiors “in madness,” only contributes to the chaos. In fact, it can be said that he is the one who fuels the majority of it one way or another.
Adding to this madness is also incest, false diagnoses, cross-dressing, nudity and a drugged Sergeant (Rod McLachlan). There’s even a joke in relation to Sir Winston Churchill that makes its way into the plot.
Oh and by the way, this all takes place at a mental hospital in 1960s Britain. Did you catch the irony? But, this just makes “What the Butler Saw” even more hilarious. And so far, we’ve only discussed the plot, which in itself welcomes a lot of comedic moments. The double entendres that lead into the misunderstandings add to it, and the play’s fast pace helps draw laughter from the audience.
My date and I (this is a great play to take a date to) could not stop laughing at what was playing out in front of our eyes. I’ll admit that I could not always understand some of the puns and jokes right away. After all, the actors all had British accents and spoke quickly. However, eventually I caught on. The beginning of the play produced chuckles here and there, but once the misunderstandings begun there was non-stop laughter, especially after intermission.
While “What the Butler Saw” was controversial back when it debuted in 1969, by today’s standards it can be considered a bit tame. Nevertheless, the play’s shocking moments are still shocking; the moments of disbelief are still there. I also enjoyed the stabs the script takes at the pop psychology that was present around that time.
“What the Butler Saw” is full of great actors and British humor that provides hearty laughs. Just don’t bring any kids with you to the theater for this one.