The Column Online



By Joe Orton

Stage West

Directed by Jim Covault
Set Design - Jim Covault
Lighting Design - Michael O'Brien
Costume Design - Michael Robinson/Dallas Costume Shoppe
Stage Manager - Peggy Kruger-O'Brien
Props/Set Decor - Lynn Lovett


Dr. Prentice - Patrick Bynane
Geraldine Barclay - Katherine Bourne
Mrs. Prentice - Dana Schultes
Nicholas Beckett - Garret Storms
Dr. Rance - Jerry Russell
Sgt. Match - Dwight Greene

Reviewed Performance: 7/7/2012

Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

What the Butler Saw is the last play of Joe Orton. John K. Orton was born in 1933, lived until 1967 and had a life which could be a made-for-HBO movie. He was bludgeoned to death by his estranged male lover! It's said that authors include autobiographies in everything they write. Orton certainly worked out his strange life in his plays.

What the Butler Saw is a bawdy exploration into s*xual identity. Gay s*x. Hetero s*x. Male s*x. Female s*x. Cross-dressing. Nymphomaniacs. Doctors taking advantage of young ladies, and men. Psychologists treating mental patients only when they're naked. Even bellhops and policemen aren't totally committed to their s*xual identities. What's an audience to do?

At Stage West Theatre audiences are laughing out loud at the raucous action. What the Butler Saw is a s*xual farce true to the Wiki definition, a comedy of the grandest scale, and you will laugh or be overwhelmed by the laughter around you. Mind you, it does start a little slow with laugh lines hidden in British context. The British accents are a little challenging for Texans but BBC America watchers will hear enough to get the point. By intermission, however, the comedy gets so physical, almost slapstick that accents don't matter. As Larry the Cable Guy says, "I don't care who you are. That there's just funny!"

This play is British comedy as we've seen often before. After ten minutes, I had Fawlty Towers embedded in my head. Others may think of Monty Python skits. What made Fawlty so hilarious was Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese. Cleese in fact was first a character in Monty Python and we learned to relish his physical comedy in those roles.

Why all the Cleese talk? When you watch Dr. Prentice prance and fall around the stage in What the Butler Saw, it's hard not to think of Cleese. Patrick Bynane plays Prentice with the same kind of uppity British air and physical pratfalls Cleese performs as well as Basil. Bynane's physical prowess allows him to excel at silly physical comedy. We're entranced watching him trying to avoid being found-out and desperately trying to undo his monumental mistakes, which seem so innocent to us. Not to suggest Prentice is a copy of Cleese, but parallels are unmistakable and, if it is intended, Bynane's excellence in portraying this now-familiar archetypal character is worthy of applause.

The plot of What the Butler Saw is also similar. It's not so much about moral messages as a series of anecdotes that suggest questions about the normal beliefs of society. A young lady has an interview for a job with Dr. Prentice, a noted London psychologist, and finds herself naked on the couch as the doctor's wife suddenly enters. We discover Mrs. Prentice has been accosted by the hotel bellhop and now she wants him to be her husband's secretary. It goes downhill from there and the plot doesn't matter much because the story is really about the lengths Dr. Prentice goes to hide his peccadillo. We are aware there's a plot, but the chaos is so hilarious we don't pay attention until the plot reveals itself at the end.

That young interviewee, Geraldine Barclay, is played by Katherine Bourne. She spends much of the show either naked behind a curtain or in bra and panties, hospital robes, or a bell-hop uniform. It's easy to forget she's playing her character, Barclay, and at times Barclay playing a mental patient who thinks she's Barclay, and the bell-hop who's trying to take her job, while he is, in turn, playing her. I said it was confusing.

That bell-hop, Nicholas Beckett, is played by Garret Storms in a series of alternate characters, the "rapist" of Dr. Prentice's willing nymphomaniac wife, a black-mailing male interviewee for Dr. Prentice's secretary job, Geraldine Barclay, and Sgt. Match, who's investigating both Beckett and Barclay for high crimes. Storms' obvious fakery while fooling the other characters is a pleasure to watch. His facial expressions are wonderful.

Dana Schultes plays Mrs. Prentice as an uppity British lush, in love with the prestige of her husband's position and also the freedom it provides for her own s*xual foraging, though there is a secret longing we eventually discover. It's her frequent unplanned visits to her husband's office that makes Dr. Prentice do crazy things to keep her from learning of his own crime. Sgt. Match is a very proper British bobby like you've seen when British comedy mimics the London police. Dwight Greene makes him deliciously proper and at the same time unsure of his own attitudes towards the s*xual mayhem around him.

Jerry Russell makes Dr. Rance, a government-employed psychologist who investigates Prentice's hospital, a complex character of official oversight, meddlesome interference in Prentice's affairs, and ulterior motives. In time he diagnoses every character as a s*xual deviate and contributes to the chaos with his own idiosyncrasies. He has a lot of lines with trite British reference and psychological theory and these sometimes get confused in the high-speed delivery required of this genre, but Dr. Rance is the unwitting foil to every attempt Prentice makes to right his wrongs and this escalates chaos and humor.

Finally there is a brief cameo of a famous government official but we'll leave that for audiences to discover.

What the Butler Saw is directed by Jim Covault. He leads a design team to make a late '60s one-piece set that never changes. Not having scene changes allows the action to unfold rapidly without interruption. An improbable skylight comes into play along with multiple doorways allowing high-speed, often simultaneous, entrances and exits. Like Fawlty Towers, action moves so fast we never get a chance to reflect on what happens before the next thing starts. The set is believable as a doctor's office in a hospital ward. Set decoration by Lynn Lovett, along with her ever-changing flow of props, provides actors with lots of things to play with during their chaotic behavior.

Michael Robinson's costumes put these characters in clothing which enables a fast-moving plot, given that characters are robbing and disrobing constantly on stage and most costumes are worn by multiple characters. Michael O'Brien lights everything brightly most of the time, except for a few key effects, and this eliminates any interruption in the action.

In '69, and for years thereafter, What the Butler Saw enraged audiences with it's blatant s*xuality, to the point they berated actors and destroyed programs during performances. Today we see worse situations in PG-13 movies and documentaries. This show will probably not shock anyone, though sudden flashes of skin draw a few random gasps.

Joe Orton now gets recognition as a significant British playwright, though he was clearly ahead of his time. What the Butler Saw is reportedly his finest play. Who knows? It might have indeed influenced Python, Fawlty Towers and other British comedies. I recommend Stage West's What the Butler Saw for the mature of mind and anyone hungry for outrageous British humor. You'll find it there.

Stage West Theatre
821/823 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth 76104
Runs through August 5th

Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays-Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm

Thursday and Sunday - $26.00
Friday and Saturday - $30.00

For information and tickets, go to or call their box office at 817-784-9378.