Like a well-dressed man-about-town gradually transforming into a werewolf under the full moon, Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, now playing the Guild hall, takes a sample platter of all that is dignified and respectable — and carefully mashes it into chaos.
At first, spectators see a calm, dignified psychiatrist’s office. Almost immediately, they stand witness as it gradually degrades into a torrent of drug use, unending cross dressing and random gunfire.
The play is a lesson in exponential absurdity. Complications build upon each other in a rising crescendo until the audience is finally hit with an epic climax of insurmountable farce — leaving laughter-scarred spectators staggering back into the lobby of the Guild Hall, struggling to once again grasp the mediocrity of regular life.
Psychiatrist Dr. Prentice, played by Eric Epstein, kicks off the show’s mayhem through the harmless act of attempting to seduce a potential secretary. As murder, rape and incest all eventually come to the fore — adultery quickly takes a wholesome backseat.
Dr. Prentice’s romantic trials are quickly interrupted by a steady rainfall of other characters, each toting their own suitcase of corrupt motivations. They are sequestered in a room, and mixed with ample doses of liquor, madness, sex and violence, and the tangled web is soon woven.
Multiple doors line the set, providing endless opportunities for rapid Scooby-Doo-esque entrances and exits.
“Why are there so many doors. Was the house designed by a lunatic?” asks Dr. Rance self-reflexively in the first act.
As Dr. Prentice, Epstein comes out very strong. As a ridiculous character, Prentice goes to humiliating lengths to mend the tearing social fabric around him. Yet Epstein must also portray a man weighed down by the troubles of the day, desperately trying to stay one step ahead, and feeling genuine regret when his schemes only result in more mayhem.
As he continually flints the play’s rapid-fire exchanges and dialogue, Epstein’s impeccable timing is a huge asset to the play’s rollicking flow.
The play’s denouement, delivered in the play’s final seconds, is worthy of an Agatha Christie novel — provided the novel was recovering from a gin-soaked trip to Vegas. Conflicts are instantly resolved, and relationships are mercilessly flip-flopped, bringing a delightful eleventh-hour intensification of the mania.
Mrs. Prentice, the nymphomaniacal wife of Dr. Prentice, is masterfully portrayed by Bronwyn Jones. Exuding a careful, matronly dignity when she first enters the scene, Mrs. Prentice appears to be the voice of reason as sanity founders around her — a Cybil to the Basil Fawlty antics of her husband.
“This puerile behaviour ill accords with your high academic standards,” she says to her husband upon finding him madly attempting to conceal women’s clothing in the bookshelf.
Jones’ accent, a spot-on impression of twitty British aristocracy, drives home the place’s secondary role as a commentary on English life.
Near-endless glasses of scotch soon take their toll, transforming the character into an unstoppable torrent of alcohol-fueled sex and violence.
The Jeckell and Hyde transformation of Mrs. Prentice is seamlessly executed by Jones. The character’s nobility is masterfully sheared away bit by bit until Jones stands as the very incarnation of mania — immune to the wackiness of her surroundings purely by out-wackinessing them.
Many of the play’s best lines are bestowed upon Dr. Rance, a government commissioner sent to inspect the office of Dr. Prentice. Thoroughly mad himself, the character nevertheless commands authority by summoning long, colluded psychiatrical dissections of the situation’s growing insanity.
“She may mean ‘yes’ when she says ‘no.’ It’s elementary female psychology,” he says when Geraldine responds in interrogation that she was never assaulted by her father.
Rance feeds insatiably upon inane psychiatric metaphors and symbolism, weaving an ever-more-tangled tapestry of faux-academia.
Doug Neill handles the poise, posture and fierce hand gestures of Dr. Rance, but his whistly accent — a mix between Droopy Dog and Massachusetts Senator Barney Frank — often conceal the intricacies of the character’s many long-winded speeches.
Neill’s Rance is most definitely mad, but not the articulate and quick-witted madness staple to British theatre.
Both Dr. Rance and Dr. Prentice are guilty of abusing the power of their professions — the playwright’s clear jab at the British mental health system.
Ian McGiffin, playing Sgt. Match, a bobby dispatched to the psychiatrist’s office, attentively embodies the authority and seriousness of the British police — yet the semi-North Americanized nature of his accent leads the viewer to suspect that Sgt. Match may have spent his formative years in East Toronto.
Jeremiah Kitchen, a theatre newcomer, plays Nick, a young bellboy who switches between orchestrating a blackmail to escaping from the police.
Charlie Wilson, playing Geraldine Barclay, the show’s only true innocent, skillfully pulls off youthful naivete, further highlighting the unscrupulousness of the other characters.
In an atmosphere of cascading lunacy, the psychiatrists are foolishly looked upon for guidance from the other characters. Motivated by their own crooked agendas and derangement, the doctors only lead the situation deeper into the mire — albeit with an aura of academic proficiency.
Once dressed in lab coats, doctors Rance and Prentice gain ludicrous free reign over the minds, bodies and actions of their non-doctor contemporaries — another jab at the indominable British respect for authority.
Written in an era when cross-dressing was a punishable offence, the show wistfully plays with the taboo. Each character is like a tranvestite Mary Tyler Moore, performing up to three different cross-gender costume changes as the play progresses. One character appears alternately in a bellboy outfit, a policeman’s uniform, a dress, and a modestly placed British policeman’s helmet.
Quite often, actors forego clothing altogether. The phrase “strip down” or “remove your clothes” punctuates the script, as characters naively submit to the near-constant derobing demands of the two psychiatrists.
As the audience gradually grows accustomed to the sight of exposed flesh, the touchstone of British theatre is brought blindingly clear: nudity in the pursuit of comedy is no vice.