Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Farce with Force: “What the Butler Saw” at the Taper

L-R: Paxton Whitehead, Sarah Manton (background) and Charles Shaughnessy in Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” at the Mark Taper Forum.  [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

L-R: Paxton Whitehead, Sarah Manton (background) and Charles Shaughnessy in Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” at the Mark Taper Forum.
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Farce, as a theatrical art form, is often seen as simply a ridiculous chasing about – fun and funny, but not particularly intellectually derived. Indeed, many typical farces are. Still, on occasion the ridiculous backdrop of a farcical situation can be used to make pointed, even cutting remarks about society at large, all in the guise of silliness.

One example of this is the Joe Orton classic, “What the Butler Saw,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. Though the net result is guffaw-inducing, the underlying messages are actually far more savage. This 1968 piece, produced first only after its author’s murder, examines with great bitterness the state of government’s encroachment on people’s lives, using British Health’s psychological services as a vehicle. Now, though some of its material starts out feeling a bit dated from a feminist (or even “aware of rape culture”) perspective, it still wins one over as just that: a mocking send-up of bureaucracy.

This aided by an absolutely splendid cast, whose timing – thanks in part to director John Tillinger – proves so tight that every bit of physical comedy works exactly as it should, and whose characterizations allow for just enough empathy to keep the audience connected.

Charles Shaughnessy plays a psychologist running a British in-patient mental hospital. Estranged from his rampantly sexual wife, he had developed a casting couch approach to his kingdom – an approach he is about to try out on a new and innocent young secretarial applicant. Frances Barber plays his wife, whose latest encounter with a bellhop has led to a possible blackmail, if her husband can’t hire the male bellhop as a new secretary instead of the innocent young girl already on the couch. How to make that happen pushes her toward the scotch bottle.

Paxton Whitehead, as the doctor’s pompous superior, come to inspect the hospital, provides some of the greatest comedy as he half-hears, misdiagnoses, and sparks the craziest parts of the play, all the while thinking of how to publish his outrageous “discoveries” to achieve greater fame. The chemistry between the three makes the piece work, aided over and over again by Sarah Manton’s gentle but determined young secretary, Angus McEwan’s completely gonad-driven bellhop, and Rod McLachlan’s authoritative, then bemused police sergeant.

James Noone’s brightly lit, glaringly open office space, graced with the necessary multitude of openings, sets the tone for the inspired farcical chasings about. The requisite doors slam, as mistaken identities, hidden agendas, and the senior doctor’s silly imaginings and misinterpretations create greater and greater havoc. Laughing out loud is almost guaranteed, from the beautifully executed physical comedy as well as the sheer silliness of the plot twists. Indeed, once a certain amount of rather disquieting exposition is out of the way at the start, the piece inspires roars of laughter over and over.

Which is all to say “What the Butler Saw” – the non sequitur of the title notwithstanding – proves highly entertaining. Still, and this would fit Orton’s “Angry Young Man” time period, it is also an bitter commentary on vapid human connection, and the misuse of power. When you step back you begin to see it, delivered though it is with the syrup of belly laughs. And though the play may be 36 years old, that dark undercurrent still rings disturbingly true.

What: “What the Butler Saw” When: Through December 21, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

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