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
Sunday 20 May 2012
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
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Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act
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