What the Butler Saw, Vaudeville Theatre, London
The Sunshine Boys, Savoy Theatre, London
Detroit, NT Cottesloe, London

Joe Orton's famous sex farce is the latest addition to theatreland's retro craze. Despite being funny and well acted, it's jokes are showing their age

Vintage comedies are all the rage. The West End can't get enough of them since One Man, Two Guvnors (an 18th-century classic that was rejigged as a Sixties seaside caper) proved a roaring, award-winning success, alongside Noises Off and The Ladykillers. Are theatreland's latest additions to this retro craze going to raise the roof, though?

Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw – first staged in 1969 – is a sex farce with bare-faced cheek aplenty and a satirical, anti-establishment streak. In this fast-paced revival, Tim McInnerny's smarmy Dr Prentice is supposedly a psychiatrist of repute. However, he has his prospective secretary (Georgia Moffett) on the couch and stripping off her stockings in a flash. Meanwhile, his lady-wife (a fur-coated Samantha Bond) is a nymphomaniac. She's being blackmailed by a hotel bellboy (Nick Hendrix) who has taken compromising photos and pilfered her frock. So the last thing Prentice needs is a rabid government inspector – Omid Djalili's Dr Rance – stepping through the French windows with a wolfish grin.

Prentice's consulting room descends into mayhem: a blur of slamming doors and scurrying nudes, confused identities and cross-dressing. Whenever he's caught on the hop, McInnerny's sweat-drenched panic is neatly punctuated with freezes and sneaky swivels. Bond's whisky-sodden stagger is priceless, the body slumping into a Z-shape, the stilettoes still tottering along underneath. The standup-turned-actor Djalili is also winning, cackling madly and having a ball as the cod-melodramatic Rance.

Regrettably, the young cast members are lame by comparison, and Sean Foley's production can seem relentless, as well as shouty. The Wildean repartee is there, but Orton's longer speeches drag and his jokes about women hoping to be assaulted sound like crass misogyny. A darker complexity lurks there perhaps, when you remember the playwright's own violent death at the hands of his lover.

The climactic gag – mock-reverence for Winston Churchill's private parts, carved in marble – looks dated and puerile. Still, Orton's image of Dionysian misrule manages to be both tongue-in-cheek and faintly disturbing, such as when a drugged copper (Jason Thorpe) lurches through the skylight in a leopard-print frock, crowned with a tangle of ivy from being dragged through the undergrowth, semi-conscious, in Prentice's garden.

Just up the road at the Savoy Theatre in The Sunshine Boys – Neil Simon's Broadway comedy from 1972 – Richard Griffiths's Lewis and Danny DeVito's Clark briefly ogle a curvaceous secretary. They are rehearsing a doctor's surgery skit, and she is obligingly waggling her glutei maximi.

Lewis and Clark were, we glean, hugely popular vaudevillians in their day, yet never liked each other. They've been persuaded to reunite for a TV retrospective, but still they can't stop squabbling, and the whirligig of time is going to bring in its revenges.

This ought to be a winning formula, being an obvious variation on Simon's The Odd Couple (1965). But, revived here by Thea Sharrock, the star vehicle moves at a snail's pace. Even if both its veteran stars are supposedly in danger of busting a gasket – along with Clark's exasperated nephew and agent (Adam Levy) – I was nearly bored to death en route.

DeVito does look hilarious, like a pouting gnome in pyjamas, ensconced in his dilapidated Manhattan apartment (great set by Hildegard Bechtler). Nonetheless, Clark is repetitively garrulous and predictably stubborn, stalling plot developments. Understandably, DeVito aims to compensate but it's a self-conscious performance, a bit too cute, and Sharrock merely shuffles him around from chair to chair. Griffiths's Lewis seems less riled than long-suffering really. All in all, not a side-splitting evening.

Far edgier as well as funny is the National Theatre's new American domestic comedy Detroit, by Lisa D'Amour, directed by Austin Pendleton. A suburban couple, Justine Mitchell's Mary and Stuart McQuarrie's Ben, find their staid home life going up in smoke when Ben is laid off work and they befriend their scruffy new neighbours.

Sharon and Frank (Clare Dunne and Will Adamsdale) explain they're ex-junkies, out of rehab and making a new start. A series of barbeque dates ensues, veering between mundane and surreal moments that later escalate into drunken partying.

At points, the play betrays its influences, a bit of Clybourne Park here, a touch of Brett Neveu's Red Bud there. At the same time, Detroit is intriguing and gripping. Perhaps, ultimately, it's a conservative, paranoid play. Don't trust riff-raff or give them a second chance. Is that the lesson learned?

 

'What the Butler Saw' (0844 482 9675) to 25 Aug. 'The Sunshine Boys' (0844 871 7687) to 28 Jul. 'Detroit' (020-7452 3000) to 14 Jul

Critic's Choice

Making Noise Quietly, Robert Holman's absorbing triptych depicting meetings between strangers, is revived by Peter Gill at London's Donmar (ends Thur). Eugene O'Neill's darkening family portrait, Long Day's Journey into Night, is superbly revived by Anthony Page, with David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue (to 18 Aug).

Arts and Entertainment
music

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain